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BIRDS- IN-THe-BUSH 



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[JONATHAN DWIGHTJfI 



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IN THE BUSH 



BY 



BRADFORD TORREY 




t!OV 2 8 1986 




BOSTON 
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY 

New York : 11 East Seventeenth Street 

Stie 33it)ersiUe Press, ffiambriUge 

1885 



Copyright, 1885, 
By BRADFORD TORREY 

All rights reserved. 



The Riverside Press, Cambridge : 
Electrotyped and Printed by H. 0. Houghton & Co. 



Wherefore, let me intreat you to read it with favour and 
attention, and to pardon us, wherein we may seem to come 
short of some words, which we have laboured to interpret. 

The Prologue of the Wisdom qf Jesus the Son of Sirach. 



CONTENTS. 



On Boston Common 
Bird-Songs . . . , 
Character in Feathers . 
In the White Mountains 
Phillida and Coridon 
Scraping Acquaintance . 
Minor Songsters 
Winter Birds about Boston 
A Bird-Lover's April 
An Owl's Head Holiday 
A Month's Music 



PAQE 

1 

31 

53 

75 

103 

129 

155 

185 

211 

243 

277 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 



Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room; 
And hermits are contented with their cells ; 
And students with their pensive citadels : 
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom, 
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom, 
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells, 
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells : 
In truth, the prison unto which we doom 
Ourselves, no prison is : and hence for me, 
In sundry moods 't was pastime to be bound 
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground; 
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be) 
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty, 
Should find brief solace there, as I have found. 

Wordsworth. 
1 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 



Our Common and Garden are not an ideal 
field of operations for the student of birds. No 
doubt they are rather straitened and public. 
Other things being equal, a modest ornitholo- 
gist would prefer a place where he could stand 
still and look up without becoming himself a 
gazing-stock. But "it is not in man that walk- 
eth to direct his steps ; " and if we are ap- 
pointed to take our daily exercise in a city park, 
we shall very likely find its narrow limits not 
destitute of some partial compensations. This, 
at least, may be depended upon, — our disap- 
pointments will be on the right side of the ac- 
count ; we shall see more than we have antici- 
pated rather than less, and so our pleasures will, 
as it were, come to us double. I recall, for ex- 
ample, the heightened interest with which I be- 
held my first Boston cat-bird ; standing on the 
back of one of the seats in the Garden, steady- 
ing himself with oscillations of his tail, — a con- 
veniently long balance-pole, — while he peeped 



4 ON BOSTON COMMON. 

curiously down into a geranium bed, within the 
leafy seclusion of which he presently disap- 
peared. He was nothing but a cat-bird ; if I 
had seen him in the country I should have 
passed him by without a second glance; but 
here, at the base of the Everett statue, he 
looked, somehow, like a bird of another feather. 
Since then, it is true, I have learned that his oc- 
casional presence with us in the season of the 
semi-annual migration is not a matter for aston- 
ishment. At that time, however, I was happily 
more ignorant ; and therefore, as I say, my 
pleasure was twofold, — the pleasure, that is, of 
the bird's society and of the surprise. 

There are plenty of people, I am aware, who 
assert that there are no longer any native birds 
in our city grounds, — or, at the most, only a 
few robins. Formerly things were different, 
they have heard, but now the abominable Eng- 
lish sparrows monopolize every nook and corner. 
These wise persons speak with an air of posi- 
tiveness, and doubtless ought to know whereof 
they affirm. Hath not a Bostonian eyes ? And 
doth he not cross the Common every day ? But 
it is proverbially hard to prove a negative ; and 
some of us, with no thought of being cynical, 
have ceased to put unqualified trust in other 
people's eyesight, — especially since we have 
found our own to fall a little short of absolute 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 5 

infallibility. My own vision, by the way, is 
reasonably good, if I may say so ; at any rate I 
am not stone-blind. Yet here have I been per- 
ambulating the Public Garden for an indefinite 
period, without seeing the first trace of a field- 
mouse or a shrew. I should have been in ex- 
cellent company had I begun long ago to main- 
tain that no such animals exist within our pre- 
cincts. But the other day a butcher-bird made 
us a flying call, and almost the first thing he did 
was to catch one of these same furry dainties 
and spit it upon a thorn, where anon I found 
him devouring it. I would not appear to 
boast ; but really, when I saw what Collurio 
had done, it did not so much as occur to me to 
quarrel with him because he had discovered in 
half an hour what I had overlooked for ten 
years. On the contrary I hastened to pay him 
a heart-felt compliment upon his indisputable 
sagacity and keenness as a natural historian ; — 
a measure of magnanimity easily enough af- 
forded, since however the shrike might excel me 
at one point, there could be no question on the 
whole of my immeasurable superiority. And I 
cherish the hope that my fellow townsmen, who, 
as they insist, never themselves see any birds 
whatever in the Garden and Common (their at- 
tention being taken up with matters more im- 
portant), may be disposed to exercise a similar 



6 ON BOSTON COMMON. 

forbearance toward me, when I modestly profess 
that within the last seven or eight years I have 
watched there some thousands of specimens, 
representing not far from seventy species. 

Of course the principal part of all the birds to 
be found in such a place are transient visitors 
merely. In the long spring and autumn jour- 
neys it will all the time be happening that 
more or less of the travelers alight here for rest 
and refreshment. Now it is only a straggler 
or two ; now a considerable flock of some one 
species ; and now a miscellaneous collection of 
perhaps a dozen sorts. 

One of the first things to strike the observer 
is the uniformity with which such pilgrims arrive 
during the night. He goes his rounds late in 
the afternoon, and there is no sign of anything 
unusual ; but the next morning the grounds are 
populous, — thrushes, finches, warblers, and 
what not. And as they come in the dark, so 
also do they go away again. With rare excep- 
tions you may follow them up never so closely, 
and they will do nothing more than fly from 
tree to tree, or out of one clump of shrubbery 
into another. Once in a great while, under 
some special provocation, they threaten a longer 
fliglit ; but on getting high enough to see the 
unbroken array of roofs on every side they 
speedily grow confused, and after a few shift- 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 7 

ings of their course dive hurriedly into the near- 
est tree. It was a mistake their stopping here 
in the first place ; but once here, there is noth- 
ing for it save to put up v^ith the discomforts of 
the situation till after sunset. Then, please 
heaven, they will be off, praying never to find 
themselves again in such a Babel. 

That most of our smaller birds migrate by 
night is by this time too well established to 
need corroboration ; but if the student wishes 
to assure himself of the fact at first hand, he 
may easily do it by one or two seasons' observa- 
tions in our Common, — or, I suppose, in any 
like inclosure. And if he be blest with an or- 
nithologically educated ear, he may still further 
confirm his faith by standing on Beacon Hill in 
the evening — as I myself have often done — 
and listening to the chips of warblers, or the 
tseeps of sparrows, as these little wanderers, 
hour after hour, pass through the darkness over 
the city. Why the birds follow this plan, what 
advantages they gain or what perils they avoid 
by making their flight nocturnal, is a question 
with which our inquisitive friend will perhaps 
find greater difficulty. I should be glad, for 
one, to hear his explanation. 

As a rule, our visitors tarry with us for two or 
three days ; at least I have noticed that to be 
true in many cases where their numbers, or size, 



8 ON BOSTON COMMON. 

or rarity made it posssible to be reasonably cer- 
tain when the arrival and departure took place ; 
and in so very limited a field it is of course 
comparatively easy to keep track of the same in- 
dividual during his stay, and, so to speak, be- 
come acquainted with him. I remember with 
interest several such acquaintanceships. 

One of these was with a yellow-bellied wood- 
pecker, the first I had ever seen. He made his 
appearance one morning in October, along with 
a company of chickadees and other birds, and 
at once took up his quarters on a maple-tree 
near the Ether monument. I watched his 
movements for some time, and at noon, hap- 
pening to be in the same place again, found 
him still there. And there he remained four 
days. I went to look at him several times 
daily, and almost always found him either on 
the maple or on a tulip tree a few yards dis- 
tant. Without question the sweetness of maple 
sap was known to Sphyropicus varius long be- 
fore our human ancestors discovered it, and this 
particular bird, to judge from his actions, must 
have been a genuine connoisseur ; at all events 
he seemed to recognize our Boston tree as of a 
sort not to be met with every day, although 
to my less critical sense it was nothing but an 
ordinary specimen of the common Acer dasy- 
carpum. He was extremely industrious, as is 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 9 

the custom of his family, and paid no attention 
to the children playing about, or to the men 
who sat under his tree, with the back of their 
seat resting against the trunk. As for the 
children's noise, he likely enough enjoj^ed it ; 
for he is a noisy fellow himself and famous as 
a drummer. An aged clergyman in Washing- 
ton told me — in accents half pathetic, half re- 
vengeful — that at a certain time of the year 
he could scarcely read his Bible on Sunday 
mornings, because of the racket which this 
woodpecker made hammering on the tin roof 
overhead. 

Another of my acquaintances was of a very 
different type, a female Maryland yellow-throat. 
This lovely creature, a most exquisite, dainty 
bit of bird flesh, was in the Garden all by her- 
self on the 6th of October, when the great ma- 
jority of her relatives must have been already 
well on their way toward the sunny South. 
She appeared to be perfectly contented, and 
allowed me to watch her closely, only scolding 
mildly now and then when I became too in- 
quisitive. How I did admire her bravery and 
peace of mind ; feeding so quietly, with that 
long, lonesome journey before her, and the cold 
weather coming on ! No wonder the Great 
Teacher pointed his lesson of trust with the 
injunction, " Behold the fowls of the air." 



10 ON BOSTON COMMON. 

A passenger even worse belated than this 
warbler was a chipping sparrow that I found 
hopping about the edge of the Beacon Street 
Mall on the 6th of December, seven or eight 
weeks after all chippers were supposed to be 
south of Mason and Dixon's line. Some ac- 
cident had detained him doubtless ; but he 
showed no signs of worry or haste, as I wali^ed 
round him, scrutinizing every feather, lest he 
should be some tree sparrow traveling in dis- 
guise. 

There is not much to attract birds to the 
Common in the winter, since we offer them 
neither evergreens for shelter nor weed patches 
for a granary. I said to one of the gardeners 
that I thought it a pity, on this account, that 
some of the plants, especially the zinnias and 
marigolds, were not left to go to seed. A lit- 
tle untidiness, in so good a cause, could hardly 
be taken amiss by even the most fastidious tax- 
paj^er. He replied that it would be of no use ; 
we had n't any birds now, and we should n't 
have any so long as the English sparrows were 
here to drive them away. But it would be of 
use, notwithstanding ; and certainly it would 
afford a pleasure to many people to see flocks 
of goldfinches, red-poll linnets, tree sparrows, 
and possibly of the beautiful snow buntings, 
feeding in the Garden in midwinter. 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 11 

Even as things are, however, the cold season 
is sure to bring us a few butcher-birds. These 
come on business, and are now welcomed as 
public benefactors, though formerly our spar- 
row-loving municipal authorities thought it 
their duty to shoot them. They travel singly, 
as a rule, and sometimes the same bird will be 
here for several weeks together. Then you will 
have no trouble about finding here and there 
in the hawthorn trees pleasing evidences of his 
activity and address. Collurio is brought up 
to be in love with his work. In his Mother 
Goose it is written, — 

Fe, fi, fo, farrow ! 

I smell the blood of an English sparrow; 

and however long he ma^ live, he never for- 
gets his early training. His days, as the poet 
says, are " bound each to each by natural 
piety." Happy lot ! wherein duty and con- 
science go ever hand in hand ; for whose pos- 
sessor 

" Love is an unerring light, 
And joy its own security." 

In appearance the shrike resembles the mock- 
ing-bird. Indeed, a policeman whom I found 
staring at one would have it that he was a 
mocking-bird. " Don't you see he is ? And 
he 's been singing, too." I had nothing to say 
against the singing, since the shrike wiU often 



12 ON BOSTON COMMON. 

twitter by the half hour in the very coldest 
weather. But further discussion concerning 
the bird's identity was soon rendered needless ; 
for, while we were talking, along came a spar- 
row, and dropped carelessly into a hawthorn 
bush, right under the shrike's perch. The lat- 
ter was all attention instantly, and, after wait- 
ing till the sparrow had moved a little out of 
the thick of the branches, down he pounced. 
He missed his aim, or the sparrow was too 
quick for him, and although he made a second 
swoop, and followed that by a hot chase, he 
speedily came back without his prey. This lit- 
tle exertion, however, seemed to have provoked 
his appetite ; for, instead of resuming his cof- 
fee-tree perch, he went into the hawthorn, and 
began to feed uppn the carcass of a bird which, 
it seemed, he had previously laid up in store. 
He was soon frightened off for a few moments 
by the approach of a third man, and the police- 
man improved the opportunity to visit the bush 
and bring away his breakfast. When the fel- 
low returned and found his table empty, he did 
not manifest the slightest disappointment (the 
shrike never does ; he is a fatalist, I think) ; 
but in order to see what he would do, the po- 
liceman tossed the body to him. It lodged on 
one of the outer twigs, and immediately the 
shrike came for it; at the same time spread- 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 13 

ing his beautifully bordered tail and screaming 
loudly. Whether these demonstrations were in- 
tended to express delight, or anger, or contempt, 
J could not judge ; but he seized the body, car- 
ried it back to its old place, drove it again upon 
the thorn, and proceeded to devour it more 
voraciously than ever, scattering the feathers 
about in a lively way as he tore it to pieces. 
The third man, who had never before seen such 
a thing, stepped up within reach of the bush, 
and eyed the performance at his leisure, the 
shrike not deigning to mind him in the least. 
A few mornings later the same bird gave me 
another and more amusing exhibition of his 
nonchalance. He was singing from the top of 
our one small larch-tree, and I had stopped 
near the bridge to look and listen, when a milk- 
man entered at the Commonwealth Avenue 
gate, both hands full of cans, and, without no- 
ticing the shrike, walked straight under the 
tree. Just then, however, he heard the notes 
overhead, and, looking up, saw the bird. As 
if not knowing what to make of the creature's 
assurance, he stared at him for a moment, and 
then, putting down his load, he seized the trunk 
with both hands, and gave it a good shake. 
But the bird only took a fresh hold ; and when 
the man let go, and stepped back to look up, 
there he sat, to all appearance as unconcerned 



14 ON BOSTON COMMON. 

as if nothing had happened. Not to be so 
easily beaten, the man grasped the trunk again, 
and shook it harder than before; and this time 
Collurio seemed to think the joke had been 
carried far enough, for he took wing, and flew 
to another part .of the Garden. The bravado 
of the butcher-bird is great, but it is not un- 
limited. I saw him, one day, shuffling along a 
branch in a very nervous, unshrikely fashion, 
and was at a loss to account for his unusual de- 
meanor till I caught sight of a low-flying hawk 
sweeping over the tree. Every creature, no 
matter how brave, has some other creature to 
be afraid of ; otherwise, how would the world 
get on ? 

The advent of spring is usually announced 
during the first week of March, sometimes by 
the robins, sometimes by the bluebirds. The 
latter, it should be remarked, are an exception 
to the rule that our spring and autumn callers 
arrive and depart in the night. My impression 
is that their migrations are ordinarily accom- 
plished by daylight. At all events I have often 
seen them enter the Common, alight for a few 
minutes, and then start off again ; while I have 
never known them to settle down for a visit of 
two or three days, in the manner of most other 
species. This last peculiarity may be owing to 
the fact that the European sparrows treat them 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 15 

with even more than their customary measure 
of incivility, till the poor wayfarers have liter- 
ally no rest for the soles of their feet. They 
breed by choice in just such miniature meet- 
ing-houses as our city fathers have provided so 
plentifully for their foreign ^ro^^^^s ; and prob- 
ably the latter, being aware of this, feel it nec- 
essary to discourage at the outset any idea 
which these blue-coated American interlopers 
may have begun to entertain of settling in Bos- 
ton for the summer. 

The robins may be said to be abundant with 
us for more than half the year ; but they are 
especially numerous for a month or two early 
in the season. I have counted more than thirty 
feeding at once in the lower half of the parade 
ground, and at nightfall have seen forty at 
roost in one tree, with half as many more in 
the tree adjoining. They grow extremely noisy 
about sunset, filling the air with songs, cackles, 
and screams, till even the most stolid citizen 
pauses a moment to look up at the authors of so 
much clamor. 

By the middle of March the song sparrows 
begin to appear, and for a month after this they 
furnish delightful music daily. I have heard 
them caroling with all cheerfulness in the midst 
of a driving snow-storm. The dear little opti- 
mists ! They never doubt that the sun is on 



16 ON BOSTON COMMON. 

their side. Of necessity they go elsewhere to 
find nests for themselves, where they may lay 
their young ; for they build on the ground, and 
a lawn which is mowed every two or three days 
would be quite out of the question. 

At the best, a public park is not a favorable 
spot in which to study bird music. Species 
that spend the summer here, like the robin, 
the warbling vireo, the red -eyed vireo, the 
chipper, the goldfinch, and the Baltimore ori- 
ole, of course sing freely ; but the much larger 
number which merely drop in upon us by the 
way are busy feeding during their brief sojourn, 
and besides are kept in a state of greater or 
less excitement by the frequent approach of 
passers-by. Nevertheless, I once heard a bob- 
olink sing in our Garden (the only one I ever 
saw there), and once a brown thrush, although 
neither was sufficiently at home to do himself 
justice. The " Peabody " song of the white- 
throated sparrows is to be heard occasionally 
during both migrations. It is the more wel- 
come in such a place, because, to my ears at 
least, it is one of the wildest of all bird notes ; 
it is among the last to be heard at night in the 
White Mountain woods, as well as one of the 
last to die away beneath you as you climb the 
higher peaks. On the Crawford bridle path, 
for instance, I remember that the song of this 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 17 

bird and that of the gray-cheeked thrush ^ were 
heard all along the ridge from Mount Clinton 
to Mount Washington. The finest bird con- 
cert I ever attended in Boston was given on 
Monument Hill by a great chorus of fox-col- 
ored sparrows, one morning in April. A high 
wind had been blowing during the night, and 
the moment I entered the Common I discovered 
that there had been an extraordinary arrival of 
birds, of various species. The parade ground 
was full of snow-birds, while the hill was cov- 
ered with fox-sparrows, — hundreds of them, I 
thought, and many of them in full song. It 
was a royal concert, but the audience, I am 
sorry to say, was small. It is unfortunate, in 
some aspects of the case, that birds have never 
learned that a matinee ought to begin at two 
o'clock in the afternoon. 

These sparrows please me by their lordly 
treatment of their European cousins. One in 
particular, who was holding his ground against 
three of the Britishers, moved me almost to the 
point of giving him three cheers. 

Of late a few crow blackbirds have taken to 

1 My identification of Turdus Alicice was based entirel}' upon 
the song, and so, of course, had no final scientific value. It was 
confirmed a few weeks later, however, by Mr. William Brewster, 
who took specimens. (See Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological 
Club, January, 1883, p. 12.) Prior to this the species was not 
known to breed in New England. 
2 



18 ON BOSTON COMMON. 

building their nests in one corner of our do- 
main ; and they attract at least their full share 
of attention, as they strut about the lawns in 
their glossy clerical suits. One of the garden- 
ers tells me that they sometimes kill the spar- 
rows. I hope they do. The crow blackbird's 
attempts at song are ludicrous in the extreme, 
as every note is cracked, and is accompanied by 
a ridiculous caudal gesture. But he is ranked 
among the oscines, and seems to know it ; and, 
after all, it is only the common fault of singers 
not to be able to detect their own want of tune- 
fulness. 

I was once crossing the Common, in the mid- 
dle of the day, when I was suddenly arrested 
by the call of a cuckoo. At the same instant 
two men passed me, and I heard one say to the 
other, " Hear that cuckoo ! Do you know what 
it means ? No? Well, /know what it means : 
it means that it 's going to rain." It did rain, 
although not for a number of days, I believe. 
But probably the cuckoo has adopted the mod- 
ern method of predicting the weather some time 
in advance. Not very long afterwards I again 
heard this same note on the Common ; but it 
was several years before I was able to put the 
cuckoo into my Boston list, as a bird actually 
seen. Indeed it is not so very easy to see him 
anywhere ; for he makes a practice of robbing 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 19 

the nests of smaller birds, and is always skulk- 
ing about from one tree to another, as though 
he were afraid of being discovered, as no doubt 
he is. What Wordsworth wrote of the Euro- 
pean species (allowance being made for a 
proper degree of poetic license) is equally ap- 
plicable to ours : — 

" No bird, but an invisible thing, 
A voice, a mystery." 

When I did finally get a sight of the fellow it 
was on this wise. As I entered the Garden, 
one morning in September, a goldfinch was 
calling so persistently and with such anxious 
emphasis from the large sophora tree that I 
turned my steps that way to ascertain what 
could be the trouble. I took the voice for a 
young bird's, but found instead a male adult, 
who was twitching his tail nervously and scold- 
ing phee -phee^ phee -phee, at a black-billed 
cuckoo perched near at hand, in his usual 
sneaking attitude. The goldfinch called and 
called, till my patience was nearly spent. 
(Small birds know better than to attack a big 
one so long as the latter is at rest.) Then, at 
last, the cuckoo started off, the finch after him, 
and a few minutes later I saw the same flight 
and chase repeated. Several other goldfinches 
were flying about in the neighborhood, but 
only this one was in the least excited. Doubt- 



20 ON BOSTON COMMON. 

less he had special reasons of his own for dread- 
ing the presence of this cowardly foe. 

One of our regular visitors twice a year is the 
brown creeper. He is so small and silent, and 
withal his color is so like that of the bark to 
which he clings, that I suspect he is seldom no- 
ticed even by persons who pass within a few 
feet of him. But he is not too small to be hec- 
tored by the sparrows, and I have before now 
been amused at the encounter. The sparrow 
catches sight of the creeper, and at once bears 
down upon him, when the creeper darts to the 
other side of the tree, and alights again a little 
further up. The sparrow is after him ; but, as 
he comes dashing round the trunk, he always 
seems to expect to find the creeper perched upon 
some twig, as any other bird would be, and it 
is only after a little reconnoitring that he again 
discovers him clinging to the vertical bole. 
Then he makes another onset with a similar re- 
sult ; and these manoeuvres are repeated, till the 
creeper becomes disgusted, and takes to another 
tree. 

The olive-backed thrushes and the hermits 
may be looked for every spring and autumn, 
and I have known forty or fifty of the former to 
be present at once. The hermits most often 
travel singly or in pairs, though a small flock is 
not so very uncommon. Both species preserve 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 21 

absolute silence while here; I have watched 
hundreds of them, without hearing so much as 
an alarm note. They are far from being pug- 
nacious, but their sense of personal dignity is 
large, and once in a while, when the sparrows 
pester them beyond endurance, they assume the 
offensive with much spirit. There are none of 
our feathered guests whom I am gladder to see ; 
the sight of them inevitably fills me with re- 
membrances of happy vacation seasons among 
the hills of New Hampshire. If only they 
would sing on the Common as they do in those 
northern woods ! The whole city would come 
out to hear them. 

During every migration large numbers of 
warblers visit us. I have noted the golden- 
crowned thrush, the small-billed water-thrush, 
the black-and-white creeper, the Maryland yel- 
low-throat, the blue yellow-back, the black- 
throated green, the black-throated blue, the yel- 
low-rump, the summer yellow-bird, the black- 
poll, the Canada flycatcher, and the redstart. 
No doubt the list is far from complete, as, of 
course, I have not used either glass or gun ; and 
without one or other of these aids the observer 
must be content to let many of these small, tree- 
top-haunting birds pass unidentified. The two 
kinglets give us a call occasionally, and in the 
late summer and early autumn the humming- 



m 



22 ON BOSTON COMMON. 

birds spend several weeks about our flower- 
beds. 

It would be hard for the latter to find a more 
agreeable stopping-place in the whole course of 
their southward journey. What could they ask 
better than beds of tuberoses, Japanese lilies, 
Nicotiana (against the use of which they mani- 
fest not the slightest scruple), petunias, and the 
like? Having in mind the Duke of Argyll's 
assertion that " no bird can ever fly backwards," ^ 
I have more than once watched these humming- 
birds at their work on purpose to see whether 
they would respect the noble Scotchman's dic- 
tum. I am compelled to report that they ap- 
peared never to have heard of his theory. At 
any rate they very plainly did fly tail foremost ; 
and that not only in dropping from a blossom, 
— in which case the seeming flight might have 
been, as the duke maintains, an optical illusion 
merely, — but even while backing out of the 
flower-tube in an upward direction. They are 
commendably catholic in their tastes. I saw 
one exploring the disk of a sun-flower, in com- 
pany with a splendid monarch butterfly. Pos- 
sibly he knew that the sunflower was just then 
in fashion. Only a few minutes earlier the same 
bird — or another like him — had chased an 
English sparrow out of the Garden, across Ar- 

1 The Reign of Law, p. 140. 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 23 

lington Street, and up to the very roof of a 
house, to the great delight of at least one patri- 
otic Yankee. At another time I saw one of 
these tiny beauties making his morning toilet 
in a very pretty fashion, leaning forward, and 
brushing first one cheek and then the other 
against the wet rose leaf on which he was 
perched. 

The only swallows on my list are the barn 
swallows and the white-breasted. The former, 
as they go hawking about the crowded streets, 
must often send the thoughts of rich city mer- 
chants back to the big barns of their grandfa- 
thers, far off in out-of-the-way country places. 
Of course we have the chimney swifts, also 
(near relatives of the humming-birds !), but 
tliey are not swallows. 

Speaking of the swallows, I am reminded of a 
hawk that came to Boston, one morning, fully 
determined not to go awa-y without a taste of 
the famous imported sparrows. It is nothing 
unusual for hawks to be seen flying over the 
city, but I had never before known one actually 
to make the Public Garden his hunting-ground. 
This bird perched for a while on the Arlington 
Street fence, within a few feet of a passing car- 
riage ; next he was on the ground, peering into 
a bed of rhododendrons ; then for a long time 
he sat still in a tree, while numbers of men 



24 ON B^TON COMMON. 

walked back and forth underneath ; between 
whiles he sailed about, on the watch for his 
prey. On one of these last occasions a little 
company of swallows came along, and one of 
them immediately went out of his way to swoop 
down upon the hawk, and deal him a dab. 
Then, as he rejoined his companions, I heard 
him give a little chuckle, as though he said, 
" There ! did you see me peck at him ? You 
don't think I am afraid of such a fellow as that, 
do you ? " To speak in Thoreau's manner, I 
rejoiced in the incident as a fresh illustration of 
the ascendency of spirit over matter. 

One is always glad to find a familiar bird 
playing a new rSle^ and especially in such a 
spot as the Common, where, at the best, one 
can hope to see so very little. It may be as- 
sumed, therefore, that I felt peculiarly grateful 
to a white-bellied nuthatch, when I discovered 
him hopping about on the ground — on Monu- 
ment Hill ; a piece of humility such as I had 
never before detected any nuthatch in the prac- 
tice of. Indeed, this fellow looked so unlike 
himself, moving briskly through the grass with 
long, awkward leaps, that at first sight I failed 
to recognize him. He was occupied with turn- 
ing over the dry leaves, one after another, — 
hunting for cocoons, or things of that sort, I 
suppose. Twice he found what he was in search 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 25 

of; but instead of handling the leaf on the 
ground, he flew with it to the trunk of an elm, 
wedged it into a crevice of the bark, and pro- 
ceeded to hammer it sharply with his beak. 
Great is the power of habit ! Strange — is it 
not? — that any bird should find it easiest to 
do such work while clinging to a perpendicular 
surface ! Yes ; but how does it look to a dog, 
I wonder, that men can walk better on their hind 
legs than on all fours ? Everything is a mira- 
cle from somebody's point of view. The spar- 
rows were inclined to make game of my oblig- 
ing little performer ; but he would have none 
of their insolence, and repelled every approach 
in dashing style. In exactly three weeks from 
this time, and on the same hillside, I came upon 
another nuthatch similarly employed ; but be- 
fore this one had turned up a leaf to his mind, 
the sparrows became hterally too many for him, 
and he took flight, — to my no small disappoint- 
ment. 

It would be unfair not to name others of my 
city guests, even though I have nothing in par- 
ticular to record concerning them. The Wilson 
thrush and the red-bellied nuthatch I have seen 
once or twice each. The chewink is more con- 
stant in his visits, as is also the golden-winged 
woodpecker. Our familiar little downy wood- 
pecker, on the other hand, has thus far kept 



26 ON BOST0 



COMMON. 



out of my catalogue. No other bird's absence 
has surprised me so much ; and it is the more 
remarkable because the comparatively rare yel- 
low-bellied species is to be met with nearly 
every season. Cedar-birds show themselves ir- 
regularly. One March morning, when the 
ground was covered with snow, a flock of per- 
haps a hundred collected in one of the taller 
maples in the Garden, till the tree looked from 
a distance like an autumn hickory, its leafless 
branches still thickly dotted with nuts. Four 
days afterward, what seemed to be the same 
company made their appearance in the Com- 
mon. Of the flycatchers, I have noted the 
kingbird, the least flycatcher, and the phoebe. 
The two former stay to breed. Twice in the 
fall I have found a kingfisher about the Frog 
Pond. Once the fellow sprung his watchman's 
rattle. He was perhaps my most unexpected 
caller, and for a minute or so I was not en- 
tirely sure whether indeed I was in Boston or 
not. The blue jay and the crow know too 
much to be caught in such a place, although 
one may often enough see the latter passing 
overhead. Every now and then, in the travel- 
ing season, a stray sandpiper or two will be ob- 
served teetering round the edge of the Common 
and Garden ponds ; and one day, when the lat- 
ter was drained, I saw quite a flock of some 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 27 

one of the smaller species feeding over its bot- 
tom. Very picturesque they were, feeding and 
flying in close order. Besides these must be 
mentioned the yellow-throated vireo, the bay- 
winged bunting, the swamp sparrow, the field 
sparrow, the purple finch, the red-poll linnet, 
the savanna sparrow, the tree sparrow, the 
night-hawk (whose celebrated tumbling trick 
may often be witnessed by evening strollers in 
the Garden), the woodcock (I found the body 
of one which had evidently met its death against 
the electric wire), and among the best of all, 
the chickadees, who sometimes make the whole 
autumn cheerful with their presence, but about 
whom I say nothing here because I have said so 
much elsewhere. 

Of fugitive cage-birds, I recall only five — all 
in the Garden. One of these, feeding tamely 
in the path, I suspected for an English robin ; 
■»but he was not in full plumage, and my conjec- 
ture may have been incorrect. Another was a 
diminutive fiuch, dressed in a suit of red, blue, 
and green. He sat in a bush, saying iVb, no ! 
to a feline admirer who was making love to him 
earnestly. The others w^ere a mocking-bird, a 
cardinal grosbeak, and a paroquet. The mock- 
ing-bird and the grosbeak might possibly have 
been wild, had the question been one of lati- 
tude simply, but their demeanor satisfied me to 



28 ON BOSTON 



COMMON. 



the contrary. The former's awkward attempt 
at alighting on the tip of a fence-picket seemed 
evidence enough that he had not been long at 
large. The paroquet was a splendid creature, 
with a brilliant orange throat darkly spotted. 
He flew from tree to tree, chattering gayly, and 
had a really pretty song. Evidently he was in 
the best of spirits, notwithstanding the rather 
obtrusive attentions of a crowd of house spar- 
rows, who appeared to look upon such a wearer 
of the green as badly out of place in this new 
England of theirs. But for all his vivacity, I 
feared he would not be long in coming to grief. 
If he escaped other perils, the cold weather 
must soon overtake him, for it was now the 
middle of September, and his last state would 
be worse than his first. He had better have 
kept his cage ; unless, indeed, he was one of 
the nobler spirits that prefer death to slavery. 

Of all the birds thus far named, very few. 
seemed to attract the attention of anybody 
except myself. But there remains one other, 
whom I have reserved for the last, not because 
he was in himself the noblest or the most in- 
teresting (though he was perhaps the biggest), 
but because, unlike the rest, he did succeed in 
winning the notice of the multitude. In fact, 
my one owl, to speak theatrically, made a de- 
cided hit ; for a single afternoon he may be 



ON BOSTON COMMON. 29 

said to have been famous, — or at all events 
notorious, if any old-fashioned reader be dis- 
posed to insist upon this all but obsolete dis- 
tinction. His triumph, such as it was, had al- 
ready begun when I first discovered him, for he 
was then perched well up in an elm, while a 
mob of perhaps forty men and boys were pelt- 
ing him with sticks and stones. Even in the 
dim light of a cloudy November afternoon he 
seemed quite bewildered and helpless, making 
no attempt to escape, although the missiles were 
flying past him on all sides. The most he did 
was to shift his perch when he was hit, which, 
to be sure, happened pretty often. Once he 
was struck so hard that he came tumbling to- 
ward the ground, and I began to think it was 
all over with him ; but when about half-way 
down he recovered himself, and by dint of pain- 
ful flappings succeeded in alighting just out of 
the reach of the crowd. At once there were 
loud cries : " Don't kill him ! Don't kill him ! " 
and while the scamps were debating what to do 
next, he regained his breath, and flew up into 
the tree again, as high as before. Then the 
stoning began anew. For my part I pitied the 
fellow sincerely, and wished him well out of 
the hands of his tormentors ; but I found my- 
self laughing with the rest to see him turn his 
head and stare, with his big, vacant eyes, after 






30 ON BosTm 



COMMON. 



a stone which had just whizzed by his ear. 
Ever3^body that came along stopped for a few 
minutes to witness the sport, and Beacon Street 
filled up with carriages till it looked as if some 
holiday procession were halted in front of the 
State House. I left the crowd still at their 
work, and must do them the justice to say that 
some of them were excellent marksmen. An 
old negro, who stood near me, was bewailing 
the law against shooting ; else, he said, he 
would go home and get his gun. He described, 
with appropriate gestures, how very easily he 
could fetch the bird down. Perhaps he after- 
wards plucked up courage to violate the stat- 
ute. At any rate the next morning's newspa- 
pers reported that an owl had been shot, the 
day before, on the Common. Poor bird of wis- 
dom ! His sudden popularity proved to be the 
death of him. Like many of loftier name he 
found it true, — 

" The path of glory leads but to the grave." 



BIRD-SONGS. 



Canst thou imagine where those spirits live 
Which make such delicate music in the woods ? 

Shelley. 



BIRD-SONGS. 



Why do birds sing ? Has their music a mean- 
ing, or is it all a matter of blind impulse ? Some 
bright morning in March, as you go out-of-doors, 
you are greeted by the notes of the first robin. 
Perched in a leafless tree, there he sits, facing 
the sun like a genuine fire-worshiper, and sing- 
ing as though he would pour out his veiy soul. 
What is bethinking about? What spirit pos- 
sesses him ? 

It is easy to ask questions until the simplest 
matter comes to seem, what at bottom it really 
is, a thing altogether mysterious ; but if our robin 
could understand us, he would, likely enough, 

reply : — 

" Why do you talk in this way, as if it were 
something requiring explanation that a bird 
should sing ? You seem to have forgotten that 
everybody sings, or almost everybody. Think 
of the insects, — the bees and the crickets and 
the locusts, to say nothing of your intimate 
friends, the mosquitoes I Think, too, of the frogs 



34 BIRD-SONGS. 

and the hylas ! If these cold-blooded, low-lived 
creatures, after sleeping all winter in the mud,^ 
are free to make so much use of their voices, 
surely a bird of the air may sing his unobtrusive 
song without being cross-examined concerning 
the purpose of it. Why do the mice sing, and 
the monkeys, and the woodchucks? Indeed, 
sir, — if one may be so bold, — why do you sing, 
yourself ? " 

This matter - of - fact Darwinism need not 
frighten us. It will do us no harm to remember, 
now and then, " the hole of the pit whence we 
were digged ; " and besides, as far as any rela- 
tionship between us and the birds is concerned, 
it is doubtful whether we are the party to com- 
plain. 

But avoiding " genealogies and contentions,'* 
and taking up the question with which we be- 
gan, we may safely say that birds sing, some- 
times to gratify an innate love for sweet sounds ; 
sometimes to win a mate, or to tell their love 
to a mate already won ; sometimes as practice, 
with a view to self-improvement ; and some- 
times for no better reason than the poet's, — "I 
do but sing because I must." In general, they 



1 There is no Historic-Genealogical Society among the birds, 
and the robin is not aware that his own remote ancestors were rep- 
tiles. If he were, he would hardly speak so disrespectfully of 
these batrachians. 



BIBD-SONGS. 35 

sing for joy ; and their joy, of course, has vari- 
ous causes. 

For one thing, they are very sensitive to the 
weather. With them, as with us, sunlight and 
a genial warmth go to produce serenity. A 
bright sumraer-hke day, late in October, or even 
in November, will set the smaller birds to sing- 
ing, and the grouse to drumming. I heard a 
robin venturing a little song on the 25th of last 
December ; but that, for aught I know, was a 
Christmas carol. No matter what the season, 
you will not hear a great deal of bird music dur- 
ing a high wind ; and if you are caught in the 
woods by a sudden shower in May or June, and 
are not too much taken up with thoughts of 
your own condition, you will hardly fail to no- 
tice the instant silence which falls upon the 
woods with the rain. Birds, however, are more 
or less inconsistent (that is a part of tlieir like- 
ness to us), and sometimes sing most freely 
when the sky is overcast. 

But their highest joys are by no means de- 
pendent upon the moods of the weather. A 
comfortable state of mind is not to be contemned, 
but beings who are capable of deep and passion- 
ate affection recognize a difference between com- 
fort and ecstasy. And the peculiar glory of 
birds is just here, in the all-consuming fervor 
of their love. It would be commonplace to call 



36 birdWongs. 

them models of conjugal and parental faithful- 
ness. With a few exceptions (and these, it is a 
pleasure to add, not singers), the very least of 
them is literally faithful unto death. Here and 
there, in the notes of some collector, we are told 
of a difficulty he has had in securing a coveted 
specimen : the tiny creature, whose mate had 
been already "collected," would persist in hov- 
ering so closely about the invader's head that it 
was impossible to shoot him without spoiling 
him for the cabinet by blowing him to pieces ! 

Need there be any mystery about the singing 
of such a lover? Is it surprising if at times 
he is so enraptured that he can no longer sit 
tamely on the branch, but must dart into the 
air, and go circling round and round, caroling 
as he flies ? 

So far as song is the voice of emotion, it will 
of necessity vary with the emotion ; and every 
one who has ears must have heard once in a 
while bird music of quite unusual fervor. For 
example, I have often seen the least flycatcher 
(a very unromantic-looking body, surely) when 
he was almost beside himself ; flying in a circle, 
and repeating breathlessly his emphatic chebec. 
And once I found a wood pewee in a somewhat 
similar mood. He was more quiet than the 
least flycatcher ; but he too sang on the wing, 
and I have never heard notes which seemed 



BIRD-SONGS. 37 

more expressive of happiness. Many of them 
were entirely new and strange, although the 
familiar pewee was introduced among the rest. 
As I listened, I felt it to be an occasion for 
thankfulness that the delighted creature had 
never studied anatomy, and did not know that 
the structure of his throat made it improper for 
him to sing. In this connection, also, I recall 
a cardinal grosbeak, whom I heard several 
years ago, on the bank of the Potomac River. 
An old soldier had taken me to visit the Great 
Falls, and as we were clambering over the rocks 
this grosbeak began to sing ; and soon, without 
any hint from me, and without knowing who 
the invisible musician was, my companion re- 
marked upon the uncommon beauty of the song. 
The cardinal is always a great singer, having a 
voice which, as European writers say, is almost 
equal to the nightingale's ; but in this case the 
more stirring, martial quality of the strain had 
given place to an exquisite mellowness, as if it 
were, what I have no doubt it was, a song of 
love. 

Every kind of bird has notes of its own, so that 
a thoroughly practiced ear would be able to dis- 
criminate the different species with nearly as 
much certainty as Professor Baird would feel 
after an examination of the anatomy and plum- 
age. Still this strong specific resemblance is 



38 BIRD^ONGS. 

far from being a dead uniformity. Aside from 
the fact, already mentioned, that the character- 
istic strain is sometimes given with extraordi- 
nary sweetness and emphasis, there are often to 
be detected variations of a more formal charac- 
ter. This is noticeably true of robins. It may 
almost be said that no two of them sing alike ; 
while now and then their vagaries are conspic- 
uous enough to attract general attention. One 
who was my neighbor last year interjected into 
his song a series of four or five most exact imi- 
tations of the peep of a chicken. When I first 
heard this performance, I was in company with 
two friends, both of whom noticed and laughed 
at it ; and some days afterwards I visited the 
spot again, and found the bird still rehearsing 
the same ridiculous medley. I conjectured that 
he had been brought up near a hen-coop, and, 
moreover, had been so unfortunate as to lose 
his father before his notes had become thor- 
oughly fixed ; and then, being compelled to 
finish his musical education by himself, had 
taken a fancy to practice these chicken calls. 
This guess may not have been correct. All I 
can affirm is that he sang exactly as he might 
have been expected to do, on that supposition ; 
but certainly the resemblance seemed too close 
to be accidental. 

The variations of the wood thrush are fully 



BIRD-SONGS. 39 

as striking as those of the robin, and sometimes 
it is impossible not to feel that the artist is 
making a deliberate effort to do something out 
of the ordinary course, something better than 
he has ever done before. Now and then he 
prefcices his proper song with many discon- 
nected, extremely staccato notes, following each 
other at very distant and unexpected intervals 
of pitch. It is this, I conclude, which is meant 
by some writer (who it is I cannot now remem- 
ber) when he criticises the wood thrush for 
spending too much time in tuning his instru- 
ment. But the fault is the critic's, I think ; to 
my ear these preliminaries sound rather like 
the recitative which goes before the grand aria. 

Still another musician who delights to take 
liberties with his score is the towhee bunting, 
or chewink. Indeed, he carries the matter so 
far that sometimes it seems ahiiost as if he 
suspected the proximity of some self-conceited 
ornithologist, and were determined, if possible, 
to make a fool of him. And for my part, being 
neither self-conceited nor an ornithologist, I am 
willing to confess that I have once or twice 
been so badly deceived that now the mere sight 
of this Pipilo is, so to speak, a means of grace 
to me. 

One more of these innovators (these heretics, 
as they ai'e most likely called by their more 



40 BIRlMoNGS. 

conservative brethren) is the field sparrow, bet- 
ter known as Spizella pusilla. His usual song 
consists of a simple line of notes, beginning lei- 
surely, but growing shorter and more rapid to 
the close. The voice is so smooth and sweet, 
and the acceleration so well managed, that, al- 
though the whole is commonly a strict mono- 
tone, the effect is not in the least monotonous. 
This song I once heard rendered in reverse or- 
der, with a result so strange that I did not sus- 
pect the identity of the author till I had crept 
up within sight of him. Another of these spar- 
rows, who has passed the last two seasons in 
my neighborhood, habitually doubles the meas- 
ure ; going through it in the usual way, and 
then, just as you expect him to conclude, catch- 
ing it up again. Da capo. 

But birds like these are quite outdone by 
such species as the song sparrow, the white- 
eyed vireo, and the Western meadow-lark, — 
species of which we may say that each individ- 
ual bird has a whole repertory of songs at his 
command. The song sparrow, who is the best 
known of the three, will repeat one melody 
perhaps a dozen times, then change it for a 
second, and in turn leave that for a third ; as if 
he were singing hymns of twelve or fifteen 
stanzas each, and set each hymn to its appro- 
priate tune. It is something well worth listen- 



BIRD-SONGS. 41 

ing to, common though it is, and may easily 
suggest a number of questions about the origin 
and meaning of bird music. 

The white-eyed vireo is a singer of astonish- 
ing spirit, and his sudden changes from one 
theme to another are sometimes ahnost start- 
ling. He is a skillful ventriloquist, also, and I 
remember one in particular who outwitted me 
completely. He was rehearsing a well-known 
strain, but at the end there came up from the 
bushes underneath a querulous call. At first I 
took it for granted that some other bird was in 
the underbrush ; but the note was repeated too 
many times, and came in too exactly on the beat. 

I have no personal acquaintance with the 
Western meadow-lark, but no less than twenty- 
six of his songs have been printed in musical 
notation, and these are said to be by no means 
all.i 

Others of our birds have similar gifts, though 
no others, so far as I know, are quite so versa- 
tile as these three. Several of the warblers, 
for example, have attained to more than one 
set song, notwithstanding the deservedly small 
reputation of this misnamed family. I have 
myself heard the golden-crowned thrush, the 
black-throated green warbler, the black-throated 

1 Mr. C. N. Allen, in Bulletin of the Nuttall Ornithological 
Club, July, 1881. 



42 BIRD-SONGS. 

blue, the yellow-rumped, and the chestnut-sided, 
sing two melodies each, while the blue golden- 
winged has at least three ; and this, of course, 
without making an3^thing of slight variations 
such as all birds are more or less accustomed to 
indulge in. The best of the three songs of the 
blue golden-wing I have never heard except on 
one occasion, but then it was repeated for half 
an hour under my very eyes. It bore no re- 
semblance to the common dsee^ dsee, dsee, of 
the species, and would appear to be seldom 
used ; for not only have I never heard it since, 
but none of the writers seem ever to have 
heard it at all. However, I still keep a careful 
description of it, which I took down on the 
spot, and which I expect some future golden- 
wing to verify. 

But the most celebrated of the warblers in 
this regard is the golden-crowned thrush, other- 
wise called the oven-bird and the wood wagtail. 
His ordinary effort is one of the noisiest, least 
melodious, and most incessant sounds to be 
heard in our woods. His so?ig is another mat- 
ter. For that he takes to the air (usually start- 
ing from a tree-top, although I have seen him 
rise from the ground), whence, after a prelim- 
inary chip, chip, he lets falls a hurried flood of 
notes, in the midst of which can usually be dis- 
tinguished his familiar weechee, weecJiee, wee- 



BIRD-SONGS. 43 

chee. It is nothing wonderful that he should 
sing on the wing, — many other birds do the 
same, and very much better than he ; but he is 
singular in that he strictly reserves his aerial 
music for late in the afternoon. I have heard 
it as early as three o'clock, but never before 
that, and it is most common about sunset. 
Writers speak of it as limited to the season of 
courtship ; but I have heard it almost daily till 
near the end of July, and once, for my special 
benefit, perhaps, it was given in full — and re- 
peated — on the first day of September. But 
who taught the little creature to do this, — to 
sing one song in the forenoon, perched upon a 
twig, and to keep another for afternoon, sing- 
ing that invariably on the wing ? and what dif- 
ference is there between the two in the mind 
of the singer ? ^ 

It is an indiscretion ever to say of a bird 
that he has only such and such notes. You 
may have been his friend for years, but the 
next time you go into the woods he will likely 
enough put you to shame by singing something 
not so much as hinted at in your description. 
I thought I knew the song of the yellow-rumped 
warbler, having listened to it many times, — a 

1 Since this paper was written I have three times heard the wood 
wagtail's true song in the morning, — but in neither case was the 
bird in the air. See p. 284. 



44 BIRD-SONGS. 

slight and rather characterless thing, nowise 
remarkable. But coming down Mount Willard 
one day in June, I heard a warbler's song which 
brought me to a sudden halt. It was new and 
beautiful, — more beautiful, it seemed at the 
moment, than any warbler's song I had ever 
heard. What could it be ? A little patient 
waiting (while the black-flies and mosquitoes 
'' came upon me to eat up my flesh "), and the 
wonderful stranger appeared in full view, — my 
old acquaintance, the yellow-rumped warbler. 

With all this strong tendency on the part of 
birds to vary their music, how is it that there 
is still such a degree of uniformity, so that, as 
we have said, every species may be recognized 
by its notes ? Why does every red-eyed vireo 
sing in one way, and every white-eyed vireo in 
another ? Who teaches the young chipper to 
trill, and the young linnet to warble ? In short, 
how do birds come by their music ? Is it all a 
matter of instinct, inherited habit, or do they 
learn it ? The answer appears to be that birds 
sing as children talk, by simple imitation. No- 
body imagines that the infant is born with a 
language printed upon his brain. The father 
and mother may never have known a word of 
any tongue except the English, but if the child 
is brought up to hear only Chinese, he will 
infallibly speak that, and nothing else. And 



BIRD-SONGS. 45 

careful experiments have shown the same to be 
true of birds.^ Taken from the nest just after 
they leave the shell, they invariably sing, not 
their own so-called natural song, but the song 
of their foster-parents; provided, of course, 
that this is not anything beyond their physi- 
cal capacity. The notorious house sparrow (our 
" English " sparrow), in his wild or semi-domes- 
ticated state, never makes a musical sound ; but 
if he is taken in hand early enough, he may be 
taught to sing, so it is said, nearly as well as 
the canary. Bechstein relates that a Paris 
clergyman had two of these sparrows whom he 
had trained to speak, and, among other things, 
to recite several of the shorter commandments ; 
and the narrative goes on to say that it was 
sometimes very comical, when the pair were 
disputing over their food, to hear one gravely 
admonish the other, '' Thou shalt not steal ! " 
It would be interesting to know why creatures 
thus gifted do not sing of their own motion. 
With their amiability and sweet peaceable- 
ness they ought to be caroling the whole year 
round. 

This question of the transmission of songs 
from one generation to another is, of course, a 

1 See the paper of Daines Barrington in Pliilosopliical Transac- 
tions for 1773; also, Darwin's Descent of Man, and Wallace's 
Natural Selection. 



46 BIRD^ONGS. 

part of the general subject of animal intelli- 
gence, a subject much discussed in these days 
on account of its bearing upon the modern doc- 
trine concerning the relation of man to the in- 
ferior orders. 

We have nothing to do with such a theme, 
but it may not be out of place to suggest to 
preachers and moralists that here is a striking 
and unhackneyed illustration of the force of 
early training. Birds sing by imitation, it is 
true, but as a rule they imitate only the notes 
which they hear during the first few weeks 
after they are hatched. One of Mr. Barring- 
ton's linnets, for example, after being educated 
under a titlark, was put into a room with two 
birds of his own species, where he heard them 
sing freely everj^ day for three months. He 
made no attempt to learn anything from them, 
however, but kept on practicing what the tit- 
lark had taught him, quite unconscious of any- 
thing singular or unpatriotic in such a course. 
This law, that impressions received during the 
immaturity of the powers become the unalter- 
able habit of the after life, is perhaps the most 
momentous of all the laws in whose power we 
find ourselves. Sometimes we are tempted to 
call it cruel. But if it were annulled, this 
would be a strange world. What a hurly- 
burly we should have among the birds ! There 



BIRD-SONGS. 47 

would be no more telling them by their notes. 
Thrushes and jays, wrens and chickadees, 
finches and warblers, all would be singing one 
grand medley. 

Between these two opposing tendencies, one 
urging to variation, the other to permanence 
(for Nature herself is half radical, half con- 
servative), the language of birds has grown 
from rude beginnings to its present beautiful 
diversity; and whoever lives a century of mil- 
lenniums hence will listen to music such as we 
in this day can only dream of. Inappreciably 
but ceaselessly the work goes on. Here and 
there is born a master-singer, a feathered gen- 
ius, and every generation makes its own addi- 
tion to the glorious inheritance. 

It may be doubted whether there is any real 
connection between moral character and the 
possession of wings. Nevertheless there has 
long been a popular feeling that some such con- 
gruity does exist ; and certainly it seems unrea- 
sonable to suppose that creatures who are able 
to soar at will into the heavens should be with- 
out other equally angelic attributes. But, be 
that as it may, our friends, the birds, do un- 
deniably set us a good example in several re- 
spects. To mention only one, how becoming is 
their observance of morning and evening song ! 
In spite of their industrious spirit (and few of 



48 BIRIfffoNGS. 

US labor more hours daily), neither their first 
nor their last thouglits are given to tlie ques- 
tion, What shall we eat, and wliat shall we 
drink? Possibly their habit of saluting the 
rising and setting san may be thought to favor 
the theory that the worship of the god of day 
was the original religion. T know nothing 
about that. But it would be a sad change if 
the birds, declining from their present beauti- 
ful custom, were to sleep and work, work and 
sleep, witli no holy hour between, as is too 
much the case witli the being who, according 
to his own pharisaic notion, is the only religious 
animal. 

In tlie season, however, the woods are by no 
nii^ans silent, even at noonday. Many species 
(such as the vireos and warblers, who get their 
living amid the foliage of trees) sing as they 
work ; while the thrushes and others, who keep 
business and pleasure more distinct, are often 
too happy to go many hours together without a 
hymn. I have even seen robins singing without 
quitting the turf ; but that is rather unusual, for 
somehow birds liave come to feel that they must 
get away from tlie ground when the lyrical mood 
is upon them. This may be a thing of sentiment 
(for is not language full of uncomplimentary 
allusions to earth and earthliness ?), but more 
likely it is prudential. The gift of song is no 



BIRD-SONGS. 49 

doubt a dangerous blessing to creatures who 
have so many enemies, and we can readily be- 
lieve that they have found it safer to be up 
where they can look about them while thus 
publishing their whereabouts. 

A very interesting exception to this rule is 
the savanna sparrow, who sings habitually from 
the ground. But even he shares the common 
feeling, and stretches himself to his full height 
with an earnestness which is almost laugh- 
able, in view of the result ; for his notes are 
hardly louder than a cricket's chirp. Probably 
he has fallen into this lowly habit from living 
in meadows and salt marshes, where bushes 
and trees are not readily to be come at ; and 
it is worth noticing that, in the case of the 
skylark and the white-winged blackbird, the 
same conditions have led to a result precisely 
opposite. The sparrow, we may presume, was 
originally of a humble disposition, and when 
nothing better offered itself for a singing-perch 
easily grew accustomed to standing upon a 
stone or a little lump of earth ; and this prac- 
tice, long persisted in, naturally had the effect 
to lessen the loudness of his voice. The sky- 
lark, on the other hand, when he did not read- 
ily find a tree-top, said to himself, "Never 
mind ! I have a pair of wings." And so the 
lark is famous, while the sparrow remains un- 
4 



60 BIRD-if^GS. 

heard-of, and is even mistaken for a grasshop- 
per. 

How true it is that the very things which 
dishearten one nature and break it down, only- 
help another to find out what it was made for I 
If you would foretell the development, either 
of a bird or of a man, it is not enough to know 
his environment, you must know also what 
there is in him. 

We have possibly made too much of the sa- 
vanna sparrow's innocent eccentricity. He fills 
his place, and fills it well ; and who knows but 
that he may yet outshine the skylark ? There 
is a promise, I believe, for those who humble 
themselves. But what shall be said of species 
which do not even try to sing, and that, not- 
withstanding they have all the structural pecul- 
iarities of singing birds, and must, almost cer- 
tainly, have come from ancestors who were 
singers ? We have already mentioned the 
house sparrow, whose defect is the more mys- 
terious on account of his belonging to so highly 
musical a family. But he was never accused of 
not being noisy enough, while we have one 
bird who, though he is classed with the oscines, 
passes his life in almost unbroken silence. Of 
course I refer to the waxwing, or cedar-bird, 
whose faint, sibilant whisper can scarcely be 
thought to contradict the foregoing description. 



BIRD-SONGS. 51 

By what strange freak he has lapsed into this 
ghostly habit, nobody knows. I make no ac- 
count of the insinuation that he gave up music 
because it hindered his success in cherry-steal- 
ing. He likes cherries, it is true ; and who can 
blame him ? But he would need to work hard 
to steal more than does that indefatigable song- 
ster, the robin. I feel sure he has some better 
reason than this for his Quakerish conduct. 
But, however he came by his stillness, it is 
likely that by this time he plumes himself upon 
it. Silence is golden, he thinks, the supreme 
result of the highest aesthetic culture. Those 
loud creatures, the thrushes and finches ! What 
a vulgar set they are, to be sure, the more 's 
the pity ! Certainly if he does not reason in 
some such way, bird nature is not so human as 
we have given it credit for being. Besides, 
the waxwing has an uncommon appreciation 
of the decorous ; at least, we must think so 
if we are able to credit a story of Nuttall's. 
He declares that a Boston gentleman, whose 
name he gives, saw one of a company of these 
birds capture an insect, and offer it to his neigh- 
bor ; he, however, delicately declined the dainty 
bit, and it was offered to the next, who, in 
turn, was equally polite ; and the morsel actu- 
ally passed back and forth along the line, till, 
finally, one of the flock was persuaded to eat it. 



62 bird-Wngs. 

I have never seen anything equal to this ; but 
one day, happening to stop under a low cedar, 
I discovered right over my head a waxwing's 
nest with the mother-bird sitting upon it, while 
her mate was perched beside her on the branch. 
He was barely out of my reach, but he did not 
move a muscle ; and although he uttered no 
sound, his behavior said as plainly as possible, 
"What do you expect to do hereP Don't you 
see /am standing guard over this nest?" I 
should be ashamed not to be able to add that I 
respected his dignity and courage, and left him 
and his castle unmolested. 

Observations so discursive as these can hardly 
be finished ; they must break off abruptly, or 
else go on forever. Let us make an end, there- 
fore, with expressing our hope that the cedar- 
bird, already so handsome and chivalrous, will 
yet take to himself a song ; one sweet and orig- 
inal, worthy to go with his soft satin coat, his 
ornaments of sealing-wax, and his magnificent 
top-knot. Let him do that, and he shall al- 
ways be made welcome ; yes, even though he 
come in force and in cherry-time. 



CHAEACTEE IN FEATHEES. 



The finger of God hath left an inscription upon all his works, 
not graphical or composed of letters, but of their several forms, 
constitutions, parts, and operations, which, aptly joined together, 
do make one word that doth express their natures. By these let- 
ters God calls the stars by their names ; and by this alphabet 
Adam assigned to every creature a name peculiar to its nature. 

Sir Thomas Browne. 



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS. 



In this economically governed world the same 
thing serves many uses. Who will take upon 
himself to enumerate the offices of sunlight, or 
water, or indeed of any object whatever ? Be- 
cause we know it to be good for this or that, it 
by no means follows that we have discovered 
what it was made for. What we have found 
out is perhaps only something by the way ; as 
if a man should think the sun were created for 
his own private convenience. In some moods 
it seems doubtful whether we are yet acquainted 
with the real value of anything. But, be that 
as it may, we need not scruple to admire so 
much as our ignorance permits us to see of the 
workings of this divine frugality. The piece of 
woodland, for instance, which skirts the village, 
— how various are its ministries to the inhab- 
itants, each of whom, without forethought or 
question, takes the benefit proper to himself ! 
The poet saunters there as in a true Holy Land, 
to have his heart cooled and stilled. Mr. A. 



66 CHARACTER ^ FEATHERS. 

and Mr. B., who hold the deeds of the " prop- 
erty," walk through it to look at the timber, 
with an eye to dollars and cents. The botanist 
has his errand there, the zoologist his, and the 
child his. Oftenest of all, perhaps (for barba- 
rism dies hard, and even yet the ministers of 
Christ find it a capital sport to murder small 
fishes), — oftenest of all comes the man, poor 
soul, who thinks of the forest as of a place to 
which he may go when he wishes to amuse him- 
self by killing something. Meanwhile, the rab- 
bits and the squirrels, the hawks and the owls, 
look upon all such persons as no better than in- 
truders (do not the woods belong to those who 
live in them ?) ; while nobody remembers the 
meteorologist, who nevertheless smiles in his 
sleeve at all these one-sided notions, and says to 
himself that he knows the truth of the matter. 

So is it with everything; and with all the 
rest, so is it with the birds. The interest they 
excite is of all grades, from that which looks 
upon them as items of millinery, up to that of 
the makers of ornithological systems, who ran- 
sack the world for specimens, and who have no 
doubt that the chief end of a bird is to be named 
and catalogued, — the more synonyms the bet- 
ter. Somewhere between these two extremes 
comes the person whose interest in birds is 
friendly rather than scientific ; who has little 



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS. 67 

taste for shooting, and an aversion from dissect- 
ing; who delights in the living creatures them- 
selves, and counts a bird in the bush worth two 
in the hand. Such a person, if he is intelligent, 
makes good use of the best works on ornithol- 
ogy ; he would not know how to get along with- 
out them ; but he studies most the birds them- 
selves, and after a while he begins to associate 
them on a plan of his own. Not that he dis- 
trusts the approximate correctness of the re- 
ceived classification, or ceases to find it of daily 
service ; but though it were as accurate as the 
multiplication table, it is based (and rightly, no 
doubt) on anatomical structure alone ; it rates 
birds as bodies, and nothing else : while to the 
person of whom we are speaking birds are, first 
of all, souls ; his interest in them is, as we say, 
personal ; and we are none of us in the habit of 
grouping our friends according to height, or 
complexion, or any other physical peculiarity. 

But it is not proposed in this paper to attempt 
a new classification of any sort, even the most 
unscientific and fanciful. All I am to do is to 
set down at random a few studies in such a 
method as I have indicated ; in short, a few 
studies in the temperaments of birds. Nor, in 
making this attempt, am I unmindful how elu- 
sive of analysis traits of character are, and how 
diverse is the impression which the same per- 



68 CHARACTER W FEATHERS. 

sonalifcy produces upon different observers. In 
matters of this kind every judgment is largely 
a question of emphasis and proportion ; and, 
moreover, what we find in our friends depends 
in great part on what we have in ourselves. 
This I do not forget ; and therefore I foresee 
that others will discover in the birds of whom I 
write many things that I miss, and perhaps will 
miss some things which I have treated as patent 
or even conspicuous. It remains only for each 
to testify what he has seen, and at the end to 
confess that a soul, even the soul of a bird, is 
after all a mystery. 

Let our first example, then, be the common 
black-capped titmouse, or chickadee. He is, par 
excellence^ the bird of the merry heart. There 
is a notion current, to be sure, that all birds are 
merry ; but that is one of those second-hand 
opinions which a man who begins to observe for 
himself soon finds it necessary to give up. 
With many birds life is a hard struggle. Ene- 
mies are numerous, and the food supply is too 
often scanty. Of some species it is probable 
that very few die in their beds. But the chick- 
adee seems to be exempt from all forebodings. 
His coat is thick, his heart is brave, and, what- 
ever may happen, something will be found to 
eat. " Take no thought for the morrow " is his 
creed, which he accepts, not " for substance of 



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS, 69 

doctrine," but literally. No matter how bitter 
the wind or how deep the snow, you will never 
find the chickadee, as the saying is, under the 
weather. It is this perennial good humor, I sup- 
pose, which makes other birds so fond of his 
companionship ; and their example might well 
be heeded by persons who suffer from fits of de- 
pression. Such unfortunates could hardly do 
better than to court the society of the joyous tit. 
His whistles and chirps, his graceful feats of 
climbing and hanging, and withal his engaging 
familiarity (for, of course, such good-nature as 
his could not consist with suspiciousness) would 
most likely send them home in a more Christian 
mood. The time will come, we may hope, 
when doctors will prescribe bird-gazing instead 
of blue-pill. 

To illustrate the chickadee's trustfulness, I 
may mention that a friend of mine captured one 
in a butterfly-net, and, carrying him into the 
house, let him loose in the sitting-room. The 
little stranger was at home immediately, and 
seeing the window full of plants, proceeded to 
go over them carefully, picking off the lice with 
which such window-gardens are always more or 
less infested. A little later he was taken into 
my friend's lap, and soon he climbed up to his 
shoulder ; where, after hopping about for a few 
minutes on his coat-collar, he selected a com- 



60 CHARACTER 1^ FEATHERS. 

fortable roosting place, tucked his head under 
his wing, and went to sleep, and slept on un- 
disturbed while carried from one room to an- 
other. Probably the chickadee's nature is not 
of the deepest. I have never seen him when 
his joy rose to ecstasy. Still his feelings are not 
shallow, and the faithfulness of the pair to each 
other and to their offspring is of the highest 
order. The female has sometimes to be taken 
off the nest, and even to be held in the hand, 
before the eggs can be examined. 

Our American goldfinch is one of the loveliest 
of birds. With his elegant plumage, his rhyth- 
mical, undulatory flight, his beautiful song, and 
his more beautiful soul, he ought to be one of 
the best beloved, if not one of the most famous ; 
but he has never yet had half his deserts. He 
is like the chickadee, and yet different. He is 
not so extremely confiding, nor should I call him 
merry. But he is always cheerful, in spite of 
his so-called plaintive note, from which he gets 
one of his names, and always amiable. So far 
as I know, he never utters a harsh sound ; even 
the young ones, asking for food, use only smooth, 
musical tones. During the pairing season his 
delight often becomes rapturous. To see him 
then, hovering and singing, — or, better still, to 
see the devoted pair hovering together, billing 
and singing, — is enough to do even a cynic good. 



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS. 61 

The happy lovers ! They have never read it in 
a book, but it is written on their hearts, — 

" The gentle law, that each should be 
The other's heaven and harmony." 

The goldfinch has the advantage of the titmouse 
in several respects, but he lacks that spright- 
liness, that exceeding light-heartedness, which 
is the chickadee's most endearing characteristic. 
For the sake of a strong contrast, we may 
look next at the brown thrush, known to farm- 
ers as the planting-bird and to ornithologists 
as Harporhynchus rufus ; a staid and solemn 
Puritan, whose creed is the Preacher's, — " Van- 
ity of vanities, all is vanity." No frivolity and 
merry-making for him ! After his brief annual 
period of intensely passionate song, he does pen- 
ance for the remainder of the year, — skulking 
about, on the ground or near it, silent and 
gloomy. He seems ever on the watch against 
an enemy, and, unfortunately for his comfort, he 
has nothing of the reckless, bandit spirit, such 
as the jay possesses, which goes to make a mod- 
erate degree of danger almost a pastime. Not 
that he is without courage ; when his nest is in 
question he will take great risks ; but in general 
his manner is dispirited, " sicklied o'er with the 
pale cast of thought." Evidently he feels 

" The heavy and the weary weight 
Of all this unintelligible world; " 



62 CHARACTER^ FEATHERS. 

and it would not be surprising if he sometimes 
raised the question, " Is life wortli living? " It 
is the worst feature of his case that his melan- 
choly is not of the sort which, softens and re- 
fines the nature. There is no suggestion of 
saintliness about it. In fact, I am convinced 
that this long-tailed thrush has a constitutional 
taint of vulgarity. His stealthy, underhand 
manner is one mark of this, and the same thing 
comes out again in his music. Full of passion 
as his singing is (and we have hardly anything 
to compare with it in this regard), yet the lis- 
tener cannot help smiling now and then ; the 
very finest passage is followed so suddenly by 
some uncouth guttural note, or by some whim- 
sical drop from the top to the bottom of the 
scale. 

In neighborly association with the brown 
thrush is the towhee bunting, or chewink. The 
two choose the same places for their summer 
homes, and, unless I am deceived, they often 
migrate in company. But though they are so 
much together, and in certain of their ways 
very much alike, their habits of mind are widely 
dissimilar. The towhee is of a peculiarly even 
disposition. I have seldom heard him scold, or 
use any note less good-natured and musical than 
his pleasant cherawinh. I have never detected 
him in a quarrel such as nearly all birds are 



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS. 63 

once In a while guilty of, ungracious as it may- 
seem to mention the fact ; nor have I ever seen 
him hopping nervously about and twitching his 
tail, as is the manner of most species, when, for 
instance, their nests are approached. Nothing 
seems to annoy him. At the same time, he is 
not full of continual merriment like the chicka- 
dee, nor occasionally in a rapture like the gold- 
finch. Life with him is pitched in a low key ; 
comfortable rather than cheerful, and never 
jubilant. And yet, for all the towhee's careless 
demeanor, you soon begin to suspect him of 
being deep. He appears not to mind you ; he 
keeps on scratching among the dry leaves as if 
he had no thought of being driven away by 
your presence ; but in a minute or two you look 
that way again, and he is not there. If you 
pass near his nest, he makes not a tenth part of 
the ado which a brown thrush would make in 
the same circumstances, but (partly for this 
reason) you will find half a dozen nests of the 
thrush sooner than one of his. With all his 
simplicity and frankness, which puts him in 
happy contrast with the thrush, he knows as 
well as anybody how to keep his own counsel. 
I have seen him with his mate for two or three 
days together about the flower-beds in the Bos- 
ton Public Garden, and so far as appeared they 
were feeding as unconcernedly as though they 



64 CHARACTEfffffM FEATHERS. 

had been on their own native heath, amid the 
scrub-oaks and huckleberry bushes ; but after 
their departure it was remembered that they 
had not once been heard to utter a sound. If 
self-possession be four fifths of good manners, 
our red-eyed Pipilo may certainly pass for a 
gentleman. 

We have now named four birds, the chickadee, 
the goldfinch, the brown thrush, and the to- 
whee, — birds so diverse in plumage that no 
eye could fail to discriminate them at a glance. 
But the four differ no more truly in bodily shape 
and dress than they do in that inscrutable some- 
thing which V7e call temperament, disposition. 
If the soul of each were separated from the body 
and made to stand out in sight, those of us who 
have really known the birds in the flesh would 
have no difficulty in saying, This is the titmouse, 
and this the towhee. It would be with them as 
we hope it will be with our friends in the next 
world, whom we shall recognize there because 
we knew them here ; that is, we knew them^ 
and not merely the bodies they lived in. This 
kind of familiarity with birds has no necessary 
connection with ornithology. Personal inti- 
macy and a knowledge of anatomy are still two 
different things. As we have all heard, ours 
is an age of science ; but, thank fortune, mat- 
ters have not yet gone so far that a man must 



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS, 65 

take a course in anthropology before he can 
love his neighbor. 

It is a truth only too patent that taste and 
conscience are sometimes at odds. One man 
wears his faults so gracefully that we can hardly 
help falling in love with them, while another, 
alas, makes even virtue itself repulsive. I am 
moved to this commonplace reflection by think- 
ing of the blue jay, a bird of doubtful character, 
but one for whom, nevertheless, it is impossible 
not to feel a sort of affection and even of re- 
spect. He is quite as suspicious as the brown 
thrush, and his instinct for an invisible perch is 
perhaps as unerring as the cuckoo's ; and yet, 
even when he takes to hiding, his manner is 
not without a dash of boldness. He has a most 
irascible temper, also, but, unlike the thrasher, 
he does not allow his ill-humor to degenerate 
into chronic sulkiness. Instead, he flies into a 
furious passion, and is done with it. Some say 
that on such occasions he swears, and I have 
myself seen him when it was plain that nothing 
except a natural impossibility kept him from 
tearing his hair. His larynx would make him 
a singer, and his mental capacity is far above 
the average ; but he has perverted his gifts, till 
his music is nothing but noise and his talent 
nothing but smartness. A like process of dep- 
ravation the world has before now witnessed in 

6 



66 CHAR ACT EI^N FEATHERS. 

political life, when a man of brilliant natural 
endowments has yielded to low ambitions and 
stooped to unworthy means, till what was 
meant to be a statesman turns out to be a dem- 
agogue. But perhaps we wrong our handsome 
friend, fallen angel though he be, to speak thus 
of him. Most likely he would resent the com- 
parison, and I do not press it. We must admit 
that juvenile sportsmen have persecuted him 
unduly ; and when a creature cannot show him- 
self without being shot at, he may be pardoned 
for a little misanthropy. Christians as we are, 
how many of us could stand such a test ? In 
these circumstances, it is a point in the jay's 
favor that he still has, what is rare with birds, 
a sense of humor, albeit it is humor of a rather 
grim sort, — the sort which expends itself in 
practical jokes and uncivil epithets. He has 
discovered the school-boy's secret : that for the 
expression of unadulterated derision there is 
nothing like the short sound of a, prolonged 
into a drawl. YaA, yah., he cries ; and some- 
times, as you enter the woods, you may hear 
him shouting so as to be heard for half a mile, 
" Here comes a fool with a gun ; look out for 
him ! " 

It is natural to think of the shrike in connec- 
tion with the jay, but the two have points of 
unlikeness no less than of resemblance. The 



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS. 67 

shrike is a taciturn bird. If he were a politi- 
cian, he would rely chiefly on what is known 
as the " still hunt," although he too can scream 
loudly enough on occasion. His most salient 
trait is his impudence, but even that is of a 
negative type. " Who are you," he says, 
" that I should be at the trouble to insult 
you ? " He has made a study of the value of 
silence as an indication of contempt, and is al- 
most human in his ability to stare straight by 
a person whose presence it suits him to ignore. 
His imperturbability is wonderful. Watch 
him as closely as you please, you will never 
discover what he is thinking about. Under- 
take, for instance, now that the fellow is sing- 
ing from the top of a small tree only a few rods 
from where you are standing, — undertake to 
settle the long dispute whether his notes are 
designed to decoy small birds within his reach. 
Those whistles and twitters, — hear them ! So 
miscellaneous ! so different from anything which 
would be expected from a bird of his size and 
general disposition ! so very like the notes of 
sparrows ! They must be imitative. You be- 
gin to feel quite sure of it. But just at this 
point the sounds cease, and you look up to dis- 
cover that Collurio has fallen to preening his 
feathers in the most listless manner imaginable. 
" Look at me," he says ; " do I act like one on 



68 CHARACTEli^N FEATHERS. 

the watch for his prey ? Indeed, sir, I wish 
the innocent sparrows no harm ; and besides, 
if you must know it, I ate an excellent game- 
breakfast two hours ago, while laggards like 
you were still abed." In the winter, which is 
the only season when I have been able to ob- 
serve him, the shrike is to the last degree un- 
social, and I have known him to stay for a 
month in one spot all by himself, spending a 
good part of every day perched upon a tele- 
graph wire. He ought not to be very happy, 
with such a disposition, one would think ; but 
he seems to be well contented, and sometimes 
his spirits are fairly exuberant. Perhaps, as 
the phrase is, he enjoys himself; in which case 
he certainly has the advantage of most of us, 
— unless, indeed, we are easily pleased. At 
any rate, he is philosopher enough to appreci- 
ate the value of having few wants ; and I am 
not sure but that he anticipated the vaunted 
discovery of Teufelsdrockh, that the fraction of 
life may be increased by lessening the denomi- 
nator. But even the stoical shrike is not with- 
out his epicurean weakness. When he has 
killed a sparrow, he eats the brains first ; after 
that, if he is still hungry, he devours the coarser 
and less savory parts. In this, however, he 
only shares the well-nigh universal inconsis- 
tency. There are never many thorough-going 



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS. 69 

stoics in the world. Epictetus declared with an 
oath that he should be glad to see one.^ To 
take everything as equally good, to know no 
difference between bitter and sweet, penury and 
plenty, slander and praise, — this is a great 
attainment, a Nirvana to which few can hope 
to arrive. Some wise man has said (and the 
remark has more meaning than may at once 
appear) that dying is usually one of the last 
things which men do in this world. 

Against the foil of the butcher-bird's stolid- 
ity we may set the inquisitive, garrulous tem- 
perament of the white-eyed vireo and the jqI- 
low-breasted chat. The vireo is hardly larger 
than the goldfinch, but let him be in one of his 
conversational moods, and he will fill a smilax 
thicket with noise enough for two or three cat- 
birds. Meanwhile he keeps his eye upon you, 
and seems to be inviting your attention to his 
loquacious abilities. The chat is perhaps even 
more voluble. Staccato whistles and snarls 
follow each other at most extraordinary inter- 
vals of pitch, and the attempt at showing off is 
sometimes unmistakable. Occasionally he takes 
to the air, and flies from one tree to another ; 
teetering his body and jerking his tail, in an 

1 This does not harmonize exactly with a statement which Em- 
erson makes somewhere, to the effect that all the stoics were stoics 
indeed. But Epictetus had never lived in Concord. 



70 CHARACTER Hf FEATHERS. 

indescribable fashion, and chattering all the 
while. His " inner consciousness " at such a 
moment would be worth perusing. Possibly 
he has some feeling for the grotesque. But I 
suspect not ; probably what we laugh at as the 
antics of a clown is all sober earnest to him. 

At best, it is very little we can know about 
what is passing in a bird's mind. We label 
him with two or three sesquipedalia verha^ give 
his territorial range, describe his notes and his 
habits of nidification, and fancy we have ren- 
dered an account of the bird. But how should 
we like to be inventoried in such a style? 
*' His name was John Smith ; he lived in Bos- 
ton, in a three-story brick house ; he had a bar- 
itone voice, but was not a good singer." All 
true enough ; but do you call that a man's bi- 
ography ? 

The four birds last spoken of are all wanting 
in refinement. The jay and the shrike are 
wild and rough, not to say barbarous, while the 
white-eyed vireo and the chat have the charac- 
ter which commonly goes by the name of od- 
dity. All four are interesting for their strong 
individuality and their picturesqueness, but it 
is a pleasure to turn from them to creatures 
like our four common New England Hylocich- 
Ice^ or small thrushes. These are the real pa- 
tricians. With their modest but rich dress, 



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS. 71 

and their dignified, quiet demeanor, they stand 
for the true aristocratic spirit. Like all genu- 
ine aristocrats, they carry an air of distinction, 
of which no one who approaches them can long 
remain unconscious. When you go into their 
haunts they do not appear so much frightened 
as offended. " Why do you intrude ? " they 
seem to say ; " these are our woods ; " and they 
bow you out with all ceremony. Their songs 
are in keeping with this character ; leisurely, 
unambitious, and brief, but in beauty of voice 
and in high musical quality excelling all other 
music of the woods. However, I would not 
exaggerate, and I have not found even these 
thrushes perfect. The hermit, who is my fa- 
vorite of the four, has a habit of slowly raising 
and depressing his tail when his mind is dis- 
turbed — a trick of which it is likely he is un- 
conscious, but which, to say the least, is not a 
mark of good breeding ; and the Wilson, while 
every note of his song breathes of spirituality, 
has nevertheless a most vulgar alarm call, a 
petulant, nasal, one-syllabled yeork. I do not 
know anything so grave against the wood 
thrush or the Swainson ; although when I have 
fooled the former with decoy whistles, I have 
found him more inquisitive than seemed alto- 
gether becoming to a bird of his quality. But 
character without flaw is hardly to be insisted 



72 CHARACTER ^FEATHERS. 

on by sons of Adam, and, after all deductions 
are made, the claim of the Hylocichloe to noble 
blood can never be seriously disputed. I have 
spoken of the four together, but each is clearly 
distinguished from all the others ; and this I 
believe to be as true of mental traits as it is of 
details of plumage and song. No doubt, in 
general, they are much alike ; we may say that 
they have the same qualities ; but a close ac- 
quaintance will reveal that the qualities have 
been mixed in different proportions, so that the 
total result in each case is a personality strictly 
unique. 

And what is true of the Hylocichloe is true 
of every bird that flies. Anatomy and dress 
and even voice aside, who does not feel the dis- 
similarity between the cat-bird and the robin, 
and still more the difference, amounting to con- 
trast, between the cat-bird and the bluebird ? 
Distinctions of color and form are what first 
strike the eye, but on better acquaintance these 
are felt to be superficial and comparatively un- 
important ; the difference is not one of outside 
appearance. It is his gentle, high-bred manner 
and not his azure coat, which makes the blue- 
bird ; and the cat-bird would be a cat-bird in 
no matter what garb, so long as he retained his 
obtrusive self-consciousness and his prying, 
busy-body spirit ; all of which, being inter- 



CHARACTER IN FEATHERS. 73 

preted, comes, it may be, to no more than this, 
" Fine feathers don't make fine birds." 

Even in families containing many closely 
allied species, I believe that every species has 
its own proper character, which sufficient inter- 
course would enable us to make a due report 
of. Nobody ever saw a song-sparrow manifest- 
ing the spirit of a chipper, and I trust it will not 
be in my day that any of our American spar- 
rows are found emulating the virtues of their 
obstreperous iuimigrant cousin. Of course it is 
true of birds, as of men, that some have much 
more individuality than others. But know any 
bird or any man well enough, and he will prove 
to be himself, and nobody else. To know the 
ten thousand birds of the world well enough to 
see how, in bodily structure, habit of life, and 
mental characteristics, every one is different 
from every other is the long and delightful task 
which is set before the ornithologist. 

But this is not all. The ornithology of the 
future must be ready to give an answer to the 
further question how these divergences of anat- 
omy and temperament originated. How came 
the chickadee by his endless fund of happy 
sj^irits ? Whence did the towhee derive his 
equanimity, and the brown thrush his saturnine 
temper ? The waxwing and the vireo have the 
same vocal organs ; why should the first do 



74 CHARACTER #r FEATHERS. 

nothing but whisper, while the second is so 
loud and voluble ? Why is one bird belligerent 
and another peaceable ; one barbarous and an- 
other civilized ; one grave and another gay ? 
Who can tell ? We can make here and there a 
plausible conjecture. We know that the be- 
havior of the blue jay varies greatly in different 
parts of the country, in consequence of the dif- 
ferent treatment which he receives. We judge 
that the chickadee, from the peculiarity of his 
feeding habits, is more certain than most birds 
are of finding a meal whenever he is hungry ; 
and that, we are assured from experience, goes 
a long way toward making a body contented. 
We think it likely that the brown thrush is at 
some special disadvantage in this respect, or has 
some peculiar enemies warring upon him ; in 
which case it is no more than we might expect 
that he should be a pessimist. And, with all 
our ignorance, we are yet sure that everything 
has a cause, and we would fain hold by the 
brave word of Emerson, " Undoubtedly we 
have no questions to ask which are unanswer- 
able." 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 



Our music 's in the hills. 

Emerson. 



IX THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 



It Wivs early in June when I set out for my 
thini visit to the White Mountains, and the 
ticket-seller and the bagi^age-miister in turn as- 
sured me that the Crawford House, which I 
named as my destination, was not yet open. 
They spoke, too, in the tone which men use 
when they mention something which, but for 
uncommon stupidity, you would have known 
beforehand. The kindly sarcasm missed its 
m;irk, however. I was aware that the hotel 
was not yet ready for the "general public.'' 
But I said to myself that, for once at least, I 
was not to be included in that unfi\shionably 
promiscuous comp:\ny. The vulgar crowd must 
wait, of course. For the present the mountains, 
in reporters* language, were '*on private view ; *' 
and despite the ignorance of railway officials, I 
was one of the elect. In plainer phrase, I had 
in my pocket a letter from the manager of the 
famous inn before mentioned, in which he prom- 
ised to do what he could for mv entertainment, 



78 IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 

even though he was not yet, as he said, keeping 
a hotel. 

Possibly I made too much of a small matter ; 
but it pleased me to feel that this visit of mine 
was to be of a peculiarly intimate character, — 
almost, indeed, as if Mount Washington him- 
self had bidden me to private audience. 

Compelled to wait three or four hours in 
North Conway, I improved the opportunity to 
stroll once more down into the lovely Saco 
meadows, whose " green felicity " was just now 
at its height. Here, perched upon a fence-rail, 
in the shadow of an elm, I gazed at the snow- 
crowned Mount Washington range, while the 
bobolinks and savanna sparrows made music on 
every side. The song of the bobolinks dropped 
from above, and the microphonic tune of the 
sparrows came up from the grass, — sky and 
earth keeping holiday together. Almost I 
could have believed myself in Eden. But, 
alas, even the birds themselves were long since 
shut out of that garden of innocence, and as I 
started back toward the village a crow went 
hurrying past me, with a kingbird in hot pur- 
suit. The latter was more fortunate than us- 
ual, or more plucky ; actually alighting on the 
crow's back and riding for some distance. I 
could not distinguish his motions, — he was too 
far away for that, — but I wished him joy of 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 79 

his victory, and grace to improve it to the full. 
For it is scandalous that a bird of the crow's 
cloth should be a thief; and so, although I 
reckon him among my friends, — in truth, be- 
cause I do so, — I am always able to take it 
patiently when I see him chastised for his fault. 
Imperfect as we all know each other to be, it is 
a comfort to feel that few of us are so alto- 
gether bad as not to take more or less pleasure 
in seeing a neighbor's character improved un- 
der a course of moderately painful discipline. 

At Bartlett word came that the passenger 
car would go no further, but that a freight 
train would soon start, on which, if I cliose, I 
could continue my journey. Accordingly, I 
rode up through the Notch on a platform car, 
— a mode of conveyance which I can heartily 
and in all good conscience recommend. There 
is no crowd of exclaiming tourists, the train of 
necessity moves slowly, and the open platform 
offers no obstruction to the view. For a time 
I had a seat, which after a little two strangers 
ventured to occupy with me ; for " it 's an ill 
wind that blows nobody good," and there hap- 
pened to be on the car one piece of baggage, — 
a coffin, inclosed in a pine box. Our sitting 
upon it could not harm either it or us ; nor did 
we mean any disrespect to the man, whoever 
he might be, whose body was to be buried in it. 



80 IN THE WEI^ MOUNTAINS. 

Judging the dead charitably, as in duty bound, 
I bad no doubt he would have been glad if he 
could have seen his " narrow house " put to 
such a use. So we made ourselves comfortable 
with it, until, at an invisible station, it was 
taken off. Then we were obliged to stand, or 
to retreat into a miserable small box-car behind 
us. The platform would lurch a little now and 
then, and I, for one, was not experienced as a 
" train hand ; " but we all kept our places till 
the Frankenstein trestle was reached. Here, 
where for five hundred feet we could look down 
upon the jagged rocks eighty feet below us, 
one of the trio suddenly had an errand into the 
box-car aforesaid, leaving the platform to the 
other stranger and me. All in all, the ride 
through the Notch had never before been so 
enjoyable, I thought; and late in the evening 
I found myself once again at the Crawford 
House, and in one of the best rooms, — as well 
enough I might be, being the only guest in the 
house. 

The next morning, before it was really light, 
I was lying awake looking at Mount Webster, 
while through the open window came the loud, 
cheery song of the white-throated sparrows. 
The hospitable creatures seemed to be inviting 
me to come at once into their woods ; but I 
knew only too well that, if the invitation were 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 81 

accepted, they would every one of them take 
to hiding like bashful children. 

The white-throat is one of the birds for 
whom I cherish a special liking. On my first 
trip to the mountains I jumped off the train for 
a moment at Bartlett, and had hardly touched 
the ground before I heard his familiar call. 
Here, then, was Mr. Peabody at home. Season 
after season he had camped near me in Massa- 
chusetts, and many a time I had been gladdened 
by his lively serenade ; now he greeted me from 
his own native woods. So far as my observa- 
tions have gone, he is common throughout the 
mountain region ; and that in spite of the 
standard guide-book, which puts him down as 
patronizing the Glen House almost exclusively. 
He knows the routes too well to need any guide, 
however, and may be excused for his ignorance 
of the official programme. It is wonderful how 
shy he is, — the more wonderful, because, dur- 
ing his migrations, his manner is so very differ- 
ent. Then, even in a city park you may watch 
him at your leisure, while his loud, clear whis- 
tle is often to be heard rising above a din of 
horse-cars and heavy wagons. But here, in his 
summer quarters, you will listen to his song a 
hundred times before you once catch a glimpse 
of the singer. At first thought it seems strange 
that a bird should be most at home when he is 



82 IN THE WHI'M^ MOUNTAINS. 

away from home ; but in the one case he has 
nothing but his own safety to consult, while in 
the other he is thinking of those whose lives 
are more to him than his own, and whose hid- 
ing-place he is every moment on the alert to 
conceal. 

In Massachusetts we do not expect to find 
sparrows in deep woods. They belong in fields 
and pastures, in roadside thickets, or by fence- 
rows and old stone-walls bordered with bar- 
berry bushes and alders. But these white- 
throats are children of the wilderness. It is 
one charm of their music that it always comes, 
or seems to come, from such a distance, — from 
far up the mountain-side, or from the inaccessi- 
ble depths of some ravine. I shall not soon for- 
get its wild beauty as it rose out of the spruce 
forests below me, while I was enjoying an 
evening promenade, all by myself, over the 
long, flat summit of Moosilauke. From his 
habit of singing late at night this sparrow is in 
some places known as the nightingale. His 
more common name is the Peabody bird ; while 
a Jefferson man, who was driving me over the 
Cherry Mountain road, called him the Peverly 
bird, and told me the following story : — 

A farmer named Peverly was walking about 
his fields one spring morning, trying to make 
up his mind whether the time had come to put 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 83 

in his wheat. The question was important, 
and he was still in a deep quandary, when a 
bird spoke up out of the wood and said, '' Sow 
wheat, Peverly, Peverly, Peverly ! — Sow wheat, 
Peverly, Peverl}^, Peverly ! " That settled the 
matter. The wheat was sown, and in the fall 
a most abundant harvest was gathered ; and 
ever since then this little feathered oracle has 
been known as the Peverly bird. 

We have improved on the custom of the an- 
cients : they examined a bird's entrails ; we lis- 
ten to his song. Who says the Yankee is not 
wiser than the Greek ? 

But I was lying abed in the Crawford House 
when the voice of ZonotricMa alhicollis sent 
my thoughts thus astray, from Moosilauke to 
Delphi. That day and the two following were 
passed in roaming about the woods near the 
hotel. The pretty painted trillium was in blos- 
som, as was also the dark purple species, and 
the hobble-bush showed its broad white cymes 
in all directions. Here and there was the mod- 
est little spring beauty (^Claytonia Carolini- 
ana'), and not far from the Elephant's Head I 
discovered my first and only patch of dicentra, 
with its delicate dissected leaves and its oddly 
shaped petals of white and pale yellow. The 
false mitrewort (^Tiarella cordifoUa') was in 
flower likewise, and the spur which is cut off 



84 IN THE WHIl^ MOUNTAINS. 

Mount Willard by the railroad was all aglow 
with rhodora, — a perfect flower-garden, on the 
monochromatic plan now so much in vogue. 
Along the edge of the rocks on the summit of 
Mount Willard a great profusion of the com- 
mon saxifrage was waving in the fresh breeze : 

" Ten thousand saw I at a glance, 
Tossing their heads in sprightlj' dance." 

On the lower parts of the mountains, the foli- 
age was already well out, while the upper parts 
were of a fine purplish tint, which at first I 
was unable to account for, but which I soon 
discovered to be due to the fact that the trees 
at that height were still only in bud. 

A notable feature of tlie White Mountain 
forests is the absence of oaks and hickories. 
These tough, hard woods would seem to have 
been created on purpose to stand against wind 
and cold. But no ; the hills are covered with 
the fragile poplars and birches and spruces, 
with never an oak or hickory among them. I 
suspect, indeed, that it is the very softness of 
the former which gives them their advantage. 
For this, as I suppose, is correlated with rapid 
growth ; and where the summer is very short, 
speed may count for more than firmness of 
texture, especially during the first one or two 
years of the plant's life. Trees, like men, lose 
in one way what they gain in another ; or, in 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 85 

other words, they "have the defects of their 
qualities." Probably Paul's confession, " When 
I am weak, then am I strong," is after all only 
the personal statement of a general law, as true 
of a poplar as of a Christian. For we all be- 
lieve (do we not?) that the world is a uni- 
verse, governed throughout by one Mind, so 
that whatever holds in one part is good every- 
where. 

But it was June, and the birds, who were 
singing from daylight till dark, would have the 
most of my attention. It was pleasant to find 
here two comparatively rare warblers, of whom 
I had before had only casual glimpses, — the 
mourning warbler and the bay-breasted. The 
former was singing his loud but commonplace 
ditty within a few rods of the piazza on one 
side of the house, while his congener, the Mary- 
land yellow-throat, was to be heard on the other 
side, along with the black-cap (^Dendrosca stri- 
ata'), the black-and-yellow, and the Canadian 
flycatcher. The mourning warbler's song, as 
I heard it, was like this : Whit whit ivhit, wit 
wit. The first three notes were deliberate and 
loud, on one key, and without accent. The 
last two were pitched a little lower, and were 
shorter, with the accent on the first of the pair ; 
they were thinner in tone than the opening 
triplet, as is meant to be indicated by the dif- 



86 IN THE WHIT^ MOUNTAINS. 

ference of spelling.^ Others of the family were 
the golden - crowned thrush, the small -billed 
water -thrush, the yellow-rumped, the Black- 
burnian (with his characteristic zillup, zillup, 
ziUup')^ the black-throated green, the black- 
throated blue (the last with his loud, coarse 
Jcree^ Jcree^ kree)^ the redstart, and the elegant 
blue yellow-back. Altogether, they were a gor- 
geous company. 

But the chief singers were the olive-backed 
thrushes and the winter wrens. I should be 
glad to know on just what principle the olive- 
backs and their near relatives, the hermits, dis- 
tribute themselves throughout the mountain 
region. Each species seems to have its own 
sections, to which it returns year after year, 
and the olive-backed, being, as is well known, 
the more northern species of the two, naturally 
prefers the more elevated situations. I have 
found the latter abundant near the Profile 
House, and for three seasons it has had exclu- 
sive possession of the White Mountain Notch, — 
so far, at least, as I have been able to discover.^ 
The hermits, on the other hand, frequent such 
places as North Conway, Gorham, Jefferson, 
Bethlehem, and the vicinity of the Flume. 

1 He is said to have another song, beautiful and wren-like ; but 
that I have never heard. 

2 This is making no account of the gray-cheeked thrushes, who 
are found only near the tops of the mountains. 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 87 

Only once have I found the two species in the 
same neighborhood. That was near the Breezy- 
Point House, on the side of Mount Moosilauke ; 
but this place is so peculiarly romantic, with its 
noble amphitheatre of hills, that I could not 
wonder neither species was willing to yield the 
ground entirely to the other ; and even here it 
was to be noticed that the hermits were in or 
near the sugar-grove, while the Swainsons were 
in the forest, far off in an opposite direction.^ 

It is these birds, if any, whose music reaches 
the ears of the ordinary mountain tourist. 
Every man who is known among his acquaint- 
ances to have a little knowledge of such things 
is approached now and then with the question, 
" What bird was it, Mr. So-and-So, that I heard 
singing up in the mountains ? I did n't see 
him ; he was always ever so far off ; but his 
voice was wonderful, so sweet and clear and 
loud ! " As a rule it may safely be taken for 
granted that such interrogatories refer either 
to the Swainson thrush or to the hermit. The 
inquirer is very likely disposed to be incredu- 
lous when he is told that there are birds in his 
own woods whose voice is so like that of his 
admired New Hampshire songster that, if he 
were to hear the two together, he would not at 

1 I have since found both species at "Willoughby Lake, Vermont, 
and the veery with them. 



88 IN THE WlWip MOUNTAINS. 

first be able to tell the one from the otlier. He 
has never heard them, he protests ; which is 
true enough, for he never goes into the woods 
of his own town, or, if by chance he does, he 
leaves his ears behind him in the shop. His 
case is not peculiar. Men and women gaze 
enraptured at New Hampshire sunsets. How 
glorious they are, to be sure ! What a pity the 
sun does not sometimes set in Massachusetts ! 

As a musician the olive-back is certainly in- 
ferior to the hermit, and, according to my taste, 
he is surpassed also by the wood thrush and the 
Wilson ; but he is a magnificent singer, for all 
that, and when he is heard in the absence of 
the others it is often hard to believe that any 
one of them could do better. A good idea of the 
rhythm and length of his song may be gained 
by prononncing somewhat rapidly the words, 
" I love, I love, I love you," or, as it sometimes 
runs, "I love, I love, I love you truly." How 
literal this translation is I am not scholar 
enough to determine, but without question it 
gives the sense substantially. 

The winter wrens were less numerous than 
the thrushes, I think, but, like them, they sang 
at all hours of the day, and seemed to be well 
distributed throughout the woods. We can 
hardly help asking how it is that two birds so 
very closely related as the house wren and the 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 89 

winter wren should have chosen haunts so ex- 
tremely diverse, — the one preferring door-yards 
in thickly settled villages, the other keeping 
strictly to the wildest of all wild places. But 
whatever the explanation, we need not wish the 
fact itself different. Comparatively few ever 
hear the winter wren's song, to be sure (for 
you will hardly get it from a hotel piazza), but 
it is not the less enjoyed on that account. 
There is such a thing as a bird's making him- 
self too common ; and probably it is true even of 
the great prima donna that it is not those who 
live in the house with her who find most pleas- 
ure in her music. Moreover, there is much in 
time and circumstance. You hear a song in 
the village street, and pass along unmoved ; but 
stand in the silence of the forest, with your feet 
in a bed of creeping snowberry and oxalis, and 
the same song goes to your very soul. 

The great distinction of the winter wren's 
melody is its marked rhythm and accent, which 
give it a martial, fife -like character. Note 
tumbles over note in the true wren manner, and 
the strain comes to an end so suddenly that for 
the first few times you are likely to think that 
the bird has been interrupted. In the middle 
is a long in-drawn note, much like one of the 
canary's. The odd little creature does not get 
far away from the ground. I have never seen 



90 IN THE Wni1& MOUNTAINS. 

him sing from a living tree or bush, but always 
from a stump or a log, or from the root or 
branch of an overturned tree, — from some- 
thing, at least, of nearly his own color.^ The 
song is intrinsically one of the most beautiful, 
and in my ears it has the further merit of being 
forever associated with reminiscences of ram- 
blings among the White Hills. How well I 
remember an early morning hour at Profile 
Lake, when it came again and again across the 
water from the woods on Mount Cannon, under 
the Great Stone Face ! 

Whichever way I walked, I was sure of the 
society of the snow-birds. They hopped famil- 
iarly across the railroad track in front of the 
Crawford House, and on the summit of Mount 
Washington were scurrying about among the 
rocks, opening and shutting their pretty white- 
bordered fans. Half-way up Mount Willard I 
sat down to rest on a stone, and after a minute 
or two out dropped a snow-bird at my feet, and 
ran across the road, trailing her wings. I looked 
under the bank for her nest, but, to my surprise, 
could find nothing of it. So I made sure of 
knowing the place again, and continiied my 
tramp. Returning two hours later, I sat down 
npon the same bowlder, and watched for the 

1 True when written, but now needing to be qualified by one 
exception. See p. 226. 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 91 

bird to appear as before ; but she had gath- 
ered courage from my former failure, — or so 
it seemed, — and I waited in vain till I rapped 
upon the ground over her head. Then she scram- 
bled out and limped away, repeating her inno- 
cent but hackneyed ruse. This time I was re- 
solved not to be baffled. The nest was there, 
and I would find it. So down on my knees I 
got, and scrutinized the whole place most care- 
fully. But though I had marked the precise 
spot, there was no sign of a nest. I was about 
giving over the search ignominiously, when I de- 
scried a slight opening between the overhang- 
ing roof of the bank and a layer of earth which 
some roots held in place close under it. Into 
this slit I inserted my fingers, and there, en- 
tirely out of sight, was the nest full of eggs. No 
man could ever have found it, had the bird been 
brave and wise enough to keep her seat. How- 
ever, I had before this noticed that the snow- 
bird, while often extremely clever in choosing 
a building site, is seldom very skillful in keeping 
a secret. I saw him one day standing on the 
side of the same Mount Willard road,^ gesticu- 

1 Beside this road (in June, 1883) I found a nest of the yellow- 
bellied flycatcher {Empidonax Jlaviventris). It was built at the 
base of a decayed stump, in a little depression between two roots, 
and was partially overarched with growing moss. It contained 
four eggs, — white, spotted with brown. I called upon the bird 
half a dozen times or more, and found her a model "keeper at 



92 IN THE WH/9 MOUNTAINS. 

lating and scolding with all his might, as much 
as to say, " Please don't stop here ! Go straight 
along, T beg of you ! Our nest is right under 
this bank ! " And one glance under the bank 
showed that I had not misinterpreted his dem- 
onstrations. For all that, I do not feel like 
taking a lofty tone in passing judgment upon 
Junco. He is not the only one whose wisdom 
is mixed with foolishness. There is at least one 
other person of whom the same is true, — a 
person of whom I have nevertheless a very good 
opinion, and with whom I am, or ought to be, 
better acquainted than I am with any animal 
that wears feathers. 

The prettiest snow-bird's nest I ever saw was 
built beside the Crawford bridlepath, on Mount 
Clinton, just before the path comes out of the 
woods at the top. It was lined with hair-moss 
(a species of P olyt7nc1iu7n) of a bright orange 
color, and with its four or five white, lilac-spot- 
ted eggs made so attractive a picture that I was 
constrained to pause a moment to look at it, 
even though I had three miles of a steep, rough 
footpath to descend, with a shower threatening 

home." On one occasion she allowed my hand to come within two 
or three inches of her bill. In every case she flew off without any 
outcry or ruse, and once at least she fell immediateh' to fly-catch- 
ing with admirable philosophy. So far as I know, this is the only 
nest of the species ever found in New England outside of Maine. 
But it is proper to add that I did not capture the bird. 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 93 

to overtake me before I could reach the bottom. 
I wondered whether the architects really pos- 
sessed an eye for color, or had only stumbled 
upon this elegant bit of decoration. On the 
whole, it seemed more charitable to conclude the 
former; and not only more charitable, but more 
scientific as well. For, if I understand the mat- 
ter aright, Mr. Darwin and his followers have 
settled upon the opinion that birds do display 
an unmistakable fondness for bright tints ; that, 
indeed, the males of many species wear brilliant 
plumage for no other reason than that their 
mates prefer them in that dress. Moreover, if 
a bird in New South Wales adorns her bower 
with shells and other ornaments, why may not 
our little Northern darling beautify her nest 
with such humbler materials as her surround- 
ings offer? On reflection, I am more and more 
convinced that the birds knew what they were 
doing ; probabl}^ the female, the moment she 
discovered the moss, called to her mate, " Oh, 
look, how lovely ! Do, my dear, let 's line our 
nest with it I " 

This artistic structure was found on the an- 
niversary of the battle of Bunker Hill, a day 
which I had been celebrating, as best I could, 
by climbing the highest hill in New England. 
Plunging into the woods within fifty yards of 
the Crawford House, I had gone up and up. 



94 IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 

and on and on, through a magnificent forest, 
and then over more magnificent rocky heights, 
until I stood at last on the platform of the hotel 
at the summit. True, the path, which I had 
never traveled before, was wet and slipper\^, 
with stretches of ice and snow here and there ; 
but the shifting view was so grand, the atmos- 
phere so bracing, and the solitude so impressive 
that I enjoyed every step, till it came to clam- 
bering up the Mount Washington cone over the 
bowlders. At this point, to speak frankly, I 
began to hope that the ninth mile would prove 
to be a short one. The guide-books are agreed 
in warning the visitor against making this as- 
cent without a companion, and no doubt they 
are right in so doing. A crippling accident 
would almost inevitably be fatal, while for sev- 
eral miles the trail is so indistinct that it would 
be difficult, if not impossible, to follow it in a 
fog. And yet, if one is willing to take the 
risk (and is not so unfortunate as never to 
have learned how to keep himself company), 
he will find a very considerable compensation 
in the peculiar pleasure to be experienced in 
being absolutely alone above the world. For 
myself, I was shut up to going in this way or 
not going at all ; and a Bostonian must do 
something patriotic on the Seventeenth of June. 
But for all that, if the storm which chased me 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 95 

down the mountains in the afternoon, clouding 
first Mount Washington and then Mount Pleas- 
ant behind me, and shutting me indoors all the 
next day, had started an hour sooner, or if I had 
been detained an hour later, it is not impossi- 
ble that I might now be writing in a different 
strain. 

My reception at the top was none of the 
heartiest. The hotel was tightly closed, while 
a large snow-bank stood guard before the door. 
However, I invited myself into the Signal Ser- 
vice Station, and made my wants known to one 
of the officers, who very kindly spread a table 
with such things as he and his companions had 
just been eating. It would be out of place to 
say much about the luncheon : the bread and 
butter were good, and the pudding was interest- 
ing. I had the cook's word for it that the lat- 
ter was made of corn-starch, but he volunteered 
no explanation of its color, which was nearly 
that of chocolate. As a working hypothesis I 
adopted the molasses or brown-sugar theory, but 
a brief experiment (as brief as politeness per- 
mitted) indicated a total absence of any saccha- 
rine principle. But then, what do we climb 
mountains for, if not to see something out of 
the common course ? On the whole, if this de- 
partment of our national government is ever on 
trial for extravagance in the matter of high liv- 



96 IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 

ing, I shall be moved to offer myself as a com- 
petent witness for the defense. 

A company of chimney-swifts were flying 
criss-cross over the summit, and one of the men 
said that he presumed they lived there. I took 
the liberty to doubt his opinion, however. To 
me it: seemed nothina^ but a blunder that they 
should be there even for an hour. There could 
hardly be many insects at that height, I thought, 
and I had abundant cause to know that the 
woods below were full of tliera. I knew, also, 
that the swifts knew ib; for while I had been 
prowling about between Crawford's and Fab- 
yan's, they had several times shot by my head 
so closely that I had instinctively fallen to cal- 
culating the probable consequences of a colli- 
sion. But, after all, the swift is no doubt a 
far better entomologist than I am, though he 
has never heard of Packard's Guide. Possibly 
there are certain species of insects, and those 
of a peculiarly delicate savor, which are to be 
obtained only at about this altitude. 

The most enjoyable part of the Crawford path 
is the five miles from the top of Mount Clinton 
to the foot of the Mount Washington cone. 
Along this ridge I was delighted to find in blos- 
som two beautiful Alpine plants, which I had 
missed in previous (July) visits, — the diapen- 
sia (^Biapensia Lapponica) and the Lapland rose- 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 97 

bay (^Rhododendron Lapponicuni), — and to get 
also a single forward specimen of Potentilla 
frigida. Here and there was a humblebee, 
gathering honey from the small purple catkins 
of the prostrate willows, now in full bloom. 
(Rather high-minded bumblebees, they seemed, 
more than five thousand feet above the sea !) 
Professional entomologists (the chimney-swift, 
perhaps, included) may smile at my simplicity, 
but I was surprised to find this " animated tor- 
rid zone," this " insect lover of the sun," in such 
a Greenland climate. Did he not know that his 
own poet had described him as " hot midsum- 
mer's petted crone " ? But possibly he was 
equally surprised at my appearance. He might 
even have taken his turn at quoting Emer- 



son : 



"Pants up hither the spruce clerk 
From South Cove and City Wharf " ? i 

Of the two, he was unquestionably the more at 
home, for he was living where in forty-eight 
hours I should have found my death. So much 
is Bomhus better than a man. 

In a little pool of water, which seemed to be 

1 But by this time the clerk's appearance was, to say the least, 
not reprehensibiy " spruce." For one thing, what with the moist- 
ure and the sharp stones, he was already becoming jealous of his 
shoes, lest they should not hold together till he could get back to 
the Crawford House. 
7 



98 IN THE WffJ^ MOUNTAINS. 

nothing but a transient puddle caused by the 
melting snow, was a tiny fish. I asked him by 
what miracle he got there, but he could give no 
explanation. He, too, might well enough have 
joined the noble company of Emersonian s : — 

" I never thought to ask, I never knew ; 
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose 
The self-same Power that brought me here brought you." 

Almost at the very top of Mount Clinton I 
was saluted by the familiar ditty of the Nash- 
ville warbler. I could hardly believe my ears ; 
but there was no mistake, for the bird soon ap- 
peared in plain sight. Had it been one of the 
hardier-seeming species, the yellow-rumped for 
example, I should not have thought it very 
strange ; but this dainty HeJmiyithophaga^ so 
common in the vicinity of Boston, did appear to 
be out of his latitude, summering here on Al- 
pine heights. With a good pair of wings, and 
the whole continent to choose from, he surely 
might have found some more congenial spot 
than this in which to bring up his little family. 
I took his presence to be only an individual 
freak, but a subsequent visitor, who made the 
ascent from the Glen, reported the same spe- 
cies on that side also, and at about the same 
height. 

These signs of life on bleak mountain ridges 
are highly interesting and suggestive. The. 



IN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 99 

fish, the humblebees, the birds, and a mouse 
which scampered away to its hole amid the 
rocks, — all these might have found better liv- 
ing elsewhere. But Nature will have her world 
full. Stunted life is better than none, she 
thinks. So she plants her forests of spruces, 
and keeps them growing, where, with all their 
efforts, they cannot get above the height of a 
man's knee. There is no beauty about them, 
no grace. They sacrifice symmetry and every- 
thing else for the sake of bare existence, re- 
minding one of Satan's remark, " All that a 
man hath will he give for his life." 

Very admirable are the devices by which veg- 
etation maintains itself against odds. Every- 
body notices that many of the mountain species, 
like the diapensia, the rose-bay, the Greenland 
sandwort (called the mountain daisy by the 
Summit House people, for some inscrutable 
reason), and the phyllodoce, have blossoms dis- 
proportionately large and handsome ; as if they 
realized that, in order to attract their indispen- 
sable allies, the insects, to these inhospitable 
regions, they must offer them some special in- 
ducements. Their case is not unlike that of a 
certain mountain hotel which might be named, 
which happens to be poorly situated, but which 
keeps itself full, nevertheless, by the peculiar 
excellence of its cuisine. 



100 IN THE WnnfE MOUNTAINS. 

It does not require much imagination to be- 
lieve that these hardy vegetable mountaineers 
love their wild, desolate dwelling-places as truly 
as do the human residents of the region. An 
old man in Bethlehem told me that sometimes, 
during the long, cold winter, he felt that per- 
haps it would be well for him, now his work 
was done, to sell his " place " and go down to 
Boston to live, near his brother. " But then," 
he added, " you know it 's dangerous transplant- 
ing an old tree ; you 're likely as not to kill it." 
Whatever we have, in this world, we must pay 
for with the loss of something else. The bitter 
must be taken with the sweet, be we plants, an- 
imals, or men. These thoughts recurred to me 
a day or two later, as I lay on the summit of 
Mount Agassiz, in the sun and out of the wind, 
gazing down into the Franconia Valley, then in 
all its June beauty. Nestled under the lee of 
the mountain, but farther from the base, doubt- 
less, than it seemed from my point of view, was 
a small dwelling, scarcely better than a shanty. 
Two or three young children were playing about 
the door, and near them was the man of the 
house splitting wood. The air was still enough 
for me to hear every blow, although it reached 
me only as the axe was again over the man's 
head, ready for the next descent. It was a 
charming picture, — the broad, green valley full 



TN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS. 101 

of sunshine and peace, and the solitary cottage, 
from whose doorstep might be seen in one di- 
rection the noble Mount Washington range, and 
in another the hardly less noble Franconias. 
How easy to live simply and well in such a 
grand seclusion ! But soon there came a 
thought of Wordsworth's sonnet, addressed to 
just such a mood, " Yes, there is holy pleasure 
in thine eye," and I felt at once the truth of his 
admonition. What if the cottage really were 
mine, — mine to spend a lifetime in? How 
quickly the poetry would turn to prose ! 

An hour afterwards, on my way back to the 
Sinclair House, I passed a group of men at 
work on the highway. One of them was a lit- 
tle apart from the rest, and out of a social im- 
pulse I accosted him with the remark, " I sup- 
pose, in heaven, the streets never will need 
mending." Quick as thought came the reply : 
" Well, I hope not. If I ever get there, I don't 
want to work on the road.''' Here spoke uni- 
versal human nature, which finds its strong 
argument for immortality in its discontent with 
matters as they now are. The one thing we 
are all sure of is that we were born for some- 
thing better than our present employment ; and 
even those who school themselves most relig- 
iously in the virtue of contentment know very 
well how to define that grace so as not to ex- 



102 IN THE WIIIXi: MOUNTAINS. 

elude from it a comfortable mixture of " divine 
dissatisfaction." Well for us if we are still 
able to stand in our place and do faithfully our 
allotted task, like the mountain spruces and the 
Bethlehemite road-mender. 



PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 



Fierce warres and faithful loves shall moralize my sons:. 

Spenser. 

Much ado there was, God wot : 
He would love, and she would not. 

Nicholas Bueton. 



PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 



The happiness of birds, heretofore taken for 
granted, and long ago put to service in a prov- 
erb, is in these last days made a matter of 
doubt. It transpires that they are engaged 
without respite in a struggle for existence, — a 
struggle so fierce that at least two of them per- 
ish every year for one that survives.^ How, 
then, can they be otherwise than miserable ? 

There is no denying the struggle, of course ; 
nor need we question some real effect produced 
by it upon the cheerfulness of the participants. 
The more rationalistic of the smaller species, 
we may be sure, find it hard to reconcile the 
existence of hawks and owls with the doctrine 
of an all-wise Providence ; while even the most 
simple-minded of them can scarcely fail to real- 
ize that a world in which one is liable any day 
to be pursued by a boy with a shot-gun is not 
in any strict sense paradisiacal. 

And yet, who knows the heart of a bird ? A 

1 Wallace, Natural Selection, p. 30. 



106 PHILLIDA AXD C OBI DON. 

child, possibly, or a poet ; certainly not a phi- 
losopher. And happiness, too. — is that some- 
thing of which the scientific mind can render 
us a quite adequate description ? Or is it, 
rather, a wayward, mysterious thing, coming 
often when least expected, and going away 
again when, by all tokens, it ought to remain? 
How is it with ourselves ? Do we wait to 
weigh all the good and evil of our state, to take 
an accurate account of it pro and con, before 
we allow ourselves to be glad or sorry ? Not 
many of us, I think. ^Mortuary tables may 
demonstrate that half the children born in this 
country fail to reach the age of twenty years. 
But what then? Oiir *• expectation of life" is 
not based upon statistics. The tables may be 
correct, for aught we know ; but they deal with 
men in general and on the average ; they have 
no messasfe for vou and me individuallv. And 
it seems not unlikely that birds may be equally 
illogical ; always expecting to live, and not die, 
and often giving themselves up to impulses of 
gladness without stopping to inquire whether, 
on grounds of absolute reason, these impulses 
are to be justified. Let us hope so, at all events, 
till somebody proves the contrary. 

But even looking at the subject a little more 
philosophically, we may say — and be thankful 
to say it — that the joy of life is not dependent 



PUILLIDA jyD CORIDOX. 107 

upon comfort, nor yet upon safety. The essen- 
tial matter is that the heart be engaged. Then, 
though we be toiling up the Matterhorn, or 
swept along in the rush of a bayonet charge, 
we may still find existence not only endurable, 
but in the highest degree exhilarating. On 
the other hand, if there is no longer anything 
we care for ; if enthusiasm is dead, and hope 
also, then, though we have all that money can 
buy, suicide is perhaps the only fitting action 
that is left for us, — unless, perchance, we are 
still able to pass the time in writing treatises to 
prove that everybody else ought to be as un- 
happy as ourselves. 

Birds have many enemies and their full share 
of privation, but I do not believe that they of- 
ten su^ev ivom ennui. Having '• neither store- 
house nor barn," ^ they are never in want of 
something to do. From sunrise till noon there 
is the getting of breakfast, then from noon till 
sunset the getting of dinner, — both out-of- 
doors, and without any trouble of cookery or 
dishes, — a kind of perpetual picnic. What 

1 The shrike lay? up grasshoppers and sparrows, and the Cali- 
fornia woodpecker hoards great numbers of acorns, but it is still 
in dispute, I believe, whether thrift is the motive with either of 
them. Considering what has often been done in similar cases, we 
may think it surprising that the Scripture text ab«ive quoted (to- 
gether with its exegetical parallel, Matthew vi. 26) has never been 
brought into court to settle the controversy; but to the best of my 
knowledge it never has been. 



108 PH ILL IDA AND COR I DON. 

could be simpler or more delightful ? Carried 
on in this way, eating is no longer the coarse 
and sensual thing we make it, with our set 
meal-times and elaborate preparations. 

Country children know that there are two 
ways to go berrying. According to the first 
of these you stroll into the pasture in the cool 
of the day, and at your leisure pick as many as 
you choose of the ripest and largest of the ber- 
ries, putting every one into your mouth. This 
is agreeable. According to the second, you 
carry a basket, which you are expected to bring 
home again well filled. And this method — 
well, tastes will differ, but following the good 
old rule for judging in such cases, I must be- 
lieve that most unsophisticated persons prefer 
the other. The hand-to-mouth process cer- 
tainly agrees best with our idea of life in Eden ; 
and, what is more to the purpose now, it is the 
one which the birds, still keeping the garden 
instead of tilling the ground, continue to follow. 

That this unworldliness of the birds has any 
religious or theological significance I do not 
myself suppose. Still, as anybody may see, 
there are certain very plain Scripture texts on 
their side. Indeed, if birds were only acute 
theologians, they would unquestionably proceed 
to turn these texts (since they find it so easy to 
obey them) into the basis of a " system of 



PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 109 

truth." Other parts of the Bible must be in- 
terpreted^ to be sure (so the theory would run) ; 
but these statements mean just what they say, 
and whoever meddles with them is carnally 
minded and a rationalist. 

Somebody will object, perhaps, that, with 
our talk about a " perpetual picnic," we are 
making a bird's life one cloudless holiday ; con- 
tradicting what we have before admitted about 
a struggle for existence, and leaving out of 
sight altogether the seasons of scarcity, the 
storms, and the biting cold. But we intend no 
such foolish recantation. These hardsliips are 
real enough, and serious enough. What we 
maintain is that evils of this kind are not nec- 
essarily inconsistent with enjoyment, and may 
even give to life an additional zest. It is a 
matter of every-day observation that the peo- 
ple who have nothing to do except to " live 
well " (as the common sarcasm has it) are not 
always the most cheerful ; while there are 
certain diseases, like pessimism and the gout, 
which seem appointed to wait on luxury and 
idleness, — as though nature were determined 
to have the scales kept somewhat even. And 
surely this divine law of compensation has not 
left the innocent birds unprovided for, — the 
innocent birds of whom it was said, " Your 
heavenly Father feedeth them." How must 



110 PHIL LI DA AND COR I DON. 

the devoted pair exult, when, in spite of owls 
and hawks, squirrels and weasels, small boys 
and full - grown oologists, they have finally 
reared a brood of offspring ! The long uncer- 
tainty and the thousand perils only intensify 
the joy. In truth, so far as this world is con- 
cerned, the highest bliss is never to be had 
without antecedent sorrow ; and even of heaven 
itself we may not scruple to say that, if there 
are painters there, they probably feel obliged 
to put some shadows into their pictures. 

But of course (and this is what we have been 
coming to through this long introduction), — of 
course our friends of the air are happiest in the 
season of mating ; happiest, and therefore most 
attractive to us who find our pleasure in stud}^- 
ing them. In spring, of all times of the year, 
it seems a pity that everybody should not turn 
ornithologist. For " all mankind love a lover ; " 
and the world, in consequence, has given itself 
up to novel - reading, not knowing, unfortu- 
nately, how much better that role is taken by 
the birds than by the common run of story- 
book heroes. 

People whose notions of the subject are de- 
rived from attending to the antics of our im- 
ported sparrows have no idea how delicate and 
beautiful a thing a real feathered courtship is. 
To tell the truth, these foreigners have asso- 



PHILLIDA AND COR f DON. Ill 

elated too long and too intimately with men, 
and have fallen far away from their piimul in- 
nocence. There is no need to describe their 
actions. The vociferous and most unmannerly 
importunity of the suitor, and the correspond- 
ingly spiteful rejection of his overtures by the 
little vixen on whom his affections are for the 
moment placed, — these we have all seen to 
our hearts' discontent. 

The sparrow will not have been brought over 
the sea for nothing, however, if his bad behavior 
serves to heighten our appreciation of our own 
native songsters, with their " perfect virtues " 
and " manners for the heart's delight." 

The American robin, for instance, is far from 
being a bird of exceptional refinement. His 
nest is rude, not to say slovenly, and his gen- 
eral deportment is unmistakably common. But 
watch him when he goes a-wooing, and you will 
• begin to feel quite a new respect for him. How 
gently he approaches his beloved ! How care- 
fully he avoids ever coming disrespectfully near ! 
No sparrow-like screaming, no dancing about, 
no melodramatic gesticulation. If she moves 
from one side of the tree to the other, or to the 
tree adjoining, he follows in silence. Yet every 
movement is a petition, an assurance that his 
heart is hers and ever must be. The action is 
extremely simple ; there is nothing of which to 



112 PH ILL ID A AND CORIDON. 

make an eloquent description ; but I should 
pity the man who could witness it with indiffer- 
ence. Not that the robin's suit is always car- 
ried on in the same way ; he is much too versa- 
tile for that. On one occasion, at least, I saw 
him holding himself absolutely motionless, in a 
horizontal posture, staring at his sweetheart as 
if he would charm her with his gaze, and emit- 
ting all the while a subdued hissing sound. The 
significance of this conduct I do not profess to 
have understood ; it ended with his suddenly 
darting at the female, who took wing and was 
pursued. Not improbably the robin finds the 
feminine nature somewhat fickle, and counts it 
expedient to vary his tactics accordingly ; for 
it is getting to be more and more believed that, 
in kind at least, the intelligence of the lower 
animals is not different from ours. 

I once came unexpectedly upon a wood 
thrush, who was in the midst of a perform-" 
ance very similar to this of the robin ; standing 
on the dead branch of a tree, with his crown 
feathers erect, his bill set wide open, and his 
whole body looking as rigid as death. His 
mate, as I perceived the next moment, was 
not far awaj^ on the same limb. If he was at- 
tempting fascination, he had gone very clumsily 
about it, I thought, unless his mate's idea of 
beauty was totally different from mine ; for I 



PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 113 

conld hardly keep from laughing at his absurd 
appearance. It did not occur to me till after- 
wards that he had perhaps heard of Othello's 
method, and was at that moment acting out a 
story 

"of most disastrous chances, 
Of moving accidents by flood and field, 
Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach, 
Of being talten by the insolent foe 
And sold to slavery." 

How much depends upon the point of view ! 
Here was I, ready to laugh ; while poor Desde- 
mona only thought, " 'T was pitiful, 'twas won- 
drous pitiful." Dear sympathetic soul ! Let 
us hope that she was never called to play out 
the tragedy. 

Two things are very noticeable during the 
pairing season, — the scarcity of females and 
their indifference. Every one of them seems 
to have at least two admirers dangling after 
her,i while she is almost sure to carry herself 
as if a wedding were the last thing she would 
ever consent to think of ; and that not because 
of bashfulness, but from downright aversion. 
The observer begins to suspect that the fair 
creatures have really entered into some sort of 
no-marriage league, and that there are not to 

1 So near do birds come to Mr. Euskin's idea that " a girl worth 
anything ought to have always half a dozen or so of suitors under 
vow for her." 



114 PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 

be any nests this year, nor any young birds. 
But by and by he discovers that somehow, he 
cannot surmise how, — it must have been when 
his eyes were turned the other way, — the scene 
is entirely changed, the maidens are all wedded, 
and even now the nests are being got ready. 

I watched a trio of cat-birds in a clump of 
alder bushes by the roadside ; two males, almost 
as a matter of course, ''paying attentions" to 
one female. Both suitors were evidently in 
earnest ; each hoped to carry off the prize, and 
perhaps felt that he should be miserable for- 
ever if he were disappointed ; and yet, on their 
part, everything was being done decently and 
in order. So far as I saw, there was no dispo- 
sition to quarrel. Only let the dear creature 
choose one of them, and the other would take 
his broken heart away. So, always at a modest 
remove, they followed her about from bush to 
bush, entreating her in most loving and persua- 
sive tones to listen to their suit. But she, all 
this time, answered every approach with a 
snarl ; she would never have anything to do 
with either of them ; she disliked them both, 
and only wished they would leave her to her- 
self. This lasted as long as I stayed to watch. 
Still I had little doubt she fully intended to 
accept one of them, and had even made up her 
mind already which it should be. She knew 



PHILLIDA AND COR I DON. 115 

enough, I felt sure, to calculate the value of a 
proper maidenly reluctance. How could her 
mate be expected to rate her at her worth, if 
she allowed herself to be won too easily ? Be- 
sides, she could afford not to be in haste, seeing 
she had a choice of two. 

What a comfortably simple affair the matri- 
monial question is with the feminine cat-bird ! 
Her wooers are all of equally good family and 
all equally rich. There is literally nothing for 
her to do but to look into her own heart and 
choose. No temptation lias she to sell herself 
for the sake of a fashionable name or a fine 
house, or in order to gratify the prejudice of 
father or mother. As for a marriage settle- 
ment, she knows neither the name nor the 
thing. In fact, marriage in her thought is a 
simple union of hearts, with no taint of any- 
thing mercantile about it. Happy cat-bird ! 
She perhaps imagines that human marriages 
are of the same ideal sort ! 

I have spoken of the affectionate language of 
these dusky lovers ; but it was noticeable that 
they did not sing, although, to have fulfilled 
the common idea of such an affair, they cer- 
tainly should have been doing so, and each try- 
ing his best to outsing the other. Possibly 
there had already been such a tournament be- 
fore my arrival ; or, for aught I know, this 



116 PHILLIDA 0D CORIDON. 

particular female may have given out that she 
had no ear for music. 

In point of fact, hovrever, there was nothing 
peculiar in their conduct. No doubt, in the 
earlier stages of a bird's attachment he is likely 
to express his passion musically ; but later he 
is not content to warble from a tree-top. There 
are things to be said which cannot appropri- 
ately be spoken at long range ; and unless my 
study of novels has been to little purpose, all 
this agrees well with the practices of human 
gallants. Do not these begin by singing under 
the lady's window, or by sending verses to her? 
and are not such proceedings intended to pre- 
pare the way, as speedily as possible, for others 
of a more satisfying, though it may be of a less 
romantic nature ? 

Bearing this in mind, we may be able to ac- 
count, in part at least, for the inexperienced 
observer's disappointment when, fresh from the 
perusal of (for example) the thirteenth chapter 
of Darwin's " Descent of Man," he goes into 
the woods to look about for himself. He ex- 
pects to find here and there two or three song- 
sters, each in turn doing his utmost to surpass 
the brilliancy and power of the other's music; 
while a feminine auditor sits in full view, pre- 
paring to render her verdict, and reward the 
successful competitor with her own precious 



PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 117 

self. This would be a pretty picture. Unfor- 
tunately, it is looked for in vain. The two or 
three singers may be found, likely enough ; but 
the female, if she be indeed within hearing, is 
modestly hidden away somewhere in the bushes, 
and our student is none the wiser. Let him 
watch as long as he please, he will hardly see 
the prize awarded. 

Nevertheless he need not grudge the time 
thus employed ; not, at any rate, if he be sensi- 
tive to music. For it will be found that birds 
have at least one attribute of genius : they can 
do their best only on great occasions. Our 
brown thrush, for instance, is a magnificent 
singer, albeit he is not of the best school, be- 
ing too " sensational " to suit the most exacting 
taste. His song is a grand improvisation : a 
good deal jumbled, to be sure, and without any 
recognizable form or theme ; and yet, like a 
Liszt rhapsody, it perfectly answers its purpose, 
— that is, it gives the performer full scope to 
show what he can do with his instrument. You 
may laugh a little, if you like, at an occasional 
grotesque or overwrought passage, but unless 
you are well used to it you will surely be aston- 
ished. Such power and range of voice ; such 
startling transitions ; such endless variety ! And 
withal such boundless enthusiasm and almost 
incredible endurance ! Regarded as pure mu- 



118 PHILLIDA 0D CORIDON. 

sic, one strain of the hermit thrush is to my 
mind worth the whole of it; just as a single 
movement of Beethoven's is better than a world 
of Liszt transcriptions. But in its own way it 
is unsurpassable. 

Still, though this is a meagre and quite un- 
exaggerated account of the ordinary song of the 
brown thrush, I have discovered that even he 
can be outdone — by himself. One morning 
in early May I came upon three birds of this 
species, all singing at once, in a kind of jealous 
frenzy. As they sang they continually shifted 
from tree to tree, and one in particular (the 
one nearest to where I stood) could hardly be 
quiet a moment. Once he sang with full power 
while on the ground (or close to it, for he was 
just then behind a low bush), after which he 
mounted to the very tip of a tall pine, which 
bent beneath his weight. In the midst of the 
hurly-burly one of the trio suddenly sounded 
the whip-poor-will's call twice, — an absolutely 
perfect reproduction.^ 

The significance of all this sound and fury, 
— what the prize was, if any, and who obtained 

1 " That's the wise thrush: he sings each song t-\vice over, 
Lest you should think he never coald recapture 
The first fine careless rapture ! " 
The "authorities" long since forbade Harporhynchus rufiis to 
play the mimic. Probably in the excitement of the moment this 
fellow forgot himself. 



PHILLIDA AND CO RID ON. 119 

it, — this another can conjecture as well as my- 
self. I know no more than old Kaspar : — 

" ' Why, that I cannot tell,' said he, 
' But 't was a famous victory.' " 

As I turned to come away, the contest all at 
once ceased, and the silence of the woods, or 
what seemed like silence, was really impressive. 
The chewinks and field sparrows were singing, 
but it was like the music of a village singer 
after Patti ; or, to make the comparison less 
unjust, like the Pastoral Symphony of Handel 
after a Wagner tempest. 

It is curious how deeply we are sometimes 
affected by a very trifling occurrence. I have 
remembered many times a slight scene in which 
three purple finches were the actors. Of the 
two males, one was in full adult plumage of 
bright crimson, while the other still wore his 
youthful suit of brown. First, the older bird 
suspended himself in mid air, and sang most 
beautifully ; dropping, as he concluded, to a 
perch beside the female. Then the younger 
candidate, who was already sitting near by, 
took his turn, singing nearly or quite as well 
as his rival, but without quitting the branch, 
though his wings quivered. I saw no more. 
Yet, as I say, I have often since thought of the 
three birds, and wondered whether the bright 
feathers and the flying song carried the day 



120 PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 

against the younger suitor. I fear they did. 
Sometimes, too, I have queried whether young 
birds (who none the less are of age to marry) 
can be so very meek or so very dull as never to 
rebel against the fashion that only the old fel- 
lows shall dress handsomely ; and I have tried 
in vain to imagine the mutterings, deep and 
loud, which such a law would excite in certain 
other quarters. It pains me to say it, but I 
suspect that taxation without representation 
would seem a small injustice, in comparison. 

Like these linnets in the exceptional interest 
they excited were two large seabirds, who sud- 
denly appeared circling about over the woods, 
as I was taking a solitary walk on a Sunday 
morning in April. One of them was closely 
pursuing the other ; not as though he were try- 
ing to overtake her, but rather as though he 
were determined to keep her company. They 
swept now this way, now that, — now lost to 
sight, and now reappearing ; and once they 
passed straight over my head, so that I heard 
the whistling of their wings. Then they were 
off, and I saw them no more. They came from 
far, and by night they were perhaps a hundred 
leagues away. But I followed them with my 
blessins:, and to this dav I feel toward them a 
little as I suppose we all do toward a certain 
few strangers wdiom we have met here and 



PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 121 

there in our journey ings, and chatted with for 
an hour or two. We had never seen them be- 
fore ; if we learned their names we have long 
ago forgotten them ; but somehow the persons 
themselves keep a place in our memory, and 
even in our affection. 

** I crossed a moor, with a name of its o'wti 
And a certain use in the world, no doubt ; 
Yet a hand's breadth of it shines alone 
'Mid the blank miles round about: 

" For there I picked up on the heather, 
And there I put inside my breast, 
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather 1 
Well, I forget the rest." 

Since we cannot ask birds for an explanation 
of their conduct, we have nothing for it but to 
steal their secrets, as far as possible, by patient 
and stealthy watching. In this way I hope, 
sooner or later, to find out what the golden- 
winged woodpecker means by the shout with 
which he makes the fields reecho in the spring, 
especially in the latter half of April. I have 
no doubt it has something to do with the proc- 
ess of mating, but it puzzles me to guess just 
what the message can be which requires to be 
published so loudly. Such a stentorian, long- 
winded cry ! You wonder where the bird finds 
breath for such an effort, and think he must be 
a very ungentle lover, surely. But withhold 
your judgment for a few days, till you see him 



122 PHILLIDA Am> CORIDON. 

and Lis mate gamboling about the branches of 
some old tree, calling in soft, affectionate tones, 
Wick-a-wick^ tvick-a-ivick ; then you will con- 
fess that, whatever failings the golden-wing 
may have, he is not to be charged with insensi- 
bility. The fact is that our " yellow-hammer " 
has a genius for noise. When he is very happy 
he drums. Sometimes, indeed, he marvels how 
birds who haven't this resource are able to get 
through the world at all. Nor ought we to 
think it strange if in his love-making he finds 
great use for this his crowning accomplishment. 
True, we have nowhere read of a human lover's 
serenading his mistress with a drum ; but we 
must remember what creatures of convention 
men are, and that there is no inherent reason 
why a drum should not serve as well as a flute 
for such a purpose. 

'* All thoughts, all passions, all delights, 
Whatever stirs this mortal frame, 
All are but ministers of Love, 
And feed his sacred flame." 

I saw two of these flickers clinging to the 
trunk of a shell-bark tree ; which, by the way, 
is a tree after the woodpecker's own heart. 
One was perhaps fifteen feet above the other, 
and before each was a strip of loose bark, a sort 
of natural drum -head. First, the lower one 
"beat his music out," rather softly. Then, 



PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 123 

as he ceased, and held his head back to listen, 
the other answered him ; and so the dialogue 
went on. Evidently, they were already mated, 
and were now renewing their mutual vows ; 
for birds, to their praise be it spoken, believe 
in courtship after marriage. The day happened 
to be Sunday, and it did occur to me that pos- 
sibly this was the woodpeckers' ritual, — a kind 
of High Church service, with antiphonal choirs. 
But I dismissed the thought ; for, on the whole, 
the shouting seems more likely to be diagnos- 
tic, and in spite of his gold-lined wings, I have 
set the flicker down as almost certainly an old- 
fashioned Methodist. 

Speaking of courtship after marriage, I am 
reminded of a spotted sandpiper, whose capers 
I amused myself with watching, one day last 
June, on the shore of Saco Lake. As I caught 
sight of him, he was straightening himself up, 
with a pretty, self-conscious air, at the same 
time spreading his white-edged tail, and calling, 
Tweet^ tweet, tiveet.^ Afterwards he got upon 
a log, where, with head erect and wings thrown 
forward and downward, he ran for a yard or 
two, calling as before. This trick seemed es- 

1 May one who knows nothing of philology venture to inquire 
whether the ver}' close agreement of this tweet with our sweet 
(compare also the Anglo-Saxon sweie^ the Icelandic siietr, and the 
Sanskrit svnd) does not point to a common origin of the Aryan 
and sandpiper languages ? 



124 PHILLIDA A^ CORIDON. 

pecially to please him, and was several times 
repeated. He ran rapidly, and with a comical 
prancing movement ; but nothing he did was 
half so laughable as the behavior of his mate, 
who all this while dressed her feathers without 
once deigning to look at her spouse's perform- 
ance. Undoubtedly they had been married for 
several weeks, and she was, by this time, well 
used to his nonsense. It must be a devoted 
husband, I fancy, who continues to offer atten- 
tions when they are received in such a spirit. 

Walking a log is a somewhat common prac- 
tice with birds. I once detected our little golden- 
crowned thrush showing off in this way to his 
mate, who stood on the ground close at hand. 
In his case the head was lowered instead of 
raised, and the general effect was heightened by 
his curiously precise gait, which even on ordi- 
nary occasions is enough to provoke a smile. 

Not improbably every species of birds has its 
own code of etiquette ; unwritten, of course, but 
carefully handed down from father to son, and 
faithfully observed Nor is it cause for wonder 
if, in our ignorant eyes, some of these " society 
manners " look a little ridiculous. Even the 
usages of fashionable human circles have not 
always escaped the laughter of the profane. 

I was standing on the edge of a small thicket, 
observing a pair of cuckoos as they made a break- 



PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 125 

fast out of a nest of tent caterpillars (it was a 
feast rather than a common meal ; for the cat- 
erpillars were plentiful, and, as I judged, just 
at their best, being about half grown), when a 
couple of scarlet tanagers appeared upon the 
scene. The female presently selected a fine strip 
of cedar bark, and started off with it, sounding 
a call to her handsome husband, who at once 
followed in her wake. I thought. What a brute, 
to leave his wife to build the house ! But he, 
plainly enough, felt that in escorting her back 
and forth he was doing all that ought to be ex- 
pected of any well-bred, scarlet-coated tanager. 
And the lady herself, if one might infer any- 
thing from her tone and demeanor, was of the 
same opinion. I mention this trifling occurrence, 
not to put any slight w^onPyranga rubra (who 
am I, that I should accuse so gentle and well 
dressed a bird of bad manners ?), but merely as 
an example of the way in which feathered polite- 
ness varies. In fact, it seems not unlikely that 
the male tanager may abstain on principle from 
taking any active part in constructing the nest, 
lest his fiery color should betray its whereabouts. 
As for his kindness and loyalty, I only wish I 
could feel as sure of one half the human hus- 
bands whom I meet. 

It would be very ungallant of me, however, to 
leave my readers to understand that the female 



126 PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 

bird is always so unsympathetic as most of the 
descriptions thus fur given would appear to in- 
dicate. In my memory are several scenes, any 
one of which, if I could put it on paper as I saw 
it, would suffice to correct such an erroneous 
impression. In one of these the parties were a 
pair of chipping sparrows. Never was man so 
churlish that his heart would not have been 
touched with the vision of their gentle but rap- 
turous delight. As they chased each other 
gayly from branch to branch and from tree to 
tree, they flew with that delicate, affected move- 
ment of the wings which birds are accustomed 
to use at such tiuies, and which, perhaps, bears 
the same relation to their ordinary flight that 
dancing does to the every-day walk of men and 
women. The two seemed equally enchanted, 
and both sang. Little they knew of the " strug- 
gle for existence " and the " survival of the 
fittest." Adam and Eve, in Paradise, were never 
more happy. 

A few weeks later, taking an evening walk, 
I was stopped by the sight of a pair of cedar- 
birds on a stone wall. They had chosen a con- 
venient flat stone, and were hopping about upon 
it, pausing every moment or two to put their 
little bills together. What a loving ecstasy pos- 
sessed them ! Sometimes one, sometimes the 
other, sounded a faint lisping note, and motioned 



PHILLIDA AND CORIDON. 127 

for another kiss. Bat there is no setting forth 
the ineffable grace and sweetness of their chaste 
behavior. I looked and looked, till a passing 
carriage frightened them away. They were 
only common cedar-birds ; if I were to see them 
again I should not know them ; but if my pen 
were equal to my wish, they should be made 
immortal. 



SCEAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 



A man that hath friends must show himself friendly. 

Proverbs xviii. 24. 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 



As I was crossing Boston Common, some 
years ago, my attention was caught by the un- 
usual behavior of a robin, who was standing on 
the hiwn, absolutely motionless, and every few 
seconds making a faint hissing noise. So much 
engaged was he that, even when a dog ran near 
him, he only started slightly, and on the instant 
resumed his statue-like attitude. Wondering 
what this could mean, and not knowing how 
else to satisfy my curiosity, I bethought myself 
of a man whose letters about birds I had now 
and then noticed in the daily press. So, look- 
ing up his name in the City Directory, and fi nd- 
ing that he lived at such a number. Beacon 
Street, I wrote him a note of inquiry. He must 
have been amused as he read it ; for I remem- 
ber giving him the title of " Esquire," and speak- 
ing of his communications to the newspapers as 
the ground of my application to liim. " Such 
is fame ! " he likely enough said to himself. 
" Here is a man with eyes in his head, a man, 



132 SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 

moreover, who has prooably been at school in 
his time, — for most of his words are spelled 
correctly, — and yet he knows my name only 
as he has seen it signed once in a while to a few 
lines in a newspaper." Thoughts like these, 
however, did not prevent his replying to the 
note (my " valued favor ") with all politeness, 
although he confessed himself unable to answer 
my question ; and by the time I had occasion to 
trouble him again I had learned that he was to 
be addressed as Doctor, and, furthermore, was 
an ornithologist of world-wide reputation, being, 
in fact, one of the three joint-authors of the 
most important work so far issued on the birds 
of North America. 

Certainly I was and am grateful to him (he 
is now dead) for his generous treatment of my 
ignorance ; but even warmer is my feeling to- 
ward that city thrush, who, all unconscious of 
what he was doing, started me that day on a 
line of study which has been ever since a con- 
tinual delight. Most gladly would I do him 
any kindness in my power ; but I have little 
doubt that, long ere this, he, too, has gone the 
way of all the earth. As to what he was think- 
ing about on that memorable May morning, I am 
as much in the dark as ever. But there is no 
law against a bird's behaving mysteriously, I 
suppose. Most of us, I am sure, often do things 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 133 

which are inexplicable to ourselves, and once in 
a very great while, perhaps, it would puzzle even 
our next-door neighbors to render a complete ac- 
count of our motives. 

Whatever the robin meant, however, and no 
doubt there was some good reason for his con- 
duct, he had given my curiosity the needed 
jog. Now, at last, I would do what I had often 
dreamed of doing, — learn something about the 
birds of my own region, and be able to recognize 
at least the more common ones when I saw them. 

The interest of the study proved to be the 
greater for my ignorance, which, to speak 
within bounds, was nothing short of wonderful ; 
perhaps I might appropriately use a more fash- 
ionable word, and call it phenomenal. All my 
life long I had had a kind of passion for being 
out-of-doors ; and, to tell the truth, I had been 
so often seen wandering by myself in out-of-the- 
way wood-paths, or sitting idly about on stone 
walls in lonesome pastures, that some of my 
Philistine townsmen had most likely come to 
look upon me as no better than a vagabond. 
Yet I was not a vagabond, for all that. I liked 
work, perhaps, as well as the generality of peo- 
ple. But I was unfortunate in this respect : 
while I enjoyed in-door work, I hated to be in 
the house ; and, on the other hand, while I en- 
joyed being out-of-doors, I hated all manner of 



134 SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 

out-door employment, ^^as not lazy, but I pos- 
sessed — well, let us call it the true aboriginal 
temperament ; though I fear that this distinc- 
tion will be found too subtile, even for the well- 
educated, unless, along with their education, 
they have a certain sympathetic bias, which, 
after all, is the main thing to be depended on 
in such nice psychological discriminations. 

With all my rovings in wood and field, how- 
ever, I knew nothing of any open-air study. 
Study was a thing of books. At school we were 
never taught to look elsewhere for knowledge. 
Reading and spelling, geography and grammar, 
arithmetic and algebra, geometry and trigo- 
nometry, — these were studied, of course, as also 
were Latin and Greek. But none of our lessons 
took us out of the school-room, unless it was 
astronomy, the study of which I had nearly for- 
gotten ; and that we pursued in the night-time, 
when birds and plants were as though they were 
not. I cannot recollect that any one of my teach- 
ers ever called my attention to a natural object. 
It seems incredible, but, so far as my memory 
serves, I was never in the habit of observing the 
return of the birds in the spring or their de- 
parture in the autumn ; except, to be sure, that 
the semi-annual flight of the ducks and geese 
was always a pleasant excitement, more espe- 
cially because there were several lakes (invari- 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 135 

ably spoken of as ponds) in our vicinity, on the 
borders of which the village " gunners " built 
pine-branch booths in the season. 

But now, as I have said, my ignorance was 
converted all at once into a kind of bless- 
ing ; for no sooner had I begun to read bird 
books, and consult a cabinet of mounted speci- 
mens, than every turn out-of-doors became full 
of all manner of delightful surprises. Could it 
be that what I now beheld with so much won- 
der was only the same as had been going on 
year after year in these my own familiar lanes 
and woods ? Truly the human eye is nothing 
more than a window, of no use unless the man 
looks out of it. 

Some of the experiences of that period seem 
ludicrous enough in the retrospect. Only two 
or three days after my eyes were first opened I 
was out with a friend in search of wild-flowers 
(I was piloting him to a favorite station for 
Viola puhescens)^ when I saw a most elegant 
little creature, mainly black and white, but 
with brilliant orange markings. He was dart- 
ing hither and thither among the branches of 
some low trees, while I stared at him in amaze- 
ment, calling on my comrade, who was as igno- 
rant as myself, but less excited, to behold the 
prodigy. Half trembling lest the bird should 
prove to be some straggler from the tropics, the 



136 SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 

like of which would not be found in the cabi- 
net before mentioned, I went thither that very- 
evening. Alas, my silly fears ! there stood the 
little beauty's exact counterpart, labeled Seto- 
phaga ruticilla, the American redstart, — a bird 
which the manual assured me was very common 
in my neighborhood. 

But it was not my eyes only that were 
opened, my ears also were touched. It was as 
if all the birds had heretofore been silent, and 
now, under some sudden impulse, had broken 
out in universal concert. What a glorious 
chorus it was ; and every voice a stranger ! 
For a week or more I was puzzled by a song 
which I heard without fail whenever I went 
into the woods, but the author of which I could 
never set eyes on, — a song so exceptionally 
loud and shrill, and marked by such a vehe- 
ment crescendo, that, even to my new-found 
ears, it stood out from the general medley a 
thing by itself. Many times I struck into the 
woods in the direction whence it came, but 
without getting so much as a flying glimpse 
of the musician. Very mysterious, surely I 
Finally, by accident I believe, I caught the fel- 
low in the very act of singing, as he stood on 
a dead pine-limb ; and a few minutes later he 
was on the ground, walking about (not hop- 
ping) with the primmest possible gait, — a 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 137 

small olive-brown bird, with an orange crown 
and a speckled breast. Then I knew him for 
the golden-crowned thrush ; but it was not for 
some time after this that I heard his famous 
evening song, and it was longer still before I 
found his curious roofed nest. 

"Happy those early days," those days of 
childish innocence, — though I was a man 
grown, — when every bird seemed newly cre- 
ated, and even the redstart and the wood wag- 
tail were like rarities from the ends of the 
earth. Verily, my case was like unto Adam's, 
when every fowl of the air was brought before 
him for a name. 

One evening, on my way back to the city 
after an afternoon ramble, I stopped just at 
dusk in a grove of hemlocks, and soon out of 
the tree-top overhead came a song, — a brief 
strain of about six notes, in a musical but 
rather rough voice, and in exquisite accord 
with the quiet solemnity of the hour. Again 
and again the sounds fell on my ear, and as 
often I endeavored to obtain a view of the 
singer ; but he was in the thick of the upper 
branches, and I looked for him in vain. How 
delicious the music was ! a perfect lullaby, 
drowsy and restful ; like the benediction of the 
wood on the spirit of a tired city-dweller. I 
blessed the unknown songster in return ; and 



138 SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 

even now I have a feeling that the peculiar en- 
joyment which the song of the black- throated 
green warbler never fails to afford me may per- 
haps be due in some measure to its association 
with that twilight hour. 

To this same hemlock grove I was in the 
habit, in those days, of going now and then 
to listen to the evening hymn of the veery, or 
Wilson thrush. Here, if nowhere else, might 
be heard music fit to be called sacred. Nor did 
it seem a disadvantage, but rather the contrary, 
when, as sometimes happened, I was compelled 
to take my seat in the edge of the wood, and 
wait quietly, in the gathering darkness, for 
vespers to begin. The veery's mood is not so 
lofty as the hermit's, nor is his music to be com- 
pared for brilliancy and fullness with that of the 
wood thrush ; but, more than any other bird- 
song known to me, the veery's has, if I may 
say so, the accent of sanctity. Nothing is here 
of self-consciousness ; nothing of earthly pride 
or passion. If we chance to overhear it and 
laud the singer, that is our affair. Simple- 
hearted worshiper that he is, he has never 
dreamed of winning praise for himself by the 
excellent manner in which he praises his Crea- 
tor, — an absence of thrift, which is very be- 
coming in thrushes, though, I suppose, it is 
hardly to be looked for in human choirs. 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 139 

And yet, for all the unstudied ease and sim- 
plicity of the veery's strain, he is a great master 
of technique. In his own artless way he does 
what I have never heard any other bird at- 
tempt : he gives to his melody all the force of 
liarmon}'-. How this unique and curious effect, 
this vocal double-stopping, as a violinist might 
terra it, is produced, is not certainly known ; 
but it would seem that it must be by an arpeggio^ 
struck with such consummate quickness and 
precision that the ear is unable to follow it, and 
is conscious of nothing but the resultant chord. 
At any rate, the thing itself is indisputable, and 
has often been commented on. 

Moreover, this is only half the veery's tech- 
nical proficiency. Once in a while, at least, he 
will favor you with a delightful feat of ventril- 
oquism ; beginning to sing in single voice, as 
usual, and anon, without any noticeable increase 
in the loudness of the tones, diffusing the music 
throughout the wood, as if there were a bird in 
every tree, all singing together in the strictest 
time. I am not sure that all members of the 
species possess this power, and I have never 
seen the performance alluded to in print ; but 
I have heard it when the illusion was complete, 
and the effect most beautiful. 

Music so devout and unostentatious as the 
veery's does not appeal to the hurried or the 



140 SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 

preoccupied. If you would enjoy it you must 
bring an ear to hear. I have sometimes pleased 
myself with imagining a resemblance between 
it and the poetry of George Herbert, — both 
uncared for by the world, but both, on that very 
account, prized all the more dearly by the few 
in every generation whose spirits are in tune 
with theirs. 

This bird is one of a group of small thrushes 
called the Hylocichlce^ of which group we have 
five representatives in the Atlantic States : the 
wood thrush ; the Wilson, or tawny thrush ; 
the hermit ; the olive-backed, or Swainson ; and 
the gray-cheeked, or Alice's thrush. To the 
unpracticed eye the five all look alike. All of 
them, too, have the same glorious voice, so that 
the young student is pretty sure to find it a 
matter of some difiiculty to tell them apart. 
Yet there are differences of coloration which 
may be trusted as constant, and to which, after 
a while, the eye becomes habituated ; and, at 
the same time, each species has a song and call- 
notes peculiar to itself. One cannot help wish- 
ing, indeed, that he might hear the five singing 
by turns in the same wood. Then he could fix 
the distinguishing peculiarities of the different 
songs in his mind so as never to confuse them 
again. But this is more than can be hoped 
for ; the listener must be content with hearing 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 141 

two, or at the most three, of the species singing 
together, and trust his memory to make the nec- 
essary comparison. 

The song of the wood thrush is perhaps the 
most easily set apart from the rest, because of 
its greater compass of voice and bravery of ex- 
ecution. The Wilson's song, as you hear it by 
itself, seems so perfectly characteristic that you 
fancy you can never mistake any other for it ; 
and yet, if you are in northern New England 
only a week afterwards, you may possibly hear 
a Swainson (especially if he happens to be one 
of the best singers of his species, and, more es- 
pecially still, if he happens to be at just the 
right distance away), who you will say, at first 
thought, is surely a Wilson. The difficulty of 
distinguishing the voices is naturally greatest in 
the spring, when they have not been heard for 
eight or nine months. Here, as elsewhere, the 
student must be willing to learn the same lesson 
over and over, letting patience have her perfect 
work. That the five songs are really distin- 
guishable is well illustrated by the fact (which 
I have before mentioned), that the presence of 
the Alice thrush in New England during the 
breeding season was announced as probable by 
myself, simply on the strength of a song which 
I had heard in the White Mountains, and which, 
as I believed, must be his, notwithstanding I 



142 SCRAPING ACaUAlNTANCE. 

was entirely unacquainted with it, and though 
all our books affirmed that the Alice tlinish 
was not a summer resident of any part of the 
United States. 

It is worth remarking, also, in this connec- 
tion, that the HylocicJiloi differ more decidedly 
in their notes of alarm than in their songs. 
The wood thrush's call is extremely sharp and 
brusque, and is usually fired off in a little vol- 
ley ; that of the Wilson is a sort of whine, or 
snarl, in distressing contrast with his song ; the 
hermit's is a quick, sotto voce^ sometimes almost 
inaudible chuck ; the Swainson's is a mellow 
whistle ; while that of the Alice is something 
between the Swainson's and the Wilson's, — 
not so gentle and refined as the former, nor so 
outrageously vulgar as the latter. 

In what is here said about discriminating 
species it must be understood that I am not 
speaking of such identification as will answer 
a strictly scientific purpose. For that the bird 
must be shot. To the maiden 

"whose light hhie eyes 
Are tender over drowning flies," 

this decree will no doubt sound cruel. Men who 
pass laws of that sort may call themselves orni- 
thologists, if they will ; for her part she calls them 
butchers. We might turn on our fair accuser, it 
is true, with some inquiry about the two or three 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 143 

bird-skins which adorn her bonnet. But that 
would be only giving one more proof of our heart- 
lessness ; and, besides, unless a man is down- 
right angry he can scarcely feel that he has 
really cleared himself when lie has done nothing 
more than to point the finger and say, You 're 
another. However, I am not set for the defence 
of ornithologists. They are abundantly able to 
take care of themselves without the help of any 
outsider. I only declare that, even to my un- 
professional eye, this rule of theirs seems wise 
and necessary. They know, if their critics do 
not, how easy it is to be deceived ; how many 
times things have been seen and minutely de- 
scribed, which, as was afterwards established, 
could not by any possibility have been visible. 
Moreover, regret it as we may, it is clear that in 
this world nobody can escape giving and taking 
more or less pain. We of the sterner sex are 
accustomed to think that even our blue-eyed 
censors are not entirely innocent in this regard ; 
albeit, for myself, I am bound to believe that 
generally they are not to blame for the tortures 
they inflict upon us. 

Granting the righteousness of the scientist's 
caution, however, we may still find a less rigor- 
ous code sufficient for our own non-scientific, 
though I hope not unscientific, purpose. For it 
is certain that no great enjoyment of bird study 



144 SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 

is possible for some of iis, if we are never to be 
allowed to call our gentle friends by name un- 
til in every case we have gone through the for- 
mality of a post-mortem examination. Practi- 
cally, and for every-day ends, we may know a 
robin, or a redstart, or even a hermit thrush, 
when we see him, without first turning the bird 
into a specimen. 

Probably there are none of our birds which 
afford more surprise and pleasure to a novice 
than the family of warblers. A well-known 
ornithologist has related how one day he wan- 
dered into the forest in an idle mood, and acci- 
dentally catching a gleam of bright color over- 
head, raised his gun and brought the bird to his 
feet ; and how excited and charmed he was with 
the wondrous beauty of his little trophy. Were 
there other birds in the woods as lovely as this ? 
He would see for himself. And that was the 
beginning of what bids fair to prove a life-long 
enthusiasm. 

Thirty-eight warblers are credited to New 
England ; but it would be safe to say that not 
more than three of them are known to the 
average New-Englander. How should he know 
them, indeed ? They do not come about the 
flower-garden like the humming-bird, nor about 
the lawn like the robin ; neither can they be 
hunted with a dog like the grouse and the 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 145 

woodcock. Hence, for all their gorgeous ap- 
parel, they are mainly left to students and 
collectors. Of our common species the most 
beautiful are, perhaps, the blue yellow -back, 
tlie blue golden-wing, the Blackburnian, the 
black -and -yellow, the Canada flycatcher, and 
the redstart ; with the yellow-rump, the black- 
throated green, the prairie warbler, the sum- 
mer yellow -bird, and the Maryland yellow- 
throat coming not far behind. But all of them 
are beautiful, and they possess, besides, the 
charm of great diversity of plumage and hab- 
its ; while some of them have the further merit, 
by no means inconsiderable, of being rare. 

It was a bright day for me when the blue 
golden-winged warbler settled in my neighbor- 
hood. On my morning walk I detected a new 
song, and, following it up, found a new bird, 
— a result which is far from being a thing 
of course. The spring migration was at its 
height, and at first I expected to have the 
pleasure of my new friend's society for only 
a day or two ; so I made the most of it. But 
it turned out that he and his companion had 
come to spend the summer, and before very long 
I discovered their nest. This was still unfin- 
ished when I came upon it ; but I knew pretty 
well whose it was, having several times noticed 
the birds about the spot, and a few days after- 

10 



146 SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 

wards the female bravely sat still, while I bent 
over her, admiring her courage and her hand- 
some dress. I paid my respects to the little 
mother almost daily, but jealously guarded her 
secret, sharing it only with a kind-hearted 
woman, whom I took with me on one of my 
visits. But, alas! one day I called, only to 
find the nest empty. Whether the villain who 
pillaged it traveled on two legs, or on four, I 
never knew. Possibly he dropped out of the 
air. But I wished him no good, whoever he 
was. Next year the birds appeared again, and 
more than one pair of them ; but no nest conld 
I find, though I often looked for it, and, as 
children say in their games, was sometimes very 
warm. 

Is there any lover of birds in whose mind 
certain birds and certain places are not indls- 
solubly joined ? Most of us, I am sure, could 
go over the list and name the exact spots 
where we first saw this one, where we first 
heard that one sing, and where we found 
our first nest of the other. There is a piece 
of swampy woodland in Jefferson, New Hamp- 
shire, midway between the hotels and the rail- 
way station, which, for me, will always be as- 
sociated with the song of the winter wren. I 
had been making an attempt to explore the 
wood, with a view to its botanical treasures ; 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 147 

but the mosquitoes had rallied with such spirit 
that I was glad to beat a retreat to the road. 
Just then an unseen bird broke out into a song, 
and by the time he had finished I was saying to 
myself, A winter wren ! Now, if I could only 
see him in the act, and so be sure of the correct- 
ness of my guess ! I worked to that end as 
cautiously as possible, but all to no purpose ; 
and finally I started abruptly toward the spot 
whence the sound had come, expecting to see 
the bird fly. But apparently there was no bird 
there, and I stood still, in a little perplexity. 
Then, all at once, the wren appeared, hopping 
about among the dead branches, within a few 
yards of my feet, and peering at the intruder 
with evident curiosity ; and the next moment 
he was joined by a hermit thrush, equally in- 
quisitive. Both were silent as dead men, but 
plainly had no doubt whatever that they were 
in their own domain, and that it belonged to 
the other party to move away. I presumed 
that the thrush, at least, had a nest not far off, 
but after a little search (the mosquitoes were 
still active) I concluded not to intrude further 
on his domestic privacy. I had heard the 
wren's famous song, and it had not been over- 
praised. But then came the inevitable second 
thought : had I really heard it ? True, the 
music possessed the wren characteristics, and a 



148 SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 

winter wren was in the brush ; but what proof 
had I that the bird and the song belonged to- 
gether ? No ; I must see him in the act of 
singing. But this, I found, was more easily 
said than done. In Jefferson, in Gorham, in 
the Franconia Notch, in short, wherever I 
went, there was no difficulty about hearing the 
music, and little about seeing the wren ; but it 
was provoking that eye and ear could never 
be brought to bear witness to the same bird. 
However, this diflBculty was not insuperable, 
and after it was once overcome I was in the 
habit of witnessing the whole performance 
almost as often as I wished. 

Of similar interest to me is a turn in an old 
Massachusetts road, over which, boy and man, 
I have traveled hundreds of times ; one of those 
delightful back-roads, half road and half lane, 
where the grass grows between the horse-track 
and the wheel-track, while bushes usurp what 
ought to be the sidewalk. Here, one morning 
in the time when every day was disclosing two 
or three new species for my delight, I stopped 
to listen to some bird of quite unsuspected 
identity, who was calling and singing and scold- 
ing in the Indian brier thicket, making, in truth, 
a prodigious racket. I twisted and turned, and 
was not a little astonished when at last I de- 
tected the author of all this outcry. From a 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 149 

study of the manual I set him down as proba- 
bly the white-eyed vireo, — a conjecture which 
further investigation confirmed. This vireo is 
the very prince of stump-speakers, — fluent, 
loud, and sarcastic, — and is well called the 
politician, though it is a disappointment to learn 
that the title was given him, not for his elo- 
quence, but on account of his habit of putting 
pieces of newspaper into his nest. While I 
stood peering into the thicket, a man whom I 
knew came along the road, and caught me thus 
disreputably employed. Without doubt he 
thought me a lazy good-for-nothing ; or pos- 
sibly (being more charitable) he said to him- 
self, " Poor fellow ! he 's losing his mind." 

Take a gun on your shoulder, and go wan- 
dering about the woods all day long, and you 
will be looked upon with respect, no matter 
though you kill nothing bigger than a chip- 
munk ; or stand by the hour at the end of a 
fishing-pole, catching nothing but mosquito- 
bites, and your neighbors will think no ill of 
you. But to be seen staring at a bird for five 
minutes together, or picking road-side weeds ! 
— well, it is fortunate there are asylums for the 
crazy. Not unlikely the malady will grow upon 
him ; and who knows how soon he may become 
dangerous? Something must be wrong about 
that to which we are unaccustomed. Blowing 



160 SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 

out the brains of rabbits and squirrels is an 
innocent and delightful pastime, as everybody 
knows ; and the delectable excitement of pull- 
ing half-grown fishes out of the pond to perish 
miserably on the bank, that, too, is a recreation 
easily enough appreciated. But what shall be 
said of enjoying birds without killing them, or 
of taking pleasure in plants, which, so far as we 
know, cannot suffer even if we do kill them? 

Of my many pleasant associations of birds 
with places, one of the pleasantest is connected 
with the red-headed woodpecker. This showy 
bird has for a good many years been very rare 
in Massachusetts ; and therefore, when, during 
the freshness of my ornithological researches, I 
went to Washington for a month's visit, it was 
one of the things which I had especially in 
mind, to make his acquaintance. But I looked 
for him without success, till, at the end of a 
fortnight, I made a pilgrimage to Mount Ver- 
non. Here, after visiting the grave, and going 
over the house, as every visitor does, I saun- 
tered about the grounds, thinking of the great 
man who used to do the same so many years 
before, but all the while keeping my eyes open 
for the present feathered inhabitants of the sa- 
cred spot. Soon a bird dashed by me, and 
struck against the trunk of an adjacent tree, 
and glancing up quickly, I beheld my much- 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 151 

sought red -headed woodpecker. How appro- 
priately patriotic he looked, at the home of 
Washington, wearing the national colors, — red, 
white, and blue ! After this he became abun- 
dant about the capital, so that I saw him often, 
and took much pleasure in his frolicsome ways ; 
and, some years later, he suddenly appeared in 
force in the vicinity of Boston, where he re- 
mained through the winter months. To my 
thought, none the less, he will always suggest 
Mount Vernon. Indeed, although he is cer- 
tainly rather jovial, and even giddy, he is to me 
the bird of Washington much more truly than 
is the solemn, stupid-seeming eagle, who com- 
monly bears that name. 

To go away from home, even if the journey 
be no longer than from Massachusetts to the 
District of Columbia, is sure to prove an event 
of no small interest to a young naturalist ; and 
this visit of mine to the national capital w^as no 
exception. On the afternoon of my arrival, 
walking up Seventh Street, I heard a series of 
loud, clear, monotonous whistles, which I had 
then no leisure to investigate, but the author 
of which I promised myself the satisfaction of 
meeting at another time. In fact, I think it 
was at least a fortnight before I learned that 
these whistles came from the tufted titmouse. 
I had been seeing him almost daily, but till 



152 SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 

then he had never chanced to use that particu- 
lar note while under my eye. 

There was a certain tract of country, wood- 
land and pasture, over which I roamed a good 
many times, and which is still clearly mapped 
out in my memory. Here I found my first 
Carolina or mocking wren, who ran in at one 
side of a woodpile and came out at the other as 
I drew near, and who, a day or two afterwards, 
sang so loudly from an oak tree that I ransacked 
it with my eye in search of some large bird, 
and was confounded when finally I discovered 
who the musician really was. Here, every day, 
were to be heard the glorious song of the car- 
dinal grosbeak, the insect-like effort of the blue- 
gray gnat-catcher, and the rigmarole of the yel- 
low-breasted chat. On a wooded hillside, 
where grew a profusion of trailing arbutus, 
pink azalea, and bird-foot violets, the rowdy- 
ish, great-crested flycatchers were screaming in 
the tree-tops. In this same grove I twice saw 
the rare red-bellied woodpecker, who, on both 
occasions, after rapping smartly with his beak, 
turned his head and laid his ear against the 
trunk, evidently listening to see whether his 
alarm had set any grub a-stirring. Near by, 
in an undergrowth, I fell in with a few worm- 
eating warblers. They seemed of a peculiarly 
unsuspicious turn of mind, and certainly wore 



SCRAPING ACQUAINTANCE. 153 

the quaintest of head-dresses. I must mention 
also a scarlet tanager, who, all afire as he was, 
one day alighted in a bush of flowering dog- 
wood, which was completely covered with its 
large white blossoms. Probably he had no idea 
how well his perch became him. 

Perhaps I ought to be ashamed to confess it, 
but, though I went several times into the gal- 
leries of our honorable Senate and House of 
Representatives, and heard speeches by some 
celebrated men, including at least half a dozen 
candidates for the presidency, yet, after all, 
the congressmen in feathers interested me 
most. I thought, indeed, that the chat might 
well enough have been elected to the lower 
house. His volubility and waggish manners 
would have made him quite at home in that 
assembly, while his orange - colored waistcoat 
would have given him an agreeable conspicuity. 
But, to be sure, he would have needed to learn 
the use of tobacco. 

Well, all this was only a few years ago ; but 
the men whose eloquence then drew the crowd 
to the capitol are, many of them, heard there 
no longer. Some are dead ; some have retired 
to private life. But the birds never die. Every 
spring they come trooping back for their all- 
summer session. The turkey-buzzard still floats 
majestically over the city ; the chat still prac- 



154 SCRAPING A^UAINTANCE. 

tices his lofty tumbling in the suburban pas- 
tures, snarling and scolding at all comers ; the 
flowing Potomac still yields " a blameless 
sport " to the fish-crow and the kingfisher ; the 
orchard oriole continues to whistle in front of 
the Agricultural Department, and the crow 
blackbird to parade back and forth over the 
Smithsonian lawns. Presidents and senators 
may come and go, be praised and vilified, and 
then in turn forgotten ; but the birds are sub- 
ject to no such mutations. It is a foolish 
thought, but sometimes their happy careless- 
ness seems the better part. 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 



The lesser lights, the dearer still 
That they elude a vulgar eye. 

Browning. 

Listen too, 
How every pause is filled with under-note-. 

Shellky. 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 



Among those of us who are in the habit of 
attending to bird-songs, there can hardly be 
anybody, I think, who has not found himself 
specially and permanently attracted by the mu- 
sic of certain birds who have little or no gen- 
eral reputation. Our favoritism may perhaps 
be the result of early associations : we heard the 
singer first in some uncommonly romantic spot, 
or when we were in a mood of unusual sensibil- 
ity ; and, in greater or less degree, the charm of 
that hour is always renewed for us with the 
repetition of the song. Or it may be (who will 
assert the contrary ?) that there is some occult 
relation between the bird's mind and our own. 
Or, once more, something may be due to the nat- 
ural pleasure which amiable people take (and 
all lovers of birds may be supposed, a priori^ to 
belong to that class) in paying peculiar honor 
to merit which the world at large, less discrimi- 
nating than they, has thus far failed to recog- 
nize, and in which, therefore, as by " right of 



158 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

discovery," they have a sort of proprietary inter- 
est. This, at least, is evident : our preference 
is not determined altogether by the intrinsic 
worth of the song ; the mind is active, not pass- 
ive, and gives to the music something from it- 
self, — " the consecration and the poet's dream." 

Furthermore, it is to be said that a singer — 
and a bird no less than a man — may be want- 
ing in that fullness and scope of voice and that 
large measure of technical skill which are abso- 
lutely essential to the great artist, properly so 
called, and yet, within his own limitations, may 
be competent to please even the most fastidious 
ear. It is with birds as with other poets : the 
smaller gift need not be the less genuine ; and 
they whom the world calls greatest, and whom 
we ourselves most admire, may possibly not be 
the ones who touch us most intimately, or to 
whom we return oftenest and with most delight. 

This may be well illustrated by a comparison 
of the chickadee with the brown thrush. The 
thrush, or, as he is sometimes profanely styled, 
the thrasher, is the most pretentious, perhaps I 
ought to say the greatest, of New England song- 
sters, if we rule out the mocking-bird, who is so 
very rare with us as scarcely to come into the 
competition ; and still, in my opinion, his sing- 
ing seldom produces the effect of really fine 
music. With all his ability, which is nothing 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 159 

short of marvelous, his taste is so deplorably 
uncertain, and bis passion so often becomes a 
downright frenzy, that the excited listener, 
hardly knowing what to think, laughs and shouts 
Bravo ! by turns. Something must be amiss, 
certainly, when the deepest feelings of the heart 
are poured forth in a manner to suggest the per- 
formance of a huffo. The chickadee, on the 
other hand, seldom gets mention as a singer. 
Probably he never looked upon himself as such. 
You will not find him posing at the top of a 
tree, challenging the world to listen and admire. 
But, as he hops from twig to twig in quest of 
insects' eggs and other dainties, his merry spirits 
are all the time bubbling over in little chirps 
and twitters, with now and then a Chickadee^ 
dee, or a Hear, hear me, every least syllable of 
which is like " the very sound of happy 
thoughts." For my part, I rate such trifles with 
the best of all good music, and feel that we 
cannot be grateful enough to the brave tit, who 
furnishes us with them for the twelve months 
of every year. 

So far as the chickadee is concerned, I see 
nothing whatever to wish different; but am 
glad to believe that, for my day and long after, 
he will remain the same unassuming, careless- 
hearted creature that he now is. If I may be 
allowed the paradox, it would be too bad for 



160 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

him to cbange, even for the better. But the 
bluebird, who like the titmouse is hardly to be 
accounted a musician, does seem to be some- 
what blameworthy. Once in a while, it is true, 
he takes a perch and sings ; but for the most 
part he is contented with a few simple notes, 
having no semblance of a tune. Possibly he 
holds that his pure contralto voice (I do not re- 
member ever to have heard from him any note 
of a soprano, or even of a mezzo-soprano quality) 
ought by itself to be a sufficient distinction ; but 
I think it likelier that his slight attempt at 
music is only one manifestation of the habitual 
reserve which, more than anything else per- 
haps, may be said to characterize him. How 
differently he and the robin impress us in this 
particular ! Both take up their abode in our 
door-yards and orchards ; the bluebird goes so 
far, indeed, as to accept our hospitality outright, 
building his nest in boxes put up for his accom- 
modation, and making the roofs of our houses 
his favorite perching stations. But, while the 
robin is noisily and jauntily familiar, the blue- 
bird maintains a dignified aloofness ; coming and 
going about the premises, but keeping his 
thoughts to himself, and never becoming one of 
us save by the mere accident of local proximity. 
The robin, again, loves to travel in large flocks, 
when household duties are over for the season ; 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 161 

but although the same has been reported of the 
bluebird, I have never myself seen such a thing, 
and am satisfied that, as a rule, this gentle spirit 
finds a family party of six or seven company 
enough. His reticence, as we cheerfully admit, 
is nothing to quarrel with ; it is all well-bred, 
and not in the least unkindly ; in fact, we like 
it, on the whole, rather better than the robin's 
pertness and garrulity ; but, none the less, its 
natural consequence is that the bird has small 
concern for musical display. When he sings, 
it is not to gain applause, but to express his af- 
fection ; and while, in one aspect of the case, 
there is nothing out of the way in this, — since 
his affection need not be the less deep and true 
because it is told in few words and with un- 
adorned phrase, — yet, as I said to begin with, 
it is hard not to feel that the world is being de- 
frauded, when for any reason, however amiable, 
the possessor of such a matchless voice has no 
ambition to make the most of it. 

It is always a double pleasure to find a plod- 
ding, humdrum-seeming man with a poet's heart 
in his breast ; and a little of the same delighted 
surprise is felt by every one, I imagine, when 
he learns for the first time that our little brown 
creeper is a singer. What life could possibly 
be more prosaic than his ? Day after day, year 
in and out, he creeps up one tree-trunk after 
11 



162 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

another, pausing only to peer right and left 
into the crevices of the bark, in search of mi- 
croscopic tidbits. A most irksome sameness, 
surely ! How the poor fellow must envy the 
swallows, who live on the wing, and, as it were, 
have their home in heaven ! So it is easy for 
us to think ; but I doubt whether the creeper 
himself is troubled with such suggestions. He 
seems, to say the least, as well contented as the 
most of us ; and, what is more, I am inclined to 
doubt whether any except "free moral agents," 
like ourselves, are ever wicked enough to find 
fault with the orderings of Divine Providence. 
I fancy, too, that we may have exaggerated the 
monotony of the creeper's lot. It can scarcely 
be that even his days are without their occa- 
sional pleasurable excitements. After a good 
many trees which yield little or nothing for his 
pains, he must now and then light upon one 
which is like Canaan after the wilderness, — 
" a land flowing with milk and honey." In- 
deed, the longer I think of it the more confi- 
dent I feel that every aged creeper must have 
had sundry experiences of this sort, which he 
is never weary of recounting for the edification 
of his nephews and nieces, who, of course, are 
far too young to have anything like the wide 
knowledge of the world which their venerable 
three-years-old uncle possesses. Certhia works 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 163 

all day for his daily bread ; and yet even of 
him it is true that " the life is more than meat." 
He has his inward joys, his affectionate de- 
hglits, which no outward infelicity can touch. 
A bird who thinks nothing of staying by his 
nest and bis mate at the sacrifice of his life is 
not to be written down a dullard or a drudge, 
merely because his dress is plain and his occu- 
pation unromantic. He has a right to sing, for 
he has something within him to inspire the 
strain. 

There are descriptions of the creeper's music 
which liken it to a wren's. I am sorry that 
I have myself heard it only on one occasion : 
then, however, so far was it from being wren- 
like that it might rather have been the work of 
one of the less proficient warblers, — a some- 
what long opening note followed by a hurried 
series of shorter ones, the whole given in a 
sharp, thin voice, and having nothing to recom- 
mend it to notice, considered simply as music. 
All the while the bird kept on industriously 
with his journey up the tree ; and it is not in 
the least unlikely that he may have another 
and better song, which he reserves for times of 
more leisure.^ 

Our American wood-warblers are all to be 

1 Since this was written I have heard the creeper sing a tune 
very different from the one described above. See p. 227. 



164 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

classed among the minor songsters ; standing 
in this respect in strong contrast with the true 
Old World warblers, of whose musical capacity 
enough, perhaps, is said when it is mentioned 
that the nightingale is one of them. But, com- 
parisons apart, our birds are by no means to be 
despised, and not a few of their songs have a 
good degree of merit. That of the well-known 
summer yellow-bird may be taken as fairly rep- 
resentative of the entire group, being neither 
one of the best nor one of the poorest. He, I 
have noticed, is given to singing late in the 
day. Three of the New England species have 
at the same time remarkably rough voices and 
black throats, — I mean the black - throated 
blue, the black-throated green, and the blue 
golden -wing, — and seeing that the first two 
are of the genus Dendroeca^ while the last is 
a Helminthophaga^ I have allowed myself to 
query (half in earnest) whether they may not, 
possibly, be more nearly related than the sys- 
tematists have yet discovered. Several of the 
warbler songs are extremely odd. The blue 
yellow-back's, for example, is a brief, hoarse, 
upward run, — a kind of scale exercise ; and if 
the practice of such things be really as bene- 
ficial as music teachers afiirm, it would seem 
that this little beauty must in time become a 
vocalist of the first order. Nearly the same 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 165 

might be said of the prairie warbler ; but his 
etude is a little longer and less hurried, besides 
being in a higher key. I do not call to mind 
any bird who sings a downward scale. Having 
before spoken of the tendency of warblers to 
learn two or even three set tunes, I was the 
more interested when, last summer, I added 
another to my list of the species which aspire 
to this kind of liberal education. It was on the 
side of Mount Clinton that I heard two Black- 
burnians, both in full sight and within a few 
rods of each other, who were singing two en- 
tirely distinct songs. One of these — it is the 
common one, I think — ended quaintly with 
three or four short notes, like zip^ zip, zip; 
while the other was not unlike a fraction of the 
winter wren's melody. Those who are familiar 
with the latter bird will perhaps recognize the 
phrase referred to if I call it the willie, willie, 
winkie, — with a triple accent on the first syl- 
lable of the last word. Most of the songs of 
this family are ratlier slight, but the extremest 
case known to me is that of the black - poll 
(^Dendroeca striata), whose zee, zee, zee is al- 
most ridiculously faint. You may hear it con- 
tinually in the higher spruce forests of the 
White Mountains ; but j^ou will look a good 
many times before you discover its author, and 
not improbably will begin by taking it for the 



166 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

call of the kinglet. The music of the bay- 
breasted warbler is similar to the black-poll's, 
but hardly so weak and formless. It seems 
reasonable to believe not only that these two 
species are descended from a common ancestry, 
but that the divergence is of a comparatively 
recent date : even now the young of the year 
can be distinguished only with great difficulty, 
although the birds in full feather are clearly 
enough marked. 

Warblers' songs are often made up of two 
distinct portions : one given deliberately, the 
other hurriedly and with a concluding flourish. 
Indeed, the same may be said of bird-songs gen- 
erally, — those of the song sparrow, the bay- 
winged bunting, and the wood thrush being 
familiar examples. Yet there are many sing- 
ers who attempt no climax of this sort, but 
make their music to consist of two, or three, or 
more parts, all alike. The Maryland yellow- 
throat, for instance, cries out over and over, 
" What a pity, what a pity, what a pity ! " So, 
at least, he seems to say ; though, I confess, it 
is more than likely I mistake the words, since 
the fellow never appears to be feeling badly, 
but, on the contrary, delivers his message with 
an air of cordial satisfaction. The song of the 
pine-creeping warbler is after still another fash- 
ion, — one simple short trill. It is musical and 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 167 

sweet ; the more so for coining almost always 
out of a pine-tree. 

The vireos, or greenlets, are akin to the war- 
blers in appearance and habits, and like them 
are peculiar to the western continent. We have 
no birds that are more unsparing of their mu- 
sic (prodigality is one of the American vir- 
tues, we are told) : they sing from morning till 
night, and — some of them, at least — continue 
thus till the very end of the season. It is 
worth mentioning, however, that the red-eye 
makes a short day ; becoming silent just at the 
time when the generality of birds grow most 
noisy. Probably the same is true of the rest 
of the family, but on that point I am not pre- 
pared to speak with positiveness. Of the five 
New England species (I omit the brotherly-love 
greenlet, never having been fortunate enough 
to know him) the white-eye is decidedly the 
most ambitious, the warbling and the solitary 
are the most pleasing, while the red-eye and 
the yellow-throat are very much alike, and both 
of them rather too monotonous and persistent. 
It is hard, sometimes, not to get out of patience 
with the red-eye's ceaseless and noisy iteration 
of his trite theme ; especially if you are doing 
your utmost to catch the notes of some rarer 
and more refined songster. In my note-book I 
find an entry describing my vain attempts to 



1G8 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

enjoy the music of a rose-breasted grosbeak, — 
who at that time had never been a common 
bird with me, — while *' a pesky Wagnerian 
red-eye kept up an incessant racket." 

The warbling vireo is admirably named ; 
there is no one of our birds that can more prop- 
erly be said to warble. He keeps further from 
the ground than the others, and shows a strong 
preference for the elms of village streets, out of 
which his delicious music drops upon the ears 
of all passers underneath. How many of them 
hear it and thank the singer is unhappily an- 
other question. 

The solitary vireo may once in a while be 
heard in a roadside tree, chanting as familiarly 
as any red-eye ; but he is much less abundant 
than the latter, and, as a rule, more retiring. 
His ordinary song is like the red-eye's and the 
yellow-throat's, except that it is pitched some- 
what higher and has a peculiar inflection or ca- 
dence, which on sufficient acquaintance becomes 
quite unmistakable. This, however, is only the 
smallest part of his musical gift. One morning 
in May, while strolling through a piece of thick 
woods, I came upon a bird of this species, who, 
all alone like myself, was hopping from one low 
branch to another, and every now and then 
breaking out into a kind of soliloquizing song, 
— a musical chatter, shifting suddenly to an in- 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 169 

tricate, low-voiced warble. Later in the same 
day I found another in a chestnut grove. This 
List was in a state of quite unwonted fervor, 
and sang almost continuously ; now in the usual 
disconnected vireo manner, and now with a 
chatter and warble like what I had heard in the 
morning, but louder and longer. His best ef- 
forts ended abruptly with the ordinary vireo 
call, and the instantaneous change of voice gave 
to the whole a very strange effect. The chat- 
ter and warble appeared to be related to each 
other precisely as are those of the ruby-crowned 
kinglet ; while the warble had a certain tender, 
affectionate, some would say plaintive quality, 
which at once put me in mind of the goldfinch. 
I have seldom been more charmed with the 
song of any bird than I was on the 7th of last 
October with that of this same Vireo solitarius. 
The morning was bright and warm, but the 
birds had nearly all taken their departure, and 
the few that remained were silent. Suddenly 
the stillness was broken by a vireo note, and I 
said to myself with surprise, A red-eye? List- 
ening again, however, I detected the solitary's 
inflection ; and after a few moments the bird, 
in the most obliging manner, came directly to- 
wards me, and began to warble in the fashion 
already described. He sang and sang, — as if 
his song could have no ending, — and mean- 



170 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

while was flitting from tree to tree, intent upon 
his breakfast. As far as I could discover, he 
was without company; and his music, too, 
seemed to be nothing more than an unpremed- 
itated, half-unconscious talking to himself. 
Wonderfully sweet it was, and full of the hap- 
piest content. " I listened till I had my fill," 
and returned the favor, as best I could, by hop- 
ing that the little wayfarer's lightsome mood 
would not fail him, all the way to Guatemala 
and back again. 

Exactly a month before this, and not far from 
the same spot, I had stood for some minutes to 
enjoy the "recital" of the solitary's saucy 
cousin, the white-eye. Even at that time, al- 
though the woods were swarming with birds, — 
many of them travelers from the North, — this 
white-eye was nearly the only one still in song. 
He, however, was fairly brimming over with 
music ; changing his tune again and again, and 
introducing (for the first time in Weymouth, as 
concert programmes say) a notably fine shake. 
Like the solitary, he was all the while busily 
feeding (birds in general, and vireos in particu- 
lar, hold with Mrs. Browning that we may 
" prove our work the better for the sweetness of 
our song "), and one while was exploring a poi- 
son-dogwood bush, plainly without the slightest 
fear of any ill-result. It occurred to me that 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 171 

possibly it is our fault, and not that of Rhus 
venenata^ when we suffer from the touch of that 
graceful shrub. 

The white-eyed greenlet is a vocalist of such 
extraordinary versatility and power that one 
feels almost guilty in speaking of him under the 
title which stands at the head of this paper. 
How he would scold, out-carlyling Carlyle, if he 
knew what were going on ! Nevertheless I can- 
not rank him with the great singers, exception- 
ally clever and original as, bey(md all dispute, 
he is ; and for that matter, I look upon the sol- 
itary as very much his superior, in spite of — 
or, shall I say, because of ? — the latter's greater 
simplicity and reserve. 

But if we hesitate thus about these two in- 
conspicuous vireos, whom half of those who do 
them the honor to read what is here said about 
them will have never seen, how are we to deal 
with the scarlet tanager? Our handsomest 
bird, and with musical aspirations as well, shall 
we put him into the second class? It must be 
so, I fear : yet such justice is a trial to the 
flesh ; for what critic could ever quite leave out 
of account the beauty of a prima donna in pass- 
ing judgment on her work ? Does not her an- 
gelic face sing to his eye, as Emerson says ? 

Formerly I gave the tanager credit for only 
one song, — the one which suggests a robin 



172 MINOR^ONGSTERS. 

laboring under an attack of hoarseness ; but I 
have discovered that he himself regards his cliip- 
cherr as of equal value. At least, I have found 
him perched at the tip of a tall pine, and re- 
peating this inconsiderable and not very melo- 
dious trochee with all earnestness and persever- 
ance. Sometimes he rehearses it thus at night- 
fall ; but even so I cannot call it highly artistic. 
I am glad to believe, however, that he does not 
care in the least for my opinion. Why should 
he ? He is too true a gallant to mind what 
anybody else thinks, so long as one is pleased ; 
and she, no doubt, tells him every day that he 
is the best singer in the grove. Beside his di- 
vine chlp-cherr the rhapsody of the wood thrush 
is a mere nothing, if she is to be the judge. 
Strange, indeed, that so shabbily dressed a 
creature as this thrush should have the pre- 
sumption to attempt to sing at all ! " But 
then," she charitably adds, " perhaps he is not 
to blame ; such things come by nature ; and 
there are some birds, you know, who cannot tell 
the difference between noise and music." 

We trust that the tanager will improve as 
time goes on ; but in any case we are largely in 
his debt. How we should miss him if he were 
gone, or even were become as rare as the sum- 
mer red-bird and the cardinal are in our lati- 
tude ! As it is, he lights up our Northern woods 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 173 

with a truly tropical splendor, the like of which 
no other of our birds can furnish. Let us hold 
him in hearty esteem, and pray that he may 
never be exterminated ; no, not even to beau- 
tify the head-gear of our ladies, who, if they 
only knew it, are already sufficiently bewitch- 
ing. 

What shall we say now about the lesser 
lights of that most musical family, the finches ? 
Of course the cardinal and rose-breasted gros- 
beaks are not to be included in any such cate- 
gory. Nor will / put there the goldfinch, the 
linnet, the fox-colored sparrow, and the song 
sparrow. These, if no more, shall stand among 
the immortals ; so far, at any rate, as my suf- 
frage counts. But who ever dreamed of calling 
the chipping sparrow a fine singer ? And yet, 
who that knows it does not love his earnest, 
long-drawn trill, dry and tuneless as it is ? I 
can speak for one, at all events ; and he always 
has an ear open for it by the middle of April. 
It is the voice of a friend, — a friend so true 
and gentle and confiding that we do not care to 
ask whether his voice be smooth and his speech 
eloquent. 

The chipper's congener, the field sparrow, 
is less neighborly than he, but a much better 
musician. His song is simplicity itself ; yet, 
even at its lowest estate, it never fails of being 



174 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

truly melodious, while by one means and an- 
other its wise little author contrives to impart 
to it a very considerable variety, albeit within 
pretty narrow limits. Last spring the field 
sparrows were singing constantly from the mid- 
dle of April till about the 10th of May, when 
they became entirely dumb. Then, after a 
week in which I heard not a note, they again 
grew musical. I pondered not a little over 
their silence, but concluded that they were just 
then very much occupied with preparations for 
housekeeping. 

The bird who is called indiscriminately the 
grass finch, the bay-winged bunting, the bay- 
winged sparrow, the vesper sparrow, and I know 
not what else (the ornithologists have nick- 
named him Pooecetes gramineus)^ is a singer 
of good parts, but is especially to be com- 
mended for his refinement. In form his music 
is strikingly like the song sparrow's ; but the 
voice is not so loud and ringing, and the two 
or three opening notes are less sharply empha- 
sized. In general the difference between the 
two songs may perhaps be well expressed by 
saying that the one is more declamatory, the 
other more cantahile ; a difference exactly such 
as we might have expected, considering the ner- 
vous, impetuous disposition of the song sparrow 
and the placidity of the bay-wing. 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 175 

As one of his titles indicates, the bay-wiiig 
is famous for singing in the evening, when, of 
course, his efforts are doubly acceptable ; and I 
can readily believe that Mr. Minot is correct in 
his *' impression " that he has once or twice 
heard the song in the night. For while spend- 
ing a few days at a New Hampshire hotel, 
which was surrounded with fine lawns such as 
the grass finch delights in, I happened to be 
awake in the morning, long before sunrise, — 
when, in fact, it seemed like the dead of night, 
— and one or two of these sparrows were pip- 
ing freely. The sweet and gentle strain had 
the whole mountain valley to itself. How 
beautiful it was, set in such a broad " margin 
of silence," I must leave to be imagined. I 
noticed, moreover, that the birds sang almost 
incessantly the whole day through. Much of 
the time there were two singing antiphonall3^ 
Manifestly, the lines had fallen to them in 
pleasant places : at home for the summer in 
those luxuriant Sugar- Hi 11 fields, in continual 
sight of yonder magnificent mountain pano- 
rama, with Lafayette himself looming grandly 
in the foreground ; while they, innocent souls, 
had never so much as heard of hotel-keepers 
and their bills. " Happy commoners," indeed ! 
Their " songs in the night " seemed nowise sur- 
prising. I fancied that I could be happy my- 
self in such a case. 



176 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

Our familiar and ever-welcome snow-bird, 
known in some quarters as the black chipping- 
bird, and often called the black snow-bird, has 
a long trill, not altogether unlike the common 
chipper's, but in a much higher key. It is a 
modest lay, yet doubtless full of meaning ; for 
the singer takes to the very tip of a tree, and 
throws his head back in the most approved 
style. He does his best, at any rate, and so far 
ranks with the angels; while, if my testimony 
can be of any service to him, I am glad to say 
('t is too bad the praise is so equivocal) that I 
have heard many human singers who gave me 
less pleasure ; and further, that he took ^n in- 
dispensable though subordinate part in what 
was one of the most memorable concerts at 
which I was ever happy enough to be a listener. 
This was given some years ago in an old apple- 
orchard by a flock of fox-colored sparrows, who, 
perhaps for that occasion onl}^ had the " valua- 
ble assistance " of a large choir of snow-birds. 
The latter were twittering in every tree, while 
to this goodly accompaniment the sparrows 
were singing their loud, clear, thrush-like song. 
The combination was felicitous in the extreme. 
I would go a long way to hear the like again. 

If distinction cannot be attained by one means, 
who knows but that it may be by another ? It 
is denied us to be great ? Very well, we can at 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 177 

least try the effect of a little originality. Some- 
thing like this seems to be the philosophy of the 
indigo-bird ; and he carries it out both in dress 
and in song. As we have said already, it is usual 
for birds to reserve the loudest and most taking 
parts of their music for the close, though it may 
be doubted whether they have any intelligent 
purpose in so doing. Indeed, the apprehension 
of a great general truth such as lies at the basis 
of this well-nigh universal habit, — the truth, 
namely, that everything depends upon the im- 
pression finally left on the hearer's mind ; that 
to end with some grand burst, or with some 
surprisingly lofty note, is the only, or to speak 
cautiously, the principal, requisite to a really 
great musical performance, — the intelligent 
grasp of such a truth as this, I say, seems to me 
to lie beyond the measure of a bird's capacity 
in the present stage of his development. Be 
this as it may, however, it is noteworthy that 
the indigo-bird exactly reverses the common 
plan. He begins at his loudest and spright- 
liest, and then runs off into a diminuendo^ which 
fades into silence almost imperceptibly. The 
strain will never be renowned for its beauty ; 
but it is unique, and, further, is continued well 
into August. Moreover, — and this adds grace 
to the most ordinary song, — it is often let fall 
while the bird is on the wing. 

12 



178 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

This eccentric genius has taken possession of 
a certain hillside pasture, which, in another 
way, belongs to me also. Year after year he 
comes back and settles down upon it about the 
middle of May ; and I have often been amused 
to see his mate — who is not permitted to wear 
a single blue feather — drop out of her nest in 
a barberry bush and go fluttering off, both 
wings dragging helplessly through the grass. I 
should pity her profoundly but that I am in no 
doubt her injuries will rapidly heal when once 
I am out of sight. Besides, I like to imagine 
her beatitude, as, five minutes afterward, she 
sits again upon the nest, with her heart's treas- 
ures all safe underneath her. Many a time was 
a boy of my acquaintance comforted in some 
ache or pain with the words, " Never mind ! 
'twill feel better when it gets well ; " and so, 
sure enough, it always did. But what a wicked 
world this is, where nature teaches even a bird 
to play the deceiver ! 

On the same hillside is always to be found the 
chewink, — a creature whose dress and song are 
so unlike those of the rest of his tribe that the 
irreverent amateur is tempted to believe that, 
for once, the men of science have made a mis- 
take. What has any finch to do with a call 
like cherawinkj or with such a three-colored 
harlequin suit? But it is unsafe to judge ac- 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 179 

cording to the outward appearance, in ornithol- 
ogy as in other matters ; and I have heard that 
it is only those who are foolish as well as igno- 
rant who indulge in off-hand criticisms of wiser 
men's conclusions. So let us call the towhee a 
finch, and say no more about it. 

But whatever his lineage, it is plain that the 
chewink is not a bird to be governed very strictly 
by the traditions of the fathers. His usual song 
is characteristic and pretty, yet he is so far 
from being satisfied with it that he varies it con- 
tinually and in many ways, some of them sadly 
puzzling to the student who is set upon telling 
all the birds by their voices. I remember well 
enough the morning I was inveigled through the 
wet grass of two pastures — and that just as I 
was shod for the city — by a wonderfully for- 
eign note, which filled me with lively anticipa- 
tions of a new bird, but which turned out to be 
the work of a most innocent-looking towhee. It 
was perhaps this same bird, or his brother, whom 
I one day heard throwing in between his cus- 
tomary' c^erazi^mA^s a profusion of staccato notes 
of widely varying pitch, together with little vol- 
leys of tinkling sounds such as his every-day 
song concludes with. This medley was not laugh- 
able, like the chat's, which it suggested, but it 
had the same abrupt, fragmentary, and promis- 
cuous character. All in all, it was what I never 



180 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

should have expected from this paragon of self- 
possession. 

For self-control, as I have elsewhere said, is 
Pipilo's strong point. One afternoon last sum- 
mer a young friend and I found ourselves, as we 
suspected, near a chewink's nest, and at once 
set out to see which of us should have the honor 
of the discovery. We searched diligently, but 
without avail, while the father-bird sat quietly 
in a tree, calling with all sweetness and with 
never a trace of anger or trepidation, cheraivink^ 
cherawink. Finally we gave over the hunt, and 
I began to console my companion and myself 
for our disappointment by shaking in the face 
of the bird a small tree which very conveniently 
leaned toward the one in which he was perched. 
By rather vigorous efforts I could make this pass 
back and forth within a few inches of his bill ; 
but he utterly disdained to notice it, and kept 
on calling as before. While we were laughing 
at his impudence (Ais impudence !) the mother 
suddenly appeared, with an insect in her beak, 
and joined her voice to her husband's.' I was 
just declaring how cruel as well as useless it 
was for us to stay, when she ungratefully gave 
a ludicrous turn to what was intended for a very 
sage and considerate remark, by dropping almost 
at my feet, stepping upon the edge of her nest, 
and offering the morsel to one of her young. 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 181 

We watched the little tableau admiringly (I had 
never seen a prettier show of nonchalance), and 
thanked our stars that we had been saved from 
an involuntary slaughter of the innocents while 
trampling all about the spot. The nest, which 
we had tried so hard to find, was in plain sight, 
concealed only by the perfect agreement of its 
color with that of the dead pine-branches in the 
midst of which it was placed. The shrewd birds 
had somehow learned — by experience, perhaps, 
like ourselves — that those who would escape 
disagreeable and perilous conspicuity must con- 
form as closely as possible to the world around 
them. 

According to my observation, the towhee is 
not much given to singing after July ; but he 
keeps up his call, which is little less musical 
than his song, till his departure in late Septem- 
ber. At that time of the year the birds collect 
together in their favorite haunts ; and I remem- 
ber my dog's running into the edge of a road- 
side pasture among some cedar-trees, when there 
broke out such a chorus of cherawinks that I 
was instantly reminded of a swamp full of frogs 
in April. 

After the tanager the Baltimore oriole (named 
for Lord Baltimore, whose colors he wears) is 
probably the most gorgeous, as he is certainly 
one of the best known, of New England birds. 



182 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

He has discovered that men, bad as they are, 
are less to be dreaded than hawks and weasels, 
and so, after making sure that his wife is not 
subject to sea-sickness, he swings his nest boldly 
from a swaying shade-tree branch, in full view 
of whoever may choose to look at it. Some 
morning in May — not far from the 10th — you 
will wake to hear him fifing in the elm before 
your window. He has come in the night, and 
is already making himself at home. Once I saw 
a pair who on the very first morning had begun 
to get together materials for a nest. His whistle 
is one of the clearest and loudest, but he makes 
little pretensions to music. I have been pleased 
and interested, however, to see how tuneful he 
becomes in August, after most other birds have 
ceased to sing, and after a long interval of silence 
on his own part. Early and late he pipes and 
chatters, as if he imagined that the spring were 
really coming back again forthwith. What the 
explanation of this lyrical revival may be I have 
never been able to gather ; but the fact itself is 
very noticeable, so that it would not be amiss to 
call the " golden robin " the bird of August. 

The oriole's dusky relatives have the organs 
of song well developed ; and although most of 
the species have altogether lost the art of music, 
there are none of them, even now, that do not 
betray more or less of the musical impulse. The 



MINOR SONGSTERS. 183 

red-winged blackbird, indeed, has some really- 
praiseworthy notes; and to me — for personal 
reasons quite aside from any question about its 
lyrical value — his rough cucurree is one of the 
very pleasantest of sounds. For that matter, 
however, there is no one of our birds — be he, 
in technical language, " oscine " or" non-oscine " 
— whose voice is not, in its own way, agreeable. 
Except a few uncommonly superstitious people, 
who does not enjoy the whip-poor-will's trisyl- 
labic exhortation, and the yak of the night- 
hawk ? Bob White's weather predictions, also, 
have a wild charm all their own, albeit his 
persistent No more wet is often sadly out of ac- 
cord with the farmer's hopes. We have no more 
untuneful bird, surely, than the cow bunting ; 
yet even the serenades of this shameless polyg- 
amist have one merit, — they are at least amus- 
ing. With what infinite labor he brings forth his 
forlorn, broken-winded whistle, while his tail 
twitches convulsively, as if tail and larynx were 
worked by the same spring ! 

The judging, comparing spirit, the conscien- 
tious dread of being ignorantly happy when a 
broader culture would enable us to be intelli- 
gently miserable, — this has its place, unques- 
tionably, in concert halls ; but if we are to make 
the best use of out-door minstrelsy, we must 
learn to take things as we find them, throwing 



184 MINOR SONGSTERS. 

criticism to the winas. Having said which, I 
am bound to go further still, and to acknowledge 
that on looking back over the first part of this 
paper I feel more than half ashamed of the 
strictures therein passed upon the bluebird and 
the brown thrush. When I heard the former's 
salutation from a Boston Common elm on the 
morning of the 22d of February last, I said to 
myself that no music, not even the nightingale's, 
could ever be sweeter. Let him keep on, by all 
means, in his own artless way, paying no heed 
to what I have foolishly written about his short- 
comings. As for the thrasher's smile-provoking 
gutturals, I recall that even in the symphonies 
of the greatest of masters there are here and 
there quaint bassoon phrases, which have, and 
doubtless were intended to have, a somewhat 
whimsical effect ; and remembering this, I am 
ready to own that I was less wise than I thought 
myself when I found so much fault with the 
thrush's performance. I have sins enough to 
answer for : may this never be added to them, 
that I set up my taste against that of Beethoven 
and Harporhynehus rufus. 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 



Not much to find, not much to see ; 
But the air was fresh, the path was free. 

W. Allingham. 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 



A WEED has been defined as a plant the use 
of which is not yet discovered. If the defini- 
tion be correct there are few weeds. For the 
researches of others beside human investigators 
must be taken into the account. What we com- 
placently call the world below us is full of in- 
telligence. Every animal has a lore of its own ; 
not one of them but is — what the human 
scholar is more and more coming to be — a spe- 
ciaHst. In these days the most eminent bot- 
anists are not ashamed to compare notes with 
the insects, since it turns out that these bits of 
animate wisdom long ago anticipated some of 
the latest improvements of our modern system- 
atists.i ^^Q may see the red squirrel eating, 

1 See a letter by Dr. Fritz Muller, "Butterflies as Botanists : " 
Mature, vol. xxx. p. 240. Of similar import is the case, cited by 
Dr. Asa Gray (in the American Journal of Science, November, 
188-4, p. 325), of two species of plantain found in this country, 
which students have only of late discriminated, although it turns 
out that the cows have all along known them apart, eating one and 
declining the other, —the bovine taste being more exact, it would 
seem, or at any rate more prompt, than the botanist's lens. 



188 WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 

with real epicurean zest, mushrooms, the white 
and tender flesh of which we have ourselves 
looked at longingly, but have never dared to 
taste. How amused he would be (I fear he 
would even be rude enough to snicker) were 
you to caution him against poison ! As if Sci- 
urus Hudsonius did n't know what he were 
about ! Why should men be so provincial as 
to pronounce anything worthless merely because 
they Q-'ai\ do nothing with it? The clover is not 
without value, although the robin and the ori- 
ole may agree to think so. We know better ; 
and so do the rabbits and the bumblebees. The 
wise respect their own quality wherever they 
see it, and are thankful for a good hint from no 
matter what quarter. Here is a worthy neigh- 
bor of mine whom I hear every summer com- 
plaining of the chicory plants which disfigure 
the roadside in front of her windows. She 
wishes they were exterminated, every one of 
them. And they are homely, there is no deny- 
ing it, for all the beauty of their individual 
sky-blue flowers. No wonder a neat housewife 
finds them an eyesore. But I never pass the 
spot in August (I do not pass it at all after 
that) without seeing that hers is only one side 
of the story. My approach is sure to startle 
a few goldfinches (and they too are most esti- 
mable neighbors), to whom these scraggy herbs 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 189 

are quite as useful as my excellent lady's apple- 
trees and pear-trees are to her. I watch them 
as they circle about in musical undulations, and 
then drop down again to finish their repast; 
and I perceive that, in spite of its un sightli- 
ness, the chicory is not a weed, — its use has 
been discovered. 

In truth, the lover of birds soon ceases to 
feel the uncomeliness of plants of this sort ; he 
even begins to have a peculiar and kindly in- 
terest in them. A piece of '' waste ground," as 
it is called, an untidy garden, a wayside thicket 
of golden-rods and asters, pig-weed and even- 
ing primrose, — these come to be almost as 
attractive a sight to him as a thrifty field of 
wheat is to an agriculturalist. Taking his cue 
from the finches, he separates plants into two 
grand divisions, — those that shed their seeds 
in the fall, and those that hold them through 
the winter. The latter, especially if they are 
of a height to overtop a heavy snow-fall, are 
friends in need to his clients ; and he is certain 
to have marked a few places within the range 
of his every-day walks where, thanks to some- 
body's shiftlessness, perhaps, they have been 
allowed to flourish. 

It is not many years since there were several 
such winter gardens of the birds in Common- 
wealth Avenue, — vacant house-lots overgrown 



190 WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 

■with tall weeds. Hither came flocks of gold- 
finches, red -poll linnets, and snow buntings; 
and thither I went to watch them. It hap- 
pened, I remember, that the last two species, 
which are not to be met with in this region 
every season, were unusually abundant during 
the first or second year of my ornithological 
enthusiasm. Great was the delight with which 
I added them to the small but rapidly increas- 
ing list of my feathered acquaintances. 

The red-polls and the goldfinches often travel 
together, or at least are often to be found feed- 
ing in company ; and as they resemble each 
other a good deal in size, general appearance, 
and ways, the casual observer is very likely not 
to discriminate between them. Only the sum- 
mer before the time of which I speak I had 
spent a vacation at Mount Wachusett ; and a 
resident of Princeton, noticing my attention to 
the birds (a taste so peculiar is not easily con- 
cealed), had one day sought an interview with 
me to inquire whether the " yellow-bird " did 
not remain in Massachusetts through the win- 
ter. I explained that we had two birds which 
commonly went by that name, and asked 
whether he meant the one with a black fore- 
head and black wings and tail. Yes, he said, 
that was the one. I assured him, of course, 
that this bird, the goldfinch, did stay with us 



I 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 191 

all the year round, and that whoever had in- 
formed him to the contrar^^ must have under- 
stood him to be speaking about the golden 
warbler. He expressed his gratification, but 
declared that he had really entertained no 
doubt of the fact himself ; he had often seen 
the birds on the mountain when he had been 
cutting wood there in midwinter. At such 
times, he added, they were very tame, and 
would come about his feet to pick up crumbs 
while he was eating his dinner. Then he went 
on to tell me that at that season of the year 
their plumage took on more or less of a red- 
dish tinge : he had seen in the same flock some 
with no trace of red, others that were slightly 
touched with it, and others still of a really 
bright color. At this I had nothing to say, 
save that his red birds, whatever else they 
were, could not have been goldfinches. But 
next winter, when I saw the " yellow-birds " 
and the red -poll linnets feeding together in 
Commonwealth Avenue, I thought at once of 
my Wachusett friend. Here was the very 
scene he had so faithfully described, — some 
of the flock with no red at all, some with red 
crowns, and a few with bright carmine crowns 
and breasts. They remained all winter, and 
no doubt thought the farmers of Boston a very 
good and wise set, to cultivate the evening 



192 WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 

primrose so extensively. This plant, like the 
succory, is of an ungraceful aspect ; yet it has 
sweet and beautiful blossoms, and as an herb 
bearing seed is in the front rank. I doubt 
whether we have any that surpass it, the birds 
being judges. 

Many stories are told of the red-polls' fear- 
lessness and ready reconciliation to captivity, 
as well as of their constancy to each other. I 
have myself stood still in the midst of a flock, 
until they were feeding round my feet so closely 
that it looked easy enough to catch one or two 
of them with a butterfly net. Strange that 
creatures so gentle and seemingly so delicately 
organized should choose to live in the regions 
about the North Pole ! Why should they pre- 
fer Labrador and Greenland, Iceland and Spitz- 
bergen, to more southern countries ? Why ? 
W^ell, possibly for no worse a reason than this, 
that these are the lands of their fathers. Other 
birds, it may be, have grown discouraged, and 
one after another ceased to come back to their 
native shores as the rigors of the climate have 
increased ; but these little patriots are still faith- 
ful. Spitzbergen is home, and every spring they 
make the long and dangerous passage to it. All 
praise to them ! 

If any be ready to call this an over-refine- 
ment, deeming it incredible that beings so small 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 193 

and lowly should come so near to human senti- 
ment and virtue, let such not be too hasty with 
their dissent. Surely they may in reason wait 
till they can point to at least one country where 
the men are as universally faithful to their 
wives and children as the birds are to theirs. 

The red-poll linnets, as I have said, are ir- 
regular visitors in this region ; several years 
may pass, and not one be seen ; but the gold- 
finch we have with us always. Easily recog- 
nized as he is, there are many well-educated 
New-Englanders, I fear, who do not know him, 
even by sight ; yet when that distinguished 
ornithologist, the Duke of Argyll, comes to 
publish his impressions of this country, he avers 
that he has been hardly more interested in the 
" glories of Niagara " than in this same little 
yellow-bird, which he saw for the first time 
while looking from his hotel window at the 
great cataract. *' A golden finch, indeed ! " he 
exclaims. Such a tribute as this from the pen 
of a British nobleman ought to give Astragali- 
nus tristis immediate entrance into the very 
best of American society. 

It is common to say that the goldfinches wan- 
der about the country during the winter. Un- 
doubtedly this is true in a measure ; but I have 
seen things which lead me to suspect that the 
statement is sometimes made too sweeping. 

13 



194 WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 

Last winter, for example, a flock took up their 
quarters in a certain neglected piece of ground 
on the side of Beacon Street, close upon the 
boundary between Boston and Brookline, and 
remained there nearly or quite the whole sea- 
son. Week after week 1 saw them in the same 
place, accompanied always by half a dozen tree 
sparrows. They had found a spot to their 
mind, with plenty of succory and evening prim- 
rose, and were wise enough not to forsake it for 
any uncertainty. 

The goldfinch loses his bright feathers and 
canary-like song as the cold season approaches, 
but not even a New England winter can rob 
him of his sweet call and his cheerful spirits ; 
and for one, I think him never more winsome 
than when he hangs in graceful attitudes above 
a snowbank, on a bleak January morning. 

Glad as we are of the society of the goldfinches 
and the red-polls at this time of the year, we 
cannot easily rid ourselves of a degree of solici- 
tude for their comfort ; especially if we chance 
to come upon them after sunset on some bit- 
terly cold day, and mark with what a nervous 
haste they snatch here and there a seed, making 
the utmost of the few remaining minutes of twi- 
light. They will go to bed hungry and cold, 
we think, and were surely better off in a milder 
clime. But, if I am to judge from my own ex- 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 195 

perience, the snow buntings awaken no such 
emotions. Arctic explorers by instinct, they 
come to us only with real arctic weather, and 
almost seem to be themselves a part of the 
snow-storm with which they arrive. No matter 
what they are doing : running along the street 
before an approaching sleigh ; standing on a 
wayside fence ; jumping up from the ground to 
snatch the stem of a weed, and then setting at 
work hurriedly to gather the seeds they have 
shaken down ; or, best of all, skimming over 
the snow in close order, their white breasts 
catching the sun as they veer this way or that, 
— whatever they may be doing, they are the 
most picturesque of all our cold-weather birds. 
In point of suspiciousness their behavior is very 
different at different times, as, for that matter, 
is true of birds generally. Seeing the flock 
alight in a low roadside lot, you steal silently 
to the edge of the sidewalk to look over upon 
them. There they are, sure enough, walking 
and running about, only a few rods distant. 
What lovely creatures, and how prettily they 
walk ! But just as you are wishing, perhaps, 
that they were a little nearer, they begin to fly 
from right under your feet. You search the 
ground eagerly, right and left, but not a bird 
can you discover; and still they continue to 
start up, now here, now there, till you are 



196 WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 

ready to question whether, indeed, " eyes were 
made for seeing." The *' snow-flakes " wear 
protective colors, and, like most other animals, 
are of opinion that, for such as lack the receipt 
of fern-seed, there is often nothing safer than 
to sit still. The worse the weather, the less 
timorous they are, for with them, as with wiser 
heads, one thought drives out another ; and it 
is nothing uncommon, when times are hard, to 
see them stay quietly upon the fence while a 
sleigh goes past, or suffer a foot passenger to 
come again and again within a few yards. 

It gives a lively touch to the imagination to 
overtake these beautiful strangers in the middle 
of Beacon Street ; particularly if one has lately 
been reading about them in some narrative of 
Siberian travel. Coming from so far, associa- 
ting in flocks, with costumes so becoming and 
yet so unusual, they might be expected to at- 
tract universal notice, and possibly to get into 
the newspapers. But there is a fashion even 
about seeing ; and of a thousand persons who 
may take a Sunday promenade over the Mill- 
dam, while these tourists from the North Pole 
are there, it is doubtful whether a dozen are 
aware of their presence. Birds feeding in the 
street ? Yes, yes ; English sparrows, of course ; 
we haven't any other birds in Boston nowa- 
days, you know. 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 197 

With the pine grosbeaks the case is different. 
When a man sees a company of rather large 
birds about the evergreens in his door-yard, most 
of them of a neutral ashy-gray thit, but one or 
two in suits of rose-color, he is pretty certain to 
feel at least a momentary curiosity about them. 
Their slight advantage in size counts for some- 
thing ; for, without controversy, the bigger the 
bird the more worthy he is of notice. And 
then the bright color ! The very best men are 
as yet but imperfectly civilized, and there must 
be comparatively few, even of Bostonians, in 
whom there is not some lingering susceptibility 
to the fascination of red feathers. Add to these 
things the fact that the grosbeaks are extremely 
confiding, and much more likely than the bunt- 
ings to be seen from the windows of the house, 
and you have, perhaps, a sufficient explanation 
of the more general interest they excite. Like 
the snow buntings and the red-polls, they roam 
over the higher latitudes of Europe, Asia, and 
America, and make only irregular visits to our 
corner of the world.^ 

I cannot boast of any intimate acquaintance 
with them. I have never caught them in a net, 
or knocked them over with a club, as other per- 

1 Unlike the snow bunting and the red-poll, however, the pine 
grosbeak is believed to breed sparingly in Northern New Eng- 
land. 



198 WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 

sons have done, although I have seen them 
when their tameness promised success to any- 
such loving experiment. Indeed, it was sev- 
eral years before my lookout for them was re- 
warded. Then, one day, I saw a flock of about 
ten fly across Beacon Street, — on the edge of 
Brookline, — and alight in an apple-tree ; at 
which I forthwith clambered over the picket- 
fence after them, heedless alike of the deep 
snow and the surprise of any steady-going cit- 
izen who might chance to witness my high- 
handed proceeding. Some of the birds were 
feeding upon the rotten apples ; picking them 
off the tree, and taking them to one of the large 
main branches or to the ground, and there tear- 
ing them to pieces, — for the sake of the seeds, 
I suppose. The rest sat still, doing nothing. 
I was most impressed with the exceeding mild- 
ness and placidity of their demeanor; as if 
they had time enough, plenty to eat, and noth- 
ing to fear. Their only notes were in quality 
much like the goldfinch's, and hardly louder, 
but without his characteristic inflection. I left 
the whole company seated idly in a maple-tree, 
where, to all appearance, they proposed to ob- 
serve the remainder of the day as a Sabbath. 

Last winter the grosbeaks were uncommonly 
abundant. I found a number of them within a 
few rods of the place just mentioned; this time 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 199 

in evergreen trees, and so near the road that I 
had no call to commit trespass. Evergreens are 
their usual resort, — so, at least, I gather from 
books, — but I have seen them picking up prov- 
ender from a bare-looking last 3^ear's garden. 
Natives of the inhospitable North, they have 
learned by long experience how to adapt them- 
selves to circumstances. If one resource fails, 
there is always another to be tried. Let us 
hope that they even know how to show fight 
upon occasion. 

The purple finch — a small copy of the pine 
grosbeak, as the indigo bird is of the blue gros- 
beak — is a summer rather than a winter bird 
with us ; yet he sometimes passes the cold sea- 
son in Eastern Massachusetts, and even in 
Northern New Hampshire. I have never heard 
him sing more gloriously than once when the 
ground was deep under the snow ; a wonder- 
fully sweet and protracted warble, poured out 
while the singer circled about in the air with a 
kind of half-hovering flight. 

As I was walking briskly along a West End 
street, one cold morning in March, I heard a 
bird's note close at hand, and, looking down, 
discovered a pair of these finches in a front 
yard. The male, in bright plumage, was flit- 
ting about his mate, calling anxiously, while 
she, poor thing, sat motionless upon the snow, 



200 WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 

too sick or too badly exhausted to fly. I 
stroked her feathers gently while she perched 
on my finger, and then resumed my walk ; first 
putting her into a little more sheltered position 
on the sill of a cellar window, and promising to 
call on my way back, when, if she were no bet- 
ter, I would take her home with me, and give 
her a warm room and good nursing. When I 
returned, however, she was nowhere to be 
found. Her mate, I regret to say, both on his 
own account and for the sake of the story, had 
taken wing and disappeared the moment I en- 
tered the yard. Possibly he came back and en- 
couraged her to fly off with him ; or perhaps 
some cat made a Sunday breakfast of her. The 
truth will never be known ; our vigilant city 
police take no cognizance of tragedies so hum- 
ble. 

For several years a few song sparrows — a 
pair or two, at least — have wintered in a piece 
of ground just beyond the junction of Beacon 
street and Brookline Avenue. I have grown ac- 
customed to listen for their tseep as I go by the 
spot, and occasionally I catch sight of one of them 
perched upon a weed, or diving under the plank 
sidewalk. It would be a pleasure to know the 
history of the colony : how it started ; whether 
the birds are the same year after j^ear, as I sup- 
pose to be the case ; and why this particular 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 201 

site was selected. The lot is small, with no 
woods or bushy thicket near, while it has build- 
ings in one corner, and is bounded on its three 
sides by the streets and the railway ; but it is 
full of a rank growth of weeds, especially a 
sturdy species of aster and the evergreen gold- 
en-rod, and I suspect that the plank walk, which 
on one side is raised some distance from the 
ground, is found serviceable for shelter in severe 
weather, as it is certainly made to take the place ^ 
of shrubbery for purposes of concealment. 

Fortunately, birds, even those of the same 
species, are not all exactly alike in their tastes 
and manner of life. So, while by far the greater 
part of our song sparrows leave us in the fall, 
there are always some who prefer to stay. They 
have strong local attachments, perhaps ; or they 
dread the fatigue and peril of the journey ; or 
they were once incapacitated for flight when 
their companions went away, and, having found 
a Northern winter not so unendurable as they 
had expected, have since done from choice what 
at first they did of necessity. Whatever their 
reasons, — and we cannot be presumed to have 
guessed half of them, — at all events a goodly 
number of song sparrows do winter in Massachu- 
setts, where they open the musical season before 
the first of the migrants make their appearance. 
I doubt, however, whether many of them choose 



202 WINTER BIR^ ABOUT BOSTON. 

camping grounds so exposed and public as this 
in the rear of the " Half-way House." 

Our only cold-weather thrushes are the rob- 
ins. They may be found any time in favorable 
situations ; and even in so bleak a place as Bos- 
ton Common I have seen them in every month 
of the year except February. This exception, 
moreover, is more apparent than real, — at the 
most a matter of but twenty-four hours, since 
I once saw four birds in a tree near the Frog 
Pond on the last day of January. The house 
sparrows were as much surprised as I was at 
the sight, and, with characteristic urbanity, gath- 
ered from far and near to sit in the same tree 
with the visitors, and stare at them. 

We cannot help being grateful to the robins 
and the song sparrows, who give us their soci- 
ety at so great a cost ; but their presence can 
scarcely be thought to enliven the season. 
At its best their bearing is only that of patient 
submission to the inevitable. They remind us 
of the summer gone and the summer coming, 
rather than brighten the winter that is now 
upon us ; like friends who commiserate us in 
some affliction, but are not able to comfort us. 
How different the chickadee ! In the worst 
weather his greeting is never of condolence, but 
of good cheer. He has no theory upon the sub- 
ject, probably ; he is no Shepherd of Salisbury 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 203 

Plain ; but he knows better than to waste the 
exhilarating air of this wild and frosty day in 
reminiscences of summer time. It is a pretty- 
sounding couplet, — 

" Thou hast no sorrow in thy song, 
No winter in thy year," — 

but rather incongruous, he would think. Chick- 
adee^ dee, he calls, — chickadee, dee ; and though 
the words have no exact equivalent in English, 
their meaning is felt by all such as are worthy 
to hear them. 

Are the smallest birds really the most cour- 
ageous, or does an unconscious sympathy on our 
part inevitably give them odds in the compari- 
son ? Probably the latter supposition comes 
nearest the truth. When a sparrow chases a 
butcher-bird we cheer the sparrow, and then 
when a humming-bird puts to flight a sparrow, 
we cheer the humming-bird ; we side with the 
kingbird against the crow, and with the vireo 
against the kingbird. It is a noble trait of 
human nature — though we are somewhat too 
ready to boast of it — that we like, as we say, 
to see the little fellow at the top. These re- 
marks are made, not with any reference to the 
chickadee, — I admit no possibility of exagger- 
ation in his case, — but as leading to a men- 
tion of the golden-crested kinglet. He is the 
least of all our winter birds, and one of the most 



204 WINTER BIRMS ABOUT BOSTON. 

engaging. Emerson's "atom in full breath" 
and " scrap of valor" would apply to him even 
better than to the titmouse. He says little, — 
zee^ zee, zee is nearly the limit of his vocabu- 
lary ; but his lively demeanor and the grace 
and agility of his movements are in themselves 
an excellent language, speaking infallibly a con- 
tented mind. (^It is a fact, on which I forbear 
to moralize, that birds seldom look unhappy 
except when they are idle.) His diminutive size 
attracts attention even from those who rarely 
notice such things. About the first of Decem- 
ber, a year ago, I was told of a man who had 
shot a humming-bird only a few days before in 
the vicinity of Boston. Of course I expressed a 
polite surprise, and assured my informant that 
such a remarkable capture ought by all means 
to be put on record in " The Auk," as every 
ornithologist in the land would be interested 
in it. On this he called upon the lucky sports- 
man's brother, who happened to be standing by, 
to corroborate the story. Yes, the latter said, 
the fact was as had been stated. " But then," 
he continued, " the bird did n't have a long bill, 
like a humming-bird ; " and when I suggested 
that perhaps its crown was yellow, bordered 
with black, he said, " Yes, yes ; that 's the bird, 
exactly." So easy are startling discoveries to 
an observer who has just the requisite amount 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 205 

of knowledge, — enough, and (especially) not 
too much ! 

The brown creeper is quite as industrious and 
good-humored as the kinglet, but he is less tak- 
ing in his personal appearance and less roman- 
tic in his mode of life. The same may be said 
of our two black-and-white woodpeckers, the 
downy and the hairy ; while their more showy 
but less hardy relative, the flicker, evidently 
feels the weather a burden. The creeper and 
these three woodpeckers are with us in limited 
numbers every winter ; and in the season of 
1881-82 we had an altogether unexpected visit 
from the red-headed woodpecker, — such a 
thing as had not been known for a long time, 
if ever. Where the birds came from, and what 
was the occasion of their journey, nobody could 
tell. They arrived early in the autumn, and 
went away, with the exception of a few strag- 
glers, in the spring ; and as far as I know have 
never been seen since. It is a great pity they 
did not like us well enough to come again ; for 
they are wide-awake, entertaining creatures, and 
gorgeously attired. I used to watch them in 
the oak groves of some Longwood estates, but 
it was not till our second or third interview 
that I discovered them to be the authors of a 
mystery over which I had been exercising my 
wits in vain, a tree-frog's note in winter ! One of 



206 WINTER BIRD^ ABOUT BOSTON. 

tlieir amusements was to drum on the tin girdles 
of the shade trees ; and meanwhile the}^ them- 
selves afforded a pastime to the gray squirrels, 
who were often to be seen creeping stealthily- 
after them, as if they imagined that Melanerpes 
erytlirocephalus might possibly be caught, if 
only he were hunted long enough. I laughed 
at them ; but, after all, their amusing halluci- 
nation was nothing but the sportsman's instinct ; 
and life would soon lose its charm for most of 
us, sportsmen or not, if we could no longer pur- 
sue the unattainable. 

Probably my experience is not singular, but 
there are certain birds, well known to be more 
or less abundant in this neighborhood, which 
for some reason or other I have seldom, if 
ever, met. For example, of the multitude of 
pine finches which now and then overrun East- 
ern Massachusetts in winter I have never 
seen one, while on the other hand I was once 
lucky enough to come upon a few of the very 
much smaller number which pass the summer 
in Northern New Hampshire. This was in the 
White Mountain Notch, first on Mount Willard 
and then near the Crawford House, at which 
latter place they were feeding on the lawn and 
along the railway track as familiarly as the 
gold-finches. 

The shore larks, too, are no doubt common 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 207 

near Boston for a part of every year; yet I 
found half a dozen five or six years ago in the 
marsh beside a Back Bay street, and have seen 
none since. One of these stood upon a pile of 
earth, singing to himself in an undertone, while 
the rest were feeding in the grass. Whether 
the singer was playing sentinel, and sounded an 
alarm, I was not sure, but all at once the flock 
started off, as if on a single pair of wings. 

Birds which elude the observer in this man- 
ner year after year only render themselves all 
the more interesting. They are like other spe- 
cies with which we deem ourselves well ac- 
quainted, but which suddenly appear in some 
quite unlooked-for time or place. The long- 
expected and the unexpected have both an es- 
pecial charm. I have elsewhere avowed my 
favoritism for the white-throated sparrow ; but 
I was never more delighted to see him than on 
one Christmas afternoon. I was walking in a 
back road, not far from the city, when I de- 
scried a sparrow ahead of me, feeding in the 
path, and, coming nearer, recognized my friend 
the white-throat. He held his ground till the 
last moment (time was precious to him that 
short day), and then flew into a bush to let me 
pass, which I had no sooner done than he was 
back again ; and on my return the same thing 
was repeated. Far and near the ground was 



208 WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 

white, but just at this place the snow-plough 
had scraped bare a few square feet of earth, and 
by great good fortune this solitary and hungry 
straggler had hit upon it. I wondered what he 
would do when the resources of this garden 
patch were exhausted, but consoled myself with 
thinking that by this time he must be well used 
to living by his wits, and would probably find 
a way to do so even in his present untoward 
circumstances. 

The snow-birds (not to be confounded with 
the snow buntings) should have at least a men- 
tion in such a paper as this. They are among 
the most familiar and constant of our winter 
guests, although very much less numerous at 
that time than in spring and autumn, when the 
fields and lanes are fairly alive with them. 

A kind word must be said for the shrike, 
also, who during the three coldest months is to 
be seen on the Common oftener than any other 
of our native birds. There^ at all events, he is 
doing a good work. May he live to finish it ! 

The blue jay stands by us, of course. You 
will not go far without hearing his scream, and 
catching at least a distant view of his splendid 
coat, which he is too consistent a dandy to put 
off for one of a duller shade, let the season shift 
as it will. He is not always good-natured ; but 
none the less he is generally in good spirits (he 



WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 209 

seems to enjoy his bad temper), and, all in all, 
is not to be lightly esteemed in a time when 
brigfbt feathers are scarce. 

As for the jay's sable relatives, they are the 
most conspicuous birds in the winter landscape. 
You may possibly walk to Brookline and back 
without hearing a chickadee, or a blue jay, or 
even a goldfinch ; but you will never miss sight 
and sound of the crows. Black against white 
is a contrast hard to be concealed. Sometimes 
they are feeding in the street, sometimes stalk- 
ing about the marshes ; but oftenest they are 
on the ice in the river, near the water's edge. 
For they know the use of friends, although they 
have never heard of Lord Bacon's '' last fruit of 
friendship," and would hardly understand what 
that provident philosopher meant by saying 
that " the best way to represent to life the man- 
ifold use of friendship is to cast and see how 
many things there are which a man cannot do 
himself." How aptly their case illustrates the 
not unusual coexistence of formal ignorance 
with real knowledge ! Having their Southern 
brother's fondness for fish without his skill in 
catching it, they adopt a plan worthy of the 
great essayist himself, — they court the society 
of the gulls ; and with a temper eminently phil- 
osophical, not to say Baconian, they cheerfully 
sit at their patrons' second table. From the 

14 



210 WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON. 

Common you may see them almost any day 
(in some seasons, at least) flying back and 
forth between the river and the harbor. One 
morning in early March I witnessed quite a 
procession, one small company after another, 
the largest numbering eleven birds, though it 
was nothing to compare with what seems to be 
a daily occurrence at some places further south. 
At another time, in the middle of January, I 
saw what appeared to be a flock of herring gulls 
sailing over the city, making progress in their 
own wonderfully beautiful manner, circle after 
circle. But I noticed that about a dozen of 
them were black ! What were these ? If they 
could have held their peace I might have gone 
home puzzled ; but the crow is in one respect a 
very polite bird : he will seldom fly over your 
head without letting fall the compliments of 
the morning, and a vigorous caw., caw soon pro- 
claimed my black gulls to be simply erratic 
specimens of Corvus Americanus, Why were 
they conducting thus strangely ? Had they be- 
come so attached to their friends as to have 
taken to imitating them unconsciously ? Or 
were they practicing upon the vanity of these 
useful allies of theirs, these master fishermen ? 
Who can answer ? The ways of shrewd people 
are hard to understand ; and in all New Eng- 
land there is no shrewder Yankee than the 
crow. 



A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 



There shall be 
Beautiful things made new, for the surprise 
Of the sky-children. 

Keats. 

Everywhere the blue sky belongs to them, and is their ap- 
pointed rest, and their native country and their own natural homes, 
which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly ex- 
pected, and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival. 

Coleridge. 



A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 



It began on the 29th of March ; in the after- 
noon of which day, despite the authority of the 
almanac and the banter of my acquaintances 
(March was March to them, and it was nothing 
more), I shook off the city's dust from my feet, 
and went into summer quarters. The roads 
were comparatively dry ; the snow was entirely 
gone, except a patch or two in the shadow of 
thick pines under the northerly side of a hill; 
and all tokens seemed to promise an early 
spring. So much I learned before the hasten- 
ing twilight cut short my first brief turn out-of- 
doors. In the morning would be time enough 
to discover what birds had already reported 
themselves at my station. 

Unknown to me, however, our national 
weather bureau had announced a snow-storm, 
and in the morning I drew aside the curtains 
to look out upon a world all in white, with a 
cold, high wind blowing and snow falling fast. 
" The worst Sunday of the winter," the natives 



214 A BIRD-LOVERS APRIL. 

said. The " summer boarder " went to church, 
of course. To have done otherwise might have 
been taken for a confession of weakness ; as if 
inclemency of this sort were more than he had 
bargained for. The villagers, lacking any such 
spur to right conduct, for the most part stayed 
at home ; feeling it not unpleasant, I dare say, 
some of them, to have a natural inclination 
providentially confirmed, even at the cost of an 
hour's exercise with the shovel. The bravest 
parishioner of all, and the sweetest singer, — 
the song sparrow by name, — was not in the 
meeting-house, but by the roadside. What if 
the wind did blow, and the mercury stand at 
fifteen or twenty degrees below the freezing 
point ? In cold as in heat " the mind is its own 
place." 

Three days after this came a second storm, 
one of the heaviest snow-falls of the year. The 
robins were reduced to picking up seeds in the 
asparagus bed. The bluebirds appeared to be 
trying to glean something from the bark of 
trees, clinging rather awkwardly to the trunk 
meanwhile. (They are given to this, more or 
less, at all times, and it possibly has some con- 
nection with their half-woodpeckerish habit of 
nestling in holes.) Some of the snow-birds 
were doing likewise ; I noticed one traveling up 
a trunk, — which inclined a good deal, to be 



A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 215 

sure, — exploring the crannies right and left, 
like any creeper. Half a dozen or more phoebes 
were in the edge of a wood ; and they too 
seemed to have found out that, if worst came 
to worst, the tree-boles would yield a pittance 
for their relief. They often hovered against 
them, pecking hastily at the bark, and one at 
least was struggling for a foothold on the per- 
pendicular surface. Most of the time, however, 
they went skimming over the snow and the 
brook, in the regular flycatcher style. The 
chickadees were put to little or no inconven- 
ience, since what was a desperate makeshift to 
the others was to them only an e very-day affair. 
It would take a long storm to bury their gran- 
ary.i After the titmice, the fox-colored spar- 
rows had perhaps the best of it. Looking out 
places where the snow had collected least, at 
the foot of a tree or on the edge of water, these 
adepts at scratching speedily turned up earth 
enough to checker the white with very consid- 
erable patches of brown. While walking I 
continually disturbed song sparrows, fox spar- 
rows, tree sparrows, and snow-birds feeding in 
the road ; and when I sat in my room I was 
advised of the approach of carriages by seeing 

1 In the titmouse's cosmological system trees occupy a highly 
important place, we may be sure ; while the purpose of their tall, 
upright method of growth no doubt receives a very simple and 
logical (and correspondingly lucid) explanation. 



216 A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 

these "pensioners upon the traveler's track" 
scurry past the window in advance of them. 

It is pleasant to observe how naturally birds 
flock together in hard times, — precisely as men 
do, and doubtless for similar reasons. The edge 
of the wood, just mentioned, was populous with 
them : robins, bluebirds, chickadees, fox spar- 
rows, snow-birds, song sparrows, tree sparrows, 
phoebes, a golden-winged woodpecker, and a 
rusty blackbird. The last, noticeable for his 
conspicuous light-colored eye-ring, had some- 
how become separated from his fellows, and re- 
mained for several days about this spot entirely 
alone. I liked to watch his aquatic perform- 
ances ; they might almost have been those of 
the American dipper himself, I thought. He 
made nothing of putting his head and neck 
clean under water, like a duck, and sometimes 
waded the brook when the current was so 
strong that he was compelled every now and 
then to stop and brace himself against it, lest 
he should be carried off his feet. 

It is clear that birds, sharing the frailty of 
some who are better than many sparrows, are 
often wanting in patience. As spring draws 
near they cannot wait for its coming. What 
it has been the fashion to call their unerring 
instinct is after all infallible only as a certain 
great public functionary is, — in theory ; and 



A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 217 

their mistaken haste is too frequently nothing 
but a hurrying to their death. But I saw no 
evidence that this particular storm was attended 
with any fatal consequences. The snow com- 
pletely disappeared within a day or two ; and 
even while it lasted the song sparrows, fox spar- 
rows, and linnets could be heard singing with 
all cheerfulness. On the coldest day, when 
the mercury settled to within twelve degrees of 
zero, I observed that the song sparrows, as they 
fed in the road, had a trick of crouching till 
their feathers all but touched the ground, so 
protecting their legs against the biting wind. 

The first indications of mating were noticed 
on the 5th, the parties being two pairs of blue- 
birds. One of the females was rebuffing her 
suitor rather petulantly, but when he flew away 
she lost no time in following. Shall I be ac- 
cused of slander if I suggest that possibly her 
No meant nothing worse than Ask me again f 
I trust not ; she was only a bluebird, remem- 
ber. Three days later I came upon two couples 
engaged in house-hunting. In this business the 
female takes the lead, with a silent, abstracted 
air, as if the matter were one of absorbing in- 
terest ; while her mate follows her about some- 
what impatiently, and with a good deal of talk, 
which is plainly intended to hasten the decision. 
" Come, come," he says ; " the season is short, 



218 A BIRD-LOVERS APRIL. 

and we can't waste the whole of it in getting 
ready." I never could discover that his elo- 
quence produced much effect, however. Her 
ladyship will have her own way ; as indeed she 
ought to have, good soul, considering that she 
is to have the discomfort and the hazard. In 
one case I was puzzled by the fact that there 
seemed to be two females to one of the opposite 
sex. It really looked as if the fellow proposed 
to set up housekeeping with whichever should 
first find a house to her mind. But this is 
slander, and I hasten to take it back. No 
doubt I misinterpreted his behavior ; for it is 
true — with sorrow I confess it — that I am as 
yet but imperfectly at home in the Sialian dia- 
lect. 

For the first fortnight my note-book is full of 
the fox-colored sparrows. It was worth while 
to have come into the country ahead of time, 
as city people reckon, to get my fill of this 
Northern songster's music. Morning and night, 
wherever I walked, and even if I remained in- 
doors, I was certain to hear the loud and beau- 
tiful strain ; to which I listened with the more 
attention because the birds, I knew, would soon 
be off for their native fields, beyond the boun- 
daries of the United States. 

It is astonishing how gloriously birds may 
sing, and yet pass unregarded. We read of 



A BIRD-LOVERS APRIL. 219 

nightingales and skylarks with a self-satisfied 
thrill of second-hand enthusiasm, and mean- 
while our native songsters, even the best of 
them, are piping unheeded at our very doors. 
There may have been half a dozen of the town's 
people who noticed the presence of these fox 
sparrows, but I think it doubtful ; and yet the 
birds, the largest, handsomest, and most musi- 
cal of all our many sparrows, were, as I say, 
abundant everywhere, and in full voice. 

One afternoon I stood still while a fox spar- 
row and a song sparrow sang alternately on 
either side of me, both exceptionally good vo- 
calists, and each doing his best. The songs 
were of about equal length, and as far as theme 
was concerned were not a little alike ; but the 
fox sparrow's tone was both louder and more 
mellow than the other's, while his notes were 
longer, — more sustained, — and his voice was 
" carried " from one pitch to another. On the 
whole, I had no hesitation about giving him 
the palm ; but I am bound to say that his rival 
was a worthy competitor. In some respects, in- 
deed, the latter was the more interesting singer 
of the two. His opening measure of three pips 
was succeeded by a trill of quite peculiar brill- 
iancy and perfection ; and when the other bird 
had ceased he suddenly took a lower perch, and 
began to rehearse an altogether different tune 



220 A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 

in a voice not more than half as loud as what 
he had been using ; after which, as if to cap 
the climax, he several times followed the tune 
with a detached phrase or two in a still fainter 
voice. This last was pretty certainly an im- 
provised cadenza, such a thing as I do not re- 
member ever to have heard before from Melo- 
spiza melodia. 

The song of the fox sparrow has at times an 
almost thrush-like quality ; and the bird him- 
self, as he flies up in front of you, might easily 
be mistaken for some member of that noble 
family. Once, indeed, when I saw him eating 
burning-bush berries in a Boston garden, I was 
half ready to believe that I had before my eyes 
a living example of the development of one 
species out of another, — a finch already well 
on his way to become a thrush. Most often, 
however, his voice puts me in mind of the car- 
dinal grosbeak's ; his voice, and perhaps still 
more his cadence, and especially his practice of 
the portamento. 

The 11th of the month was sunny, and the 
next morning I came back from my accustomed 
rounds under a sense of bereavement : the fox 
sparrows were gone. Where yesterday there 
had been hundreds of them, now I could find 
only two silent stragglers. They had been well 
scattered over the township, — here a flock and 



A BIRD-LOVERS APRIL. 221 

there a flock ; but in some way — I should be 
glad to have anybody tell me how — the word 
had passed from company to company that after 
sundown Friday night all hands would set out 
once more on their northward journey. There 
was one man, at least, who missed them, and 
in the comparative silence which followed their 
departure appreciated anew how much they had 
contributed to fill the wet and chilly April morn- 
ings with melody and good cheer. 

The snow-birds tarried longer, but from this 
date became less and less abundant. For the 
first third of the month they had been as nu- 
merous, I calculated, as all other species put 
together. On one occasion I saw a large com- 
pany of them chasing an albino, the latter dash- 
ing wildly round a pine-tree, with the whole 
flock in furious pursuit. They drove him off, 
across an impassable morass, before I could get 
close enough really to see him, but I presumed 
him to be of their own kind. As far as I could 
make out he was entirely white. For the mo- 
ment it lasted, it was an exciting scene ; and I 
was especially gratified to notice with what ex- 
treme heartiness and unanimity the birds dis- 
countenanced their wayward brother's hetero- 
doxy. I agreed with them that one who cannot 
be content to dress like other people ought not 
to be allowed to live with them. The world is 
large, — let him go to Rhode Island ! 



222 A BIRD-^VERS APRIL. 

On the evening of the 6th, just at dusk, I 
had started up the road for a lazy after-dinner 
saunter, when I was brought to a sudden halt 
by what on the instant 1 took for the cry of a 
night-hawk. But no night-hawk could be here 
thus early in the season, and listening further, 
I perceived that the bird, if bird it was, was on 
the ground, or, at any rate, not far from it. 
Then it flashed upon me that this was the note 
of the woodcock, which I had that very day 
startled upon this same hillside. Now, then, 
for another sight of his famous aerial courtship 
act ! So, scrambling down the embankment, 
and clambering over the stone-wall, I pushed up 
the hill through bushes and briers, till, having 
come as near the bird as I dared, I crouched, 
and awaited further developments. I had not 
long to wait, for after a few yahs^ at intervals 
of perhaps fifteen or twenty seconds, the fellow 
took to wing, and went soaring in a circle above 
me ; calling hurriedly clicks clicks clicks with a 
break now and then, as if for breath-taking. 
All this he repeated several times ; but unfor- 
tunately it was too dark for me to see him, ex- 
cept as he crossed a narrow illuminated strip of 
sky just above the horizon line. I judged that 
he mounted to a very considerable height, and 
dropped invariably into the exact spot from 
which he had started. For a week or two I 



A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 223 

listened every night for a repetition of the yak ; 
but I heard nothing more of it for a month. 
Then it came to my ears again, this time from 
a field between the road and a swamp. Watch- 
ing my opportunity, while the bird was in the 
air, I hastened across the field, and stationed 
myself against a small cedar. He was still 
clicking high overhead, but soon alighted 
silently within twenty yards of where I was 
standing, and commenced to " bleat," prefacing 
each yak with a fainter syllable which I had 
never before been near enough to detect. Pres- 
ently he started once more on his skyward 
journey. Up he went, in a large spiral, 
" higher still and higher " till the cedar cut 
off my view for an instant, after which I could 
not again get my eye upon him. Whether he 
saw me or not I cannot tell, but he dropped to 
the ground some rods away, and did not make 
another ascension, although he continued to 
call irregularly, and appeared to be walking 
about the field. Perhaps by this time the fair 
one for whose benefit all this parade was in- 
tended had come out of the swamp to meet and 
reward her admirer. 

Hoping for a repetition of the same pro- 
gramme on the following night, I invited a 
friend from the city to witness it with me ; one 
who, less fortunate than the '' forest seer," had 



224 A BIRD-Lm^ER'S APRIL. 

never " heard the woodcock's evening hymn," 
notwithstanding his knowledge of birds is a 
thousand-fold more than mine, as all students 
of American ornithology would unhesitatingly 
avouch were I to mention his name. We waited 
till dark ; but though Philohela was there, and 
sounded his yak two or three times, — just 
enough to excite our hopes, — yet for some 
reason he kept to terra firma. Perhaps he was 
aware of our presence, and disdained to exhibit 
himself in the rdle of a wooer under our pro- 
fane and curious gaze ; or possibly, as my more 
scientific (and less sentimental) companion sug- 
gested, the light breeze may have been counted 
unfavorable for such high-flying exploits. 

After all, our matter-of-fact world is surpris- 
ingly full of romance. Who would have ex- 
pected to find this heavy-bodied, long-billed, 
gross-looking, bull-headed bird singing at heav- 
en's gate? He a "scornerof the ground"? 
Verily, love worketh wonders ! And perhaps 
it is really true that the outward semblance is 
sometimes deceptive. To be candid, however, 
I must end with confessing that, after listening 
to the woodcock's " hymn " a good many times, 
first and last, I cannot help thinking that it 
takes an imaginative ear to discover anything 
properly to be called a song in its monotonous 
clicks click., even at its fastest and loudest. ^ 

1 While this book is passing through the press (April 30th, 



A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 225 

While I was enjoying the farewell matinee 
of the fox-colored sparrows on the 11th, sud- 
denly there ran into the chorus the fine silver 
thread of the winter wren's tune. Here was 
pleasure unexpected. It is down in all the 
books, I believe, that this bird does not sing 
while on his travels ; and certainly I had my- 
self never known him to do anything of the 
sort before. But there is always something 
new under the sun. 

" Who ever heard of th' Indian Peru ? 
Or who in venturous vessell measured 
The Amazon's huge river, now found trew ? 
Or fruitfullest Virginia who did ever vew ?" 

I was all ear, of course, standing motionless 
while the delicious music came again and again 

1885) I am privileged with another sight and sound of the wood- 
cock's vespertine performance, and under peculiarly favorable 
conditions. In the account given above, sufficient distinction is 
not made between the clicking noise, heard while the bird is soar- 
ing, and the sounds which signalize his descent. The former is 
probably produced by the wings, although I have heretofore 
thought otherwise, while the latter are certainly vocal, and no 
doubt intended as a song. But they are little if at all louder than 
the click, click of the wings, and as far as I have ever been able 
to make out are nothing more than a series of quick, breathless 
whistles, with no attempt at either melody or rhythm. 

In the present instance I could see only the start and the " fin- 
ish," when the bird several times passed directly by and over me, 
as I stood in a cluster of low birches, within two or three rods of 
his point of departure. His angle of flight was small; quite as if 
he had been going and coming from one field to another, in the 
ordinary course. Once I timed him, and found that he was on the 
wing for a few seconds more than a minute. 
15 



226 A BIRD-AVER'S APRIL. 

out of a tangle of underbrush behind a dilapi- 
dated stone-wall, — a spot for all the world 
congenial to this tiny recluse, whose whole life, 
we may say, is one long game of hide-and-seek. 
Altogether the song was repeated twenty times 
at least, and to my thinking I had never heard 
it given with greater brilliancy and fervor. 
The darling little minstrel ! he will never know 
how grateful I felt. I even forgave him when 
he sang thrice from a living bush, albeit in so 
doing he spoiled a sentence which I had al- 
ready committed to " the permanency of print." 
Birds of all kinds will play such tricks upon us ; 
but whether the fault be chargeable to fickle- 
ness or a mischievous spirit on their part, rather 
than to undue haste on the part of us their re- 
porters, is a matter about which I am perhaps 
not sufficiently disinterested to judge. In this 
instance, however, it was reasonably certain 
that the singer did not show himself intention- 
ally ; for unless the whole tenor of his life belies 
him, the winter wren's motto is, Little birds 
should be heard, and not seen. 

Two days afterward I was favored again in 
like manner. But not by the same bird, I 
think : unless my hearing was at fault (the 
singer was further off than before), this one's 
tune was in places somewhat broken and hesi- 
tating, — as if he were practicing a lesson not 
yet fully learned. 



A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 227 

I felt under a double obligation to these two 
specimens of Anorthura troglodytes hiemalis : 
first for their music itself; and then for the sup- 
port which it gave to a pet theory of mine, that 
all our singing birds will yet be found to sing 
more or less regularly in the course of the 
vernal migration. 

Within another forty-eight hours this same 
theory received additional confirmation. I was 
standing under an apple-tree, watching a pair 
of titmice who were hollowing out a stub for a 
nest, when my ear caught a novel song not far 
away. Of course I made towards it ; but the 
bird flew off, across the road and into the woods. 
M}^ hour was up, and I reluctantly started home- 
ward, but had gone only a few rods before the 
song was repeated. This was more than human 
nature could bear, and, turning back upon the 
run, I got into the w^oods just in time to see 
two birds chasing each other round a tree, both 
uttering the very notes which had so roused my 
curipsity. Then away they went ; but as I was 
again bewailing my evil luck, one of them re- 
turned, and flew into the oak, directly over my 
head, and as he did so fell to calling anew, Sue^ 
sukt/, suhj. A single glance upward revealed 
that this was another of the silent migrants, — 
a brown creeper ! Only once before had I 
heard from him anything beside his customary 



228 A BIRD-AVER'S APRIL. 

lisping zee^ zee ; and even on that occasion (in 
June and in New Hampshire) the song bore no 
resemblance to his present effort. I have writ- 
ten it down as it sounded at the moment, Sue., 
suky, suhy^ five notes, the first longer than the 
others, and all of them brusque, loud, and mu- 
sical, though with something of a warbler 
quality.^ 

It surprised me to find how the migratory- 
movement lagged for the first half of the month. 
A pair of white-breasted swallows flew over my 
head while I was attending to the winter wren 
on the 11th, and on the 14th appeared the first 
pine - creeping warblers, — welcome for their 
own sakes, and doubly so as the forerunners of 
a numerous and splendid company ; but aside 
from these two, I saw no evidence that a single 

1 Still further to corroborate my "pet theory," I may say here 
in a foot-note, what I have said elsewhere with more detail, that 
before the end of the following month the hermit thrushes, the 
olive-backed thrushes, and the gray-cheeked thrushes all sang for 
me in my Melrose woods. 

Let me explain, also, that when I call the brown creeper a silent 
migrant I am not unaware that others beside myself, and more 
than myself, have heard him sing while traveling. Mr. William 
Brewster, as quoted by Dr. Brewer in the History of North Amer- 
ican Birds, has been exceptionally fortunate in this regard. But 
my expression is correct as far as the rule is concerned; and the 
latest word upon the subject which has come under my eye is this 
from Mr. E. P. Bicknell's " Study of the Singing of our Birds," in 
The AuTc for April, 1884: " Some feeble notes, suggestive of those 
of Regulus satrapa, are this bird's usual utterance during its visit. 
Its song I have never heard." 



A BIRD-LOVERS APRIL. 229 

new species arrived at my station for the entire 
fortnight. 

Robins sang sparingly from the beginning, 
and became perceptibly more musical on the 
8th, with signs of mating and jealousy ; but 
the real robin carnival did not open till the 
morning of the 14th. Then the change was 
wonderful. Some of the birds were flying this 
way and that, high in air, two or three to- 
gether ; others chased each other about nearer 
the ground ; some were screaming, some hiss- 
ing, and more singing. So sudden was the out- 
break and so great the commotion that I was 
persuaded there must have been an arrival of 
females in the night. 

I have heard it objected against these 
thrushes, whose extreme commonness renders 
them less highly esteemed than they would 
otherwise be, that they find their voices too 
early in the morning. But I am not myself 
prepared to second the criticism. They are 
not often at their matins, I think, until the 
eastern sky begins to flush, and it is not quite 
certain to my mind that they are wrong in as- 
suming that daylight makes daytime. I have 
questioned before now whether our own custom 
of sitting up for five or six hours after sunset, 
and then lying abed two or three hours after 
sunrise, may not have come down to us from 



230 A BIRD-^VERS APRIL. 

times when there were still people in the world 
who loved darkness rather than light, because 
their deeds were evil ; and whether, after all, 
in this as in some other respects, we might not 
wisely take pattern of the fowls of the air. 

Individually, the phoebes were almost as 
noisy as the robins, but of course their numbers 
were far less. They are models of persever- 
ance. Were their voice equal to the nightin- 
gale's they could hardly be more assiduous and 
enthusiastic in its use. As a general thing they 
are content to repeat the simple Phoebe^ Phoebe 
(there are moods in the experience of all of us, 
I hope, when the repetition of a name is by it- 
self music sufficient), but it is not uncommon 
for this to be heightened to Phoebe^ Phoebe ; 
and now and then you will hear some fellow 
calling excitedly, Phoebe^ Phoebe-be-be-be-be, — 
a comical sort of stuttering, in which the diffi- 
culty is not in getting hold of the first syllable, 
but in letting go the last one. On the 15th I 
witnessed a certain other performance of theirs, 
— one that I had seen two or three times the 
season previous, and for which I had been on 
the lookout from the first day of the month. I 
heard a series of chips, which might have been 
the cries of a chicken, but which, it appeared, 
did proceed from a phoebe, who, as I looked up, 
was just in the act of quitting his perch on the 



A BIRD-LOVEWS APRIL. 231 

ridge-pole of a barn. He rose for perhaps thirty- 
feet, not spirally, but in a zigzag course, — like 
a horse climbing a hill with a heavy load, — 
all the time calling, chip., chip., chip. Then he 
went round and round in a small circle, with a 
kind of hovering action of the wings, vocifer- 
ating hurriedly, Phoebe^ Phoebe^ Phoebe ; after 
which he shot down into the top of a tree, and 
with a lively flirt of his tail took up again the 
same eloquent theme. During the next few 
weeks I several times found birds of this spe- 
cies similarly engaged. And it is worthy of re- 
mark that, of the four flycatchers which regu- 
larly pass the summer with us, three may be 
said to be in the habit of singing in the air, 
while the fourth (the wood pewee) does the 
same thing, only with less frequency. It is cu- 
rious, also, on the other hand, that not one of 
our eight common New England thrushes, as 
far as I have ever seen or heard, shows the least 
tendency toward any such state of lyrical exal- 
tation. Yet the thrushes are song birds ^ar ex- 
cellence., while the phoebe, the least flycatcher, 
and the kingbird are not supposed to be able 
to sins: at all. The latter have the soul of mu- 
sic in them, at any rate ; and why should it not 
be true of birds, as it is of human poets and 
would-be poets, that sensibility and faculty are 
not always found together? Perhaps those 



232 A BIRD-AVER'S APRIL. 

who have nothing but the sensibility have, 
after all, the better half of the blessing. 

The golden - winged woodpeckers shouted 
comparatively little before the middle of the 
month, and I heard nothing of their tender 
wick-a-wich until the 22d. After that they were 
noisy enough. With all their power of lungs, 
however, they not only are not singers ; they 
do not aspire to be. They belong to the tribe 
of Jubal. Hearing somebody drumming on 
tin, I peeped over the wall, and saw one of 
these pigeon woodpeckers hammering an old 
tin pan lying in the middle of the pasture. 
Rather small sport, I thought, for so large a 
bird. But that was a matter of opinion, merely, 
and evidently the performer himself had no 
such scruples. He may even have considered 
that his ability to play on this instrument of the 
tinsmith's went far to put him on an equality 
with some who boast themselves the only tool- 
using animals. True, the pan was battered and 
rusty ; but it was resonant, for all that, and 
day after day he pleased himself with beating 
reveille upon it. One morning I found him 
sitting in a tree, screaming lustily in response 
to another bird in an adjacent field. After a 
while, waxing ardent, he dropped to the ground, 
and, stationing himself before his drum, pro- 
ceeded to answer each cry of his rival with a 



A BIHD-LOVEWS APRIL. 233 

vigorous rubadub, varying the programme with 
an occasional halloo. How long this would have 
lasted there is no telling, but he caught sight of 
me, skulking behind a tree-trunk, and flew back 
to his lofty perch, where he was still shouting 
when I came away. It was observable that, 
even in his greatest excitement, he paused once 
in a while to dress his feathers. At first I was 
inclined to take this as betraying a want of 
earnestness ; but further reflection led me to a 
different conclusion. For I imagine that the 
human lover, no matter how consuming his pas- 
sion, is seldom carried so far beyond himself as 
not to be able to spare now and then a thought 
to the parting of his hair and the tie of his cra- 
vat. 

Seeing the great delight which this wood- 
pecker took in his precious tin pan, it seemed 
to me not at all improbable that he had selected 
his summer residence with a view to being near 
it, just as I had chosen mine for its convenience 
of access to the woods on the one hand, and to 
the city on the other. I shall watch with in- 
terest to see whether he returns to the same 
pasture another year. 

A few field sparrows and chippers showed 
themselves punctually on the 15th ; but they 
were only scouts, and the great body of their 
followers were more than a week behind them. 



234 A BIRI^OVER'S APRIL. 

I saw no bay-winged buntings until the 22d, 
although it is likely enough they had been here 
for some days before that. By a lucky chance, 
my very first bird was a peculiarly accomplished 
musician : he altered his tune at nearly every 
repetition of it, sang it sometimes loudly and 
then softly, and once in a while added cadenza- 
like phrases. It lost nothing by being heard on 
a bright, frosty morning, when the edges of the 
pools were filmed with ice. 

Only three species of warblers appeared dur- 
ing the month : the pine-creeping warblers, al- 
ready spoken of, who were trilling on the 14th ; 
the 5^ellow-rumped, who came on the 23d ; and 
the yellow red-polls, who followed the next morn- 
ing. The black-throated greens were mysteri- 
ously tardy, and the black-and-white creepers 
waited for May-da3^ 

A single brown thrush was leading the chorus 
on the 29th. " A great singer," my note-book 
says : " not so altogether faultless as some, but 
with a large voice and style, adapted to a great 
part ; " and then is added, " I thought this morn- 
ing of Titiens, as I listened to him ! " — a bit of 
impromptu musical criticism, which, under cover 
of the saving quotation marks may stand for 
what it is worth. 

Not long after leaving him I ran upon two 
hermit thrushes (one had been seen on the 



A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 235 

25th), flitting about the woods like ghosts. I 
whistled softly to the first, and he condescended 
to answer with a low chuck, after which I could 
get nothing more out of him. This demure 
taciturnity is very curious and characteristic, 
and to me very engaging. The fellow will 
neither skulk nor run, but hops upon some low 
branch, and looks at you, — behaving not a lit- 
tle as if you were the specimen and he the stu- 
dent ! And in such a case, as far as I can see, 
the bird equally with the man has a right to his 
own point of view. 

The hermits were not yet in tune ; and with- 
out forgetting the fox-colored sparrows and the 
linnets, the song sparrows and the bay-wings, 
the winter wrens and the brown thrush, I am 
ahnost ready to declare that the best music of 
the month . came from the smallest of all the 
month's birds, the ruby-crowned kinglets. Their 
spring season is always short with us, and un- 
happily it was this year shorter even than usual, 
my dates being April 23d and May 5th. But 
we must be thankful for a little, when the little 
is of such a quality. Once I descried two of them 
in the topmost branches of a clump of tall ma- 
ples. For a long time they fed in silence ; then 
they began to chase each other about through 
the trees, in graceful evolutions (I can imagine 
nothing more graceful), and soon one, and then 



236 A BIRD^OVERS APRIL. 

the other, broke out into song. " ' Infinite riches 
in a little room,' " my note-book says, again ; and 
truly the song is marvelous, — a prolonged and 
varied warble, introduced and often broken into, 
with delightful effect, by a wrennish chatter. 
For fluency, smoothness, and ease, and especially 
for purity and sweetness of tone, I have never 
heard any bird-song that seemed to me more 
nearly perfect. If the dainty creature would 
bear confinement, — on which point I know 
nothing, — he would make an ideal parlor song- 
ster ; for his voice, while round and full, — in 
contrast with the goldfinch's, for example, — is 
yet, even at its loudest, of a wonderful softness 
and delicacy. Nevertheless, I trust that nobody 
will ever cage him. Better far go out-of-doors, 
and drink in the exquisite sounds as they drop 
from the thick of some tall pine, while you catch 
now and then a glimpse of the tiny author, flit- 
ting busily from branch to branch, warbling at 
his work ; or, as you may oftener do, look and 
listen to your heart's content, while he explores 
some low cedar or a cluster of roadside birches, 
too innocent and happy to heed your presence. 
So you will carry home not the song only, but 
" the river and sky." 

But if the kinglets were individually the best 
singers, I must still confess that the goldfinches 
gave the best concert. It was on a sunny after- 



A BIRD-LOVERS APRIL. 237 

noon, — the 27th, — and in a small grove of tall 
pitch-pines. How many birds there were I 
could form little estimate, but when fifteen flew 
away for a minute or two the chorus was not 
perceptibly diminished. All were singing, twit- 
tering, and calling together ; some of them di- 
rectly over my head, the rest scattered through- 
out the wood. No one voice predominated in 
the least ; all sang softly, and with an inde- 
scribable tenderness and beauty. Any who do 
not know how sweet the goldfinch's note is may 
get some conception of the effect of such a con- 
cert if they will imagine fifty canaries thus en- 
gaged out-of-doors. I declared then that I had 
never heard anything so enchanting, and I am 
not certain even now that I was over-enthusi- 
astic. 

A pine-creeping warbler, I remember, broke 
in upon the choir two or three times with his 
loud, precise trill. Foolish bird ! His is a pretty 
song by itself, but set in contrast with music so 
full of imagination and poetry, it sounded pain- 
fully abrupt and prosaic. 

I discovered the first signs of nest-building on 
the 13th, while investigating the question of a 
bird's ambi-dexterity. It happened that I had 
just been watching a chickadee, as he picked 
chip after chip from a dead branch, and held 
them fast with one claw, while he broke them in 



238 A BIRD-LOVERS APRIL. 

pieces with his beak ; and walking away, it oc- 
curred to me to ask whether or not he could 
probably use both feet equally well for such a 
purpose. Accordingly, seeing another go into 
an apple-tree, I drew near to take his testimony 
on that point. But when I came to look for 
him he was nowhere in sight, and pretty soon it 
appeared that he was at work in the end of an 
upright stub, which he had evidently but just 
begun to hollow out, as the tip of his tail still 
protruded over the edge. A bird-lover's curi- 
osity can always adapt itself to circumstances, 
and in this case it was no hardship to post- 
pone the settlement of my newly raised inquiry, 
while I observed the pretty labors of my little 
architect. These proved to be by no means 
inconsiderable, lasting nearly or quite three 
weeks. The birds were still bringing away 
chips on the 30th, when their cavity was about 
eleven inches deep ; but it is to be said that, as 
far as I could find out, they never worked in the 
afternoon or on rainy days. 

Their demeanor toward each other all -this 
time was beautiful to see ; no effusive display of 
affection, but every appearance of a perfect mu- 
tual understanding and contentment. And their 
treatment of me was no less appropriate and 
delightful, — a happy combination of freedom 
and dignified reserve. I took it for an ex- 



A BIRD-LOVER* S APRIL. 239 

tremely neat compliment to myself, as well as 
incontestable evidence of unusual powers of dis- 
crimination on their part. 

On my second visit the female sounded a call 
as I approached the tree, and I looked to see 
her mate take some notice of it ; but he kept 
straight on with what he was doing. Not long 
after she spoke again, however ; and now it was 
amusing to see the fellow all at once stand still 
on the top of the stub, looking up and around, 
as much as to say, "What is it, my dear? I 
see nothing." Apparently it 2vas nothing, and 
he went head first into the hole again. Pretty 
soon, while he was inside, I stepped up against 
the trunk. His mate continued silent, and after 
what seemed a long time he came out, flew to 
an adjacent twig, dropped his load, and returned. 
This he did over and over (the end of the stub 
was perhaps ten feet above my head), and once 
he let fall a beakful of chips plump in my face. 
They were light, and I did not resent the liberty. 

Two mornings later I found him at his task 
again, toiling in good earnest. In and out he 
went, taking care to bring away the shavings 
at every trip, as before, and generally sounding 
a note or two (keeping the tally, perhaps) be- 
fore he dropped them. For the fifteen minutes 
or so that I remained, his mate was perched in 
another branch of the same tree, not once shift- 



240 A BIRD-LOVERS APRIL. 

ing her position, and doing nothing whatever 
except to preen her feathers a little. She paid 
no attention to her husband, nor did he to her. 
It was a revelation to me that a chickadee could 
possibly sit still so long. 

Eight days after this they were both at work, 
spelling each other, and then going off in com- 
pany for a brief turn at feeding. 

So far they had never manifested the least an- 
noyance at my espionage ; but the next morn- 
ing, as I stood against the tree, one of them 
seemed slightly disturbed, and flew from twig 
to twig about my head, looking at me from all 
directions with his shining black eyes. The re- 
connoissance was satisfactory, however ; every- 
thing went on as before, and several times the 
chips rattled down upon my stiff Derby hat. 
The hole was getting deep, it was plain ; I 
could hear the little carpenter hammering at 
the bottom, and then scrambling up the walls 
on his way out. One of the pair brought a 
black tidbit from a pine near by, and offered it 
to the other as he emerged into daylight. He 
took it from her bill, said cliit^ — chickadese for 
thank you^ — and hastened back into the mine. 

Finally, on the 27th, after watching their op- 
erations a while from the ground, I swung my- 
self into the tree, and took a seat with them. 
To my delight, the work proceeded without 



A BIRD-LOVER'S APRIL. 241 

interruption. Neither bird made any outcry, 
although one of them hopped round me, just 
out of reach, with evident curiosity. He must 
have thought me a queer specimen. When I 
drew my overcoat up after me and put it on, 
they flew away; but within a minute or two 
they were both back again, working as merrily 
as ever, and taking no pains not to litter me 
with their rubbish. Once the female (I took 
it to be she from her smaller size, not from this 
piece of shiftlessness) dropped her load with- 
out quitting the stub, a thing I had not seen 
either of them do before. Twice one brought 
the other something to eat. At last the male 
took another turn at investigating my charac- 
ter, and it began to look as if he would end 
with alighting on my hat. This time, too, I 
am proud to say, the verdict was favorable. 

Their confidence was not misplaced, and un- 
less all signs failed they reared a full brood of 
tits. May their tribe increase I Of birds so 
innocent and unobtrusive, so graceful, so merry- 
hearted, and so musical, the world can never 
have too many. 

"^ 16 



AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 



Let Euclid rest, and Archimedes pause, 

And what the Swede intends, and what the French. 

Milton. 



AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 



My trip to Lake Memphremagog was by the 
way, and was not expected to detain me for 
more than twenty-four hours ; but when I went 
ashore at the Owl's Head Mountain-House, and 
saw what a lodge in the wilderness it was, I 
said to myself. Go to, this is the place ; Mount 
Mansfield will stand for another year at least, 
and I will waste no more of my precious fort- 
night amid dust and cinders. Here were to be 
enjoyed many of the comforts of civilization, 
with something of the wildness and freedom 
of a camp. Out of one of the windows of my 
large, well-furnished room I could throw a stone 
into the trackless forest, where, any time I 
chose, I could make the most of a laborious 
half-hour in traveling half a mile. The other 
two opened upon a piazza, whence the lake was 
to be seen stretching away northward for ten or 
fifteen miles, with Mount Orford and his sup- 
porting hills in the near background ; while I 
had only to walk the length of the piazza to 



246 AN OWL'S JU: AD HOLIDAY. 

look round the corner of the house at Owl's 
Head itself, at whose base we were. The hotel 
had less than a dozen guests and no piano, and 
there was neither carriage - road nor railway 
within sight or hearing. Yes, this was the 
place where I would spend the eight days 
which yet remained to me of idle time. 

Of the eight days five were what are called 
unpleasant ; but the unseasonable cold, which 
drove the stayers in the house to huddle about 
the fire, struck the mosquitoes with a torpor 
which made strolling in the woods a double 
luxury ; while the rain was chiefly of the show- 
ery sort, such as a rubber coat and old clothes 
render comparatively harmless. Not that I 
failed to take a hand with my associates in 
grumbling about the weather. Table-talk 
would speedily come to an end in such circum- 
stances if people were forbidden to criticise the 
order of nature ; and it is not for me to boast 
any peculiar sanctity in this respect. But when 
all was over, it had to be acknowledged that I, 
for one, had been kept in-doors very little. In 
fact, if the whole truth were told, it would 
probably appear that my fellow boarders, see- 
ing my persistency in disregarding the inclem- 
ency of the elements, soon came to look upon 
me as decidedly odd, though perhaps not abso- 
lutely demented. At any rate, I was rather 



AN OWDS HEAD HOLIDAY. 247 

glad than otherwise to think so. In those long 
days there must often have been a dearth of 
topics for profitable conversation, no matter 
how outrageous the weather, and it was a 
pleasure to believe that this little idiosyncracy 
of mine might answer to fill here and there a 
gap. For what generous person does not re- 
joice to feel that even in his absence he may be 
doing something for the comfort and well-beings 
of his brothers and sisters ? As Seneca said, 
" Man is born for mutual assistance." 

According to Osgood's " New England," the 
summit of Owl's Head is 2,743 feet above the 
level of the lake, and the path to it is a mile 
and a half and thirty rods in length. It may 
seem niggardly not to throw off the last petty 
fraction ; and indeed we might well enough let 
it pass if it were at the beginning of the route, 
— if the path, that is, were thirty rods and a 
mile and a half long. But this, it will be ob- 
served, is not the case ; and it is a fact per- 
fectly well attested, though perhaps not yet 
scientifically accounted for (many things are 
known to be true which for the present cannot 
be mathematically demonstrated), that near the 
top of a mountain thirty rods are equivalent to 
a good deal more than four hundred and ninety- 
five feet. Let the guide-book's specification 
stand, therefore, in all its surveyor-like exact- 



248 AN OWL'S^EAD HOLIDAY. 

ness. After making the climb four times in 
the course of eight days, I am not disposed to 
abate so much as a jot from the ofl&cial figures. 
Rather than do that T would pin my faith to 
an unprofessional-looking sign-board in the rear 
of the hotel, on which the legend runs, " Sum- 
mit of Owl's Head 2^ miles." For aught I 
know, indeed (in such a world as this, uncer- 
tainty is a principal mark of intelligence), — 
for aught I know, both measurements may be 
correct ; which fact, if once it were established, 
would easily and naturally explain how it came 
to pass that I myself found the distance so 
much greater on some days than on others ; al- 
though, for that matter, which of the two would 
be actually longer, a path which should rise 
2,743 feet in a mile and a half, or one that 
should cover two miles and a quarter in reach- 
ing the same elevation, is a question to which 
different pedestrians would likely enough re- 
turn contradictory answers.^ 

Yet let me not be thought to magnify so 
small a feat as the ascent of Owl's Head, a 
mountain which the ladies of the Appalachian 
Club may be presumed to look upon as hardly 
better than a hillock. The guide-book's " thirty 

1 The guide-book allows two hours for the mile and a half on 
Owl's Head, while it gives only an hour and a half for the three 
miles up Mount Clinton — from the Crawford" House. 



AN OWVS HEAD HOLIDAY. 249 

rods " have betrayed me into saying more than 
I intended. It would have been enough had 
I mentioned that the way is in many places 
steep, while at the time of my visit the con- 
stant rains kept it in a muddy, treacherous con- 
dition. I remember still the undignified and 
uncomfortable celerity with which, on one oc- 
casion, I took my seat in what was little better 
than the rocky bed of a brook, such a place as 
I should by no means have selected for the pur- 
pose had I been granted even a single moment 
for deliberation. 

" Hills draw like heaven " (as applied to 
some of us, it may be feared that this is rather 
an under -statement), and it could not have 
been more than fifteen minutes after I landed 
from the Lady of the Lake — the " Old Lady," 
as one of the fishermen irreverently called her 
— before I was on my way to the summit. 

I was delighted then, as I was afterwards, 
whenever I entered the woods, with the ex- 
traordinary profusion and variety of the ferns. 
Among the rest, and one of the most abun- 
dant, was the beautiful Cystopteris hulhifera; its 
long, narrow, pale green, delicately cut, Dick- 
sonia-like fronds bending toward the ground at 
the tip, as if about to take root for a new 
start, in the walking-fern's manner. Some of 
these could not have been less than four feet in 



250 AN OWL'S ^ AD HOLIDAY. 

length (including the stipe), and I picked one 
which measured about two feet and a half, and 
bore twenty-five bulblets underneath. Half a 
mile from the start, or thereabouts, the path 
skirts what I should call the fernery ; a cir- 
cular space, perhaps one hundred and fifty feet 
in diameter, set in the midst of the primeval 
forest, but itself containing no tree or shrub 
of any sort, — nothing but one dense mass of 
ferns. In the centre was a patch of the sensi- 
tive fern (^Onoclea sensihilis), while around this, 
and filling nearly the entire circle, was a mag- 
nificent thicket of the ostrich fern QOnoclea 
struthiopteris)^ with sensihilis growing hidden 
and scattered underneath. About the edge 
were various other species, notably Aspidium 
Goldianum^ which I here found for the first 
time, and Aspidium aculeatum, var. Braunii. 
All in all, it was a curious and pretty sight, — 
this tiny tarn filled with ferns instead of water, 
— one worth going a good distance to see, and 
sure to attract the notice of the least observant 
traveler.^ 

Ferns are mostly of a gregarious habit. Here 
at Owl's Head, for instance, might be seen in 

1 To bear out what has been said in the text concerning the 
abundance of ferns at Owl's Head, I subjoin a list of the species 
observed ; premising that the first interest of my trip was not 
botanical, and that I explored but a very small section of the 
woods : — 



AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 251 

one place a rock thickly matted with the com- 
mon polypody ; in another a patch of the 
maiden-hair ; in still another a plenty of the 
Christmas fern, or a smaller group of one of 
the beech ferns QPhegopteris polypodioides or 
Phegopteris Dryopteris). Our grape-ferns or 
moonworts, on the other hand, covet more 
elbow-room. The largest species (^Botrychium 
Virgmianum)^ although never growing in any- 
thing like a bed or tuft, was nevertheless com- 
mon throughout the woods ; you could gather 
a handful almost anywhere ; but I found only 
one plant of Botrychium lanceolatum^ and only 
two of Botrychium matricaricefolium (and these 
a long distance apart), even though, on account 
of their rarity and because I had never before 
seen the latter, I spent considerable time, first 
and last, in hunting for them. What can these 

Polypodmm vulgare. A. acuhatum, var. Braunii. 

Adiantum pedatum. Cystopteris bulbifera. 

Pteris aquilina. C. fragilis. 

Asplenium Trichomanes. Onoclea struthiopteris. 

A. thelypteroides. 0. sensibilis. 

A. Filix-fcemina. Woodsia Ilvensis. 

Phegopteris polypodioides. Dicksonia punctilobula. 

P. Dryopteris. Osmunda regalis. 

Aspidiuin marginale. 0. Claytoniana. 
A. spinulosum, variety undeter- 0. cinnamomea. 

mined. Botrychium lanceolatum. 
A. spinulosum, var. dilatatum. B. matricaricefolium. 

A. Goldianum. B. ternatum. 

A. acrostichoides. B, Virginianum. 



262 AN OWVS^EAD HOLIDAY. 

diminutive hermits have ever done or suffered, 
that they should choose thus to live and die, 
each by itself, in the vast solitude of a moun- 
tain forest ? 

It was already the middle of July, so that I 
was too late for the better part of the wood 
flowers. The oxalis (^Oxalis acetosella')^ or 
wood-sorrel was in bloom, however, carpeting 
the ground in many places. I plucked a blos- 
som now and then to admire the loveliness of 
the white cup, with its fine purple lines and 
golden spots. If each had been painted on 
purpose for a queen, they could not have been 
more daintily touched. Yet here they were, 
opening by the thousand, with no human eye 
to look upon them. Quite as common (Words- 
worth's expression, " Ground flowers in flocks," 
would have suited either) was the alpine en- 
chanter's night-shade (^Circcea alpina) \ a most 
frail and delicate thing, though it has little 
other beauty. Who would ever mistrust, to 
see it, that it would prove to be connected in 
any way with the flaunting willow-herb, or fire- 
weed ? But such incongruities are not confined 
to the " vegetable kingdom." The wood-nettle 
was growing everywhere; a juicy-looking but 
coarse weed, resembling our common roadside 
nettles only in its blossoms. The cattle had 
found out what I never should have surmised. 



AN OWL'S HEAD HO LID A V. 253 

— having had a taste of its sting, — that it is 
good for food ; there were great patches of it, 
as likewise of the pale touch-me-not (^Im]jatiens 
pallida), which had been browsed over by 
them. It seemed to me that some of the ferns, 
the hay-scented for example, ought to have 
suited them better ; but they passed these all 
by, as far as I could detect. About the edges 
of the woods, and in favorable positions well 
up the mountain-side, the flowering raspberry 
was flourishing ; making no display of itself, 
but offering to any who should choose to turn 
aside and look at them a few blossoms such as, 
for beauty and fragrance, are worthy to be, as 
they really are, cousin to the rose. On one of 
my rambles I came upon some plants of a 
strangely slim and prim aspect ; nothing but 
a straight, erect, military-looking, needle-like 
stalk, bearing a spike of pods at the top, and 
clasped at the middle by two small stemless 
leaves. By some occult means (perhaps their 
growing with Tiarella had something to do with 
the matter) I felt at once that these must be 
the mitre-wort (^Mitella dipJiylla), My pro- 
phetic soul was not always thus explicit and in- 
fallible, however. Other novelties I saw, about 
which I could make no such happy impromptu 
guess. And here the manual afforded little 
assistance ; for it has not yet been found prac- 



254 AN OWL^S HEAD HOLIDAY. 

ticable to " analyze," and so to identify plants 
simply by the stem and foliage, — although I 
remember to have been told, to be sure, of a 
young lady who professed that at her college 
the instruction in botany was so thorough that 
it was possible for the student to name any 
plant in the world from seeing only a single 
leaf! But her college was not. Harvard, and 
Professor Gray has probably never so much as 
heard of such an admirable method. 

On the whole, it is good to have the curios- 
ity piqued with here and there a vegetable 
stranger, — its name and even its family rela- 
tionship a mystery. The leaf is nothing ex- 
traordinary, perhaps, yet who knows but that 
the bloom may be of the rarest beauty? Or the 
leaf is of a gracious shape and texture, but how 
shall we tell whether the flower will correspond 
with it ? No ; we must do with them as with 
chance acquaintances of our own kind. The 
man looks every inch a gentleman ; his face 
alone seems a suflBcient guaranty of good-breed- 
ing and intelligence ; but none the less, — and 
not forgetting that charity thinketh no evil, — 
we shall do well to wait till we have heard him 
talk and seen how he will behave, before we put 
a final label upon him. Wait for the blossom 
and the fruit (the blossom is the fruit in its 
first stage) ; for the old rule is still the true 



AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 255 

one, — alike in botany and in morals, — " By 
their fruits ye shall know them." 

What a world within a world the forest is! 
Under the trees were the shrubs, — knee-high 
rock -maples making the ground verdant for 
acres together, or dwarf thickets of yew, now 
bearing green acorn-like berries ; while below 
these was a variegated carpet, oxalis and the 
flower of Linnaeus, ferns and club-mosses (the 
glossy Lycopodium lucidulum was especially 
plentiful), to say nothing of the true mosses 
and the lichens. 

Of all these things I should have seen more, 
no doubt, had not my head been so much of 
the time in the tree-tops. For yonder were the 
birds ; and how could I be expected to notice 
what lay at my feet, while I was watching in- 
tently for a glimpse of the warbler that flitted 
from twig to twig amid the foliage of some beech 
or maple, the very lowest branch of which, 
likel}' enough, was fifty or sixty feet above the 
ground. It was in this way (so I choose to be- 
lieve, at any rate) that I walked four or five 
times directly over the acute-leaved hepatica 
before I finally discovered it, notwithstanding it 
was one of the plants for which I had all the 
while been on the lookout. 

I said that the birds were in the tree-tops ; 
but of course there were exceptions. Here and 



256 AN OWVS^EAD HOLIDAY. 

there was a thrush, feeding on the ground ; or 
an oven-bird might be seen picking his devious 
way through the underwoods, in paths of his 
own, and with a gait of studied and " sanctimo- 
nious " originality. In the list of the lowly 
must be put the winter wrens also ; one need 
never look skyward for them. For a minute or 
two during my first ascent of Owl's Head I 
had lively hopes of finding one of their nests. 
Two or three of the birds were scolding ear- 
nestly right about my feet, as it were, and 
their cries redoubled, or so I imagined, when I 
approached a certain large, moss-grown stump. 
This I looked over carefully on all sides, put- 
ting my fingers into every possible hole and 
crevice, till it became evident that nothing 
was to be gained by further search. (What 
a long chapter we could write, any of us who 
are ornithologists, about the nests we did not 
find !) It dawned upon me a little later that 
I had been fooled ; that it was not the nest 
which had been in question at all. That, wher- 
ever it was, had been forsaken some days before ; 
and the birds were parents and young, the for- 
mer distracting my attention by their outcries, 
while at the same moment they were ordering 
the youngsters to make off as quickly as possible, 
lest yonder hungry fiend should catch and de- 
vour them. If wrens ever laugh, this pair must 



AN OWLS HEAD HOLIDAY. 257 

have done so that evening, as they recalled to 
each other my eager fumbling of that innocent 
old stump. This opinion as to the meaning of 
their conduct was confirmed in the course of a 
few days, when I came upon another similar 
group. These were at first quite unaware of my 
presence ; and a very pretty family picture they 
made, in their snuggery of overthrown trees, 
the father breaking out into a song once in a 
while, or helping his mate to feed the young, 
who were already able to pick up a good part 
of their own living. Before long, however, one 
of the pair cauglit sight of the intruder, and then 
all at once the scene changed. The old birds 
chattered and scolded, bobbing up and down in 
their own ridiculous manner (although, consid- 
ered by itself, this gesture is perhaps no more 
laughable than some which other orators are 
applauded for making), and soon the place was 
silent and to all appearance deserted. 

Notwithstanding Owl's Head is in Canada, 
the birds, as I soon found, were not such as 
characterize the " Canadian Fauna." Olive- 
backed thrushes, black-poll warblers, crossbills, 
pine linnets, and Canada jays, all of which I 
had myself seen in the White Mountains, were 
none of them here ; but instead, to my surprise, 
were wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, and wood 
pewees, — the tv/o latter species in comparative 

17 



258 AN OWV^EAD HOLIDAY. 

abundance. My first wood thrush was seen for 
a moment only, and although he had given me a 
plain sight of his back, I concluded that my eyes 
must once more have played me false. But 
within a day or two, when half-way down the 
mountain path, I heard the well-known strain 
ringing through the woods. It was unquestion- 
ably that, and nothing else, for I sat down upon 
a convenient log and listened for ten minutes or 
more, while the singer ran through all those 
inimitable variations which infallibly distinguish 
the wood thrush's song from every other. And 
afterward, to make assurance doubly sure, I 
again saw the bird in the best possible position, 
and at short range. On looking into the sub- 
ject, indeed, I learned that his being here was 
nothing wonderful ; since, while it is true, as far 
as the sea-coast is concerned, that he seldom 
ventures north of Massachusetts, it is none the 
less down in the books that he does pass the 
summer in Lower Canada, reaching it, probably, 
by way of the valley of the St. Lawrence. 

A few robins were about the hotel, and I saw 
a single veery in the woods, but the only mem- 
bers of the thrush family that were present in 
large numbers were the hermits. These sang 
everywhere and at all hours. On the summit, 
even at mid-day, I was invariably serenaded by 
them. In fact they seemed more abundant 



AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 259 

there than anywhere else ; but they were often 
to be heard by the lake-side, and in our apple 
orchard, and once at least one of them sang at 
some length from a birch-tree within a few feet 
of the piazza, between it and the bowling alley. 
As far as I have ever been able to discover, the 
hermit, for all his name and consequent reputa- 
tion, is less timorous and more approachable 
than any other New England representative of 
his " sub-genus." 

On this trip I settled once more a question 
which I had already settled several times, — the 
question, namely, whether the wood thrush or 
the hermit is the better singer. This time my 
decision was in favor of the former. How the 
case would have turned had the conditions been 
reversed, had there been a hundred of the wood 
thrushes for one of the hermits, of course I can- 
not tell. So true is a certain old Latin proverb, 
that in matters of this sort it is impossible for 
a man to agree even with himself for any long 
time together. 

The conspicuous birds, noticed by everybody, 
were a family of hawks. The visitor might 
have no appreciation of music ; he might go up 
the mountain and down again without minding 
the thrushes or the wrens, — for there is nothing 
about the human ear more wonderful than its 
ability not to hear ; but these hawks passed a 



260 AN OWVS^EAD HOLIDAY. 

good part of ever}^ day in screaming, and were 
bound to be attended to by all but the stone- 
deaf. A native of the region pointed out a 
ledge, on which, according to his account, they 
had made their nest for more than thirty years. 
" We call them mountain hawks," he said, in 
answer to an inquiry. The keepers of the hotel, 
naturally enough, called them eagles ; while a 
young Canadian, who one day overtook me as 
I neared the summit, and spent an hour there 
in my company, pronounced them fish-hawks. 
I asked him, carelessly, how he could be sure 
of that, and he replied, after a little hesitation, 
" Why, they are all the time over the lake ; and 
besides, they sometimes dive into the water and 
come up with a fish." The last item would have 
been good evidence, no doubt. My difiiculty 
was that I had never seen them near the lake, 
and what was more conclusive, their heads were 
dark-colored, if not really black. A few min- 
utes after this conversation I happened to have 
my glass upon one of them as he approached 
the mountain at some distance below us, when 
my comrade asked, "Looking at that bird?" 
" Yes," I answered ; on which he continued, in 
a matter-of-fact tone, "That 's a crow ; " plainly 
thinking that, as I appeared to be slightly in- 
quisitive about such matters, it would be a kind- 
ness to tell me a thing or two. I made bold to 



AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 261 

intimate that the bird had a barred tail, and 
must, I thought, be one of the hawks. He did 
not dispute the point ; and, in truth, he was a 
modest and well-mannered young gentleman. 
I liked him in that he knew both how to con- 
verse and how to be silent ; without which latter 
qualification, indeed, not even an angel would be 
a desirable mountain-top companion. He gave 
me information about the surrounding country 
such as I was very glad to get ; and in the case 
of the hawks my advantage over him, if any, 
was mainly in this, — that my lack of knowledge 
partook somewhat more full}^ than his of the na- 
ture of Lord Bacon's " learned ignorance, that 
knows itself." 

Whatever the birds may have been, " moun- 
tain hawks," " fish-hawks," or duck-hawks, their 
aerial evolutions, as seen from the summit, were 
beautiful beyond description. One day in par- 
ticular three of them were performing together. 
For a time they chased each other this way 
and that at lightning speed, screaming wildly, 
though whether in sport or anger I could not 
determine. Then they floated majestically, high 
above us, while now and then one would set his 
wings and shoot down, down, till the precipitous 
side of the mountain hid him from view; only 
to reappear a minute afterward, soaring again, 
with no apparent effort, to his former height. 



262 AN OWV^EAD HOLIDAY. 

One of these noisy fellows served me an ex- 
cellent turn. It was the last day of my visit, 
and I had just taken my farewell look at the 
enchanting prospect from the summit, when I 
heard the lisp of a brown creeper. This was 
the first of his kind that I had seen here, and I 
stopped immediately to watch him, in hopes he 
would sing. Creeper-like he tried one tree after 
another in quick succession, till at last, while he 
was exploring a dead spruce which had toppled 
half-way to the ground, a hawk screamed loudly 
overhead. Instantly the little creature flattened 
himself against the trunk, spreading his wings 
to their very utrdost and ducking his head until, 
though I had been all the while eying his mo- 
tions through a glass at the distance of only a 
few rods, it was almost impossible to believe 
that yonder tiny brown fleck upon the bark was 
really a bird and not a lichen. He remained in 
this posture for perhaps a minute, only putting 
up his head two or three times to peer cautiously 
round.. Unless I misjudged him, he did not 
discriminate between the screech of the hawk 
and the ank^ ank of a nuthatch, which followed 
it ; and this, with an indefinable something in 
his manner, made me suspect him of being a 
young bird. Young or old, however, he had 
learned one lesson well, at all events, one which 
I hoped would keep him out of the talons of his 
enemies for long days to come. 



AN OWVS HEAD HOLIDAY. 263 

It was pleasant to see how cheerfully he re- 
sumed work as soon as the alarm was over. 
This danger was escaped, at any rate ; and why 
should he make himself miserable with worry- 
ing about the next ? He had the true philoso- 
phy. We who pity the birds for their number- 
less perils are ourselves in no better case. Con- 
sumption, fevers, accidents, enemies of every 
name are continually lying in wait for our de- 
struction. We walk surrounded with them ; 
seeing them not, to be sure, but knowing, all 
the same, that they are there ; yet feeling, too, 
like the birds, that in some way or other we 
shall elude them a while longer, and holding 
at second hand the truth which these humble 
creatures practice upon instinctively, — " Suffi- 
cient unto the day is the evil thereof." 

Not far from this spot, on a previous occa- 
sion, I had very unexpectedly come face to face 
with another of the creeper's blood-thirsty per- 
secutors. It happened that a warbler was sing- 
ing in a lofty birch, and being in doubt about 
the song (which was a little like the Nash- 
ville's, but longer in each of its two parts and 
ending with a less confused flourish), I was of 
course very desirous to see the singer. But 
to catch sight of a small bird amid thick foli- 
age, fifty feet or more above you, is not an easy 
matter, as I believe I have already once re- 



264 AN OWVS HEAD HOLIDAY. 

marked. So when I grew weary of the at- 
tempt, I bethought myself to try the efficacy of 
an old device, well known to all collectors, and 
proceeded to imitate, as well as I could, the 
cries of some bird in distress. My warbler was 
imperturbable. He had no nest or young to be 
anxious about, and kept on singing. But pretty 
soon I was apprised of something in the air, 
coming toward me, and looking up, beheld a 
large owl who appeared to be dropping straight 
upon my head. He saw me in time to avoid 
such a catastrophe, however, and, describing a 
graceful curve, alighted on a low branch near 
by, and stared at me as only an owl can. Then 
away he went, while at the same instant a jay 
dashed into the thicket and out again, shouting 
derisively, " I saw you ! I saw you ! " Evi- 
dently tlie trick was a good one, and moderately 
well played ; in further confirmation of which 
the owl hooted twice in response to some pecul- 
iarly happy efforts on my part, and then actu- 
ally came back again for another look. This 
proved sufficient, and he quickly disappeared; 
retiring to his leafy covert or hollow tree, to 
meditate, no doubt, on the strange creature 
whose unseasonable noises had disturbed his 
afternoon slumbers. Likely enough he could 
not readily fall asleep again for wondering how 
I could possibly find my way through the woods 



AN OWVS HEAD HOLIDAY. 265 

in the darkness of daylight. So difficult is it, 
we may suppose, for even an owl to put himself 
in another's place and see with another's eyes. 

This little episode over, I turned again to 
the birch-tree, and fortunately the warbler's 
throat was of too fiery a color to remain long 
concealed ; though it was at once a pleasure 
and an annoyance to find myself still unac- 
quainted with at least one song out of the 
Blackburnian's repertory. In times past I had 
carefully attended to his music, and within only 
a few days, in the White Mountain Notch, I 
had taken note of two of its variations ; but 
here was still another, which neither began 
with zillup, zillup^ nor ended with zip^ zip, 
— notes which I had come to look upon as the 
Blackburnian's sign-vocal. Yet it must have 
been my fault, not his, that I failed to recognize 
him ; for every bird's voice has something char- 
acteristic about it, just as every human voice 
has tones and inflections which those who are 
sufficiently familiar with its owner will infalli- 
bly detect. The ear feels them, although words 
cannot describe them. Articulate speech is but 
a modern invention, as it were, in comparison 
with the five senses ; and since practice makes 
perfect, it is natural enough that every one of 
the five should easily, and as a matter of course, 
perceive shades of difference so slight that Ian- 



266 AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 

guage, in its present rudimentary state, cannot 
begin to take account of them. 

The other warblers at Owl's Head, as far as 
they came under my notice, were the black-and- 
white creeper, the blue yellow-backed warbler, 
the Nashville, the black-throated green, the 
black -throated blue, the yellow - rumped, the 
chestnut -sided, the oven-bird (already spoken 
of), the small-billed water thrush, the Maryland 
yellow-throat, the Canadian flycatcher, and the 
redstart. 

The water thrush (I saw only one individual) 
was by the lake-side, and within a rod or two of 
the bowling alley. What a strange, composite 
creature he is! thrush, warbler, and sandpiper 
all in one ; with such a bare-footed, bare-legged 
appearance, too, as if he must always be ready 
to wade ; and such a Saint Vitus's dance ! His 
must be a curious history. In particular, I 
should like to know the origin of his teetering 
habit, which seems to put him among the beach 
birds. Can it be that such frequenters of shal- 
low water are rendered less conspicuous by this 
wave-like, up-and-down motion, and have actu- 
ally adopted it as a means of defense, just as they 
and many more have taken on a color harmoniz- 
ing with that of their ordinary surroundings ? ^ 

1 This bird {Siurus ncevius) is remarkable for the promptness 
with which he sets out on his autumnal journey, appearing in 
Eastern Massachusetts early in August. Last year (1884) one wan 



AN OWVS BEAD HOLIDAY. 267 

The black-throated blue warblers were com- 
mon, and like most of their tribe were waiting 
upon offspring just out of the nest. I watched 
one as he offered his charge a rather large in- 
sect. ■ The awkward fledgeling let it fall three 
times ; and still the parent picked it up again, 
only chirping mildly, as if to say, " Come, come, 
my beauty, don't be quite so bungling." But 
even in the midst of their family cares, they 
still found leisure for music ; and as they and 
the black-throated greens were often singing to- 
gether, I had excellent opportunities to compare 
the songs of the two species. The voices, while 
both very peculiar, are at the same time so 
nearly alike that it was impossible for me on 
hearing the first note of either strain to tell 
whose it was. With the voice the similarity 
ends, however ; for the organ does not make 
the singer, and while the blue seldom attempts 
more than a harsh, monotonous Jcree^ kree, kree, 
the green possesses the true lyrical gift, so that 

in my door-yard on the morning of the 7th. I heard his loud chip, 
and looking out of the window, saw him first on the ground and 
then in an ash-tree near a crowd of house sparrows. The latter 
were scolding at him with their usual cordiality, while he, on his 
part, seemed under some kind of fascination, returning again and 
again to walk as closely as he dared about the blustering crew. 
His curiosity was laughable. Evidently he thought, considering 
what an ado the sparrows were making, that something serious 
must be going on, something worth any bird's while to turn aside 
for a moment to look into. The innocent recluse ! if he had lived 
where I do he would have grown used to such " windy congresses." 



268 AN OWD^EAD HOLIDAY. 

few of our birds have a more engaging song than 
his simple Trees^ trees, murmuring trees, or if 
you choose to understand it so, Sleep, sleep, 
pretty one, sleep?- 

I saw little of the blue yellow-backed war- 
bler, but whenever I took the mountain path I 
was certain to hear his whimsical upward-run- 
ning song, broken off at the end with a smart 
snap. He seemed to have chosen the neighbor- 
hood of the fernery for his peculiar haunt, a 
piece of good taste quite in accord with his gen- 
eral character. Nothing could well be more 
beautiful than this bird's plumage ; and his 
nest, which is " globular, with an entrance on 
one side," is described as a wonder of elegance ; 
while in grace of movement not even the tit- 
mouse can surpass him. Strange that such an 
exquisite should have so fantastic a song. 

I have spoken of the rainy weather. There 
were times when the piazza was as far out-of- 
doors as it was expedient to venture. But even 
then I was not without excellent feathered 
society. Red-eyed vireos (one pair had their 

1 After all that has been said about the "pathetic fallacy," so 
called, it remains true that Nature speaks to us according to our 
mood. With all her " various language " she "cannot talk and 
find ears too." And so it happens that some, listening to the 
black-throated green warbler, have brought back a report of 
" Cheese^ cheese, a little more cheese." Prosaic and hungry 
souls ! This voice out of the pine-trees was not for them. They 
have caught the rhythm but missed the poetry. 



AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 269 

nest within twenty feet of the hotel), chippers, 
song sparrows, snow-birds, robins, waxwings, 
and photibes were to be seen almost any mo- 
ment, while the hermit thrushes, as I have be- 
fore mentioned, paid us occasional visits. The 
most familiar of our door-yard friends, however, 
to my surprise, were the yellow-rumped war- 
blers. Till now I had never found them at 
home except in the forests of the White Moun- 
tains ; but here they were, playing the rdle 
which in Massachusetts we are accustomed to 
see taken by the summer yellow-birds, and by 
no others of the family. At first, knowing that 
this species was said to build in low evergreens, 
I looked suspiciously at some small spruces 
which lined the walk to the pier ; but after a 
while I happened to see one of the birds flying 
into a rock-maple with something in his bill, and 
following him with my eye, beheld him alight 
on the edge of his nest. "About four feet 
from the ground," the book said (the latest 
book, too) ; but this lawless pair had chosen a 
position which could hardly be less than ten 
times that height, — considerably higher, at all 
events, than the eaves of the three-story house. 
It was out of reach in the small topmost 
branches, but I watched its owners at my leis- 
ure, as the maple was not more than two rods 
from my window. At this time the nestlings 



270 AN OWVS READ HOLIDAY. 

were nearly ready to fly, and in the course of a 
day or two I saw one of them sitting in a tree in 
the midst of a drenching rain. On my offering 
to lay hold of him he dropped into the grass, 
and when I picked him up both parents began 
to fly about me excitedly, with loud outcries. 
The male, especially, went nearly frantic, enter- 
ing the bowling alley where I happened to be, 
and alighting on the floor; then, taking to the 
bole of a tree, he fluttered helplessly upon it, 
spreading his wings and tail, seeming to say as 
plainly as words could have done, " Look, you 
monster ! here 's another young bird that can't 
fly ; why don't you come and catch him ? " 
The acting was admirable, — all save the spread- 
ing of the tail ; that was a false note, for the 
youngster in my hand had no tail feathers at 
all. I put the fellow upon a tree, whence he 
quickly flew to the ground (he could fly down 
but not up), and soon both parents were again 
supplying him with food. The poor thing had 
not eaten a morsel for possibly ten minutes, a 
very long fast for a bird of his age. I hoped he 
would fall into the hands of no worse enemy 
than myself, but the chances seemed against 
him. The first few days after quitting the nest 
must be full of perils for such helpless inno- 
cents. 

For the credit of my own sex I was pleased 



AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 271 

to notice that it was the father-bird who man- 
ifested the deepest concern and the readiest 
wit, not to say the greatest courage ; but I am 
obliged in candor to acknowledge that this fea- 
ture of the case surprised me not a little. 

In what language shall I speak of the song of 
these familiar myrtle warblers, so that my praise 
may correspond in some degree with the gracious 
and beautiful simplicity of the strain itself ? 
For music to be heard constantly, right under 
one's window, it could scarcely be improved ; 
sweet, brief, and remarkably unobtrusive, with- 
out sharpness or emphasis ; a trill not altogether 
unlike the pine-creeping warbler's, but less mat- 
ter-of-fact and business-like. I used to listen 
to it before I rose in the morning, and it was 
to be heard at intervals all day long. Occasion- 
ally it was given in an absent-minded, medi- 
tative way, in a kind of half-voice, as if the 
happy creature had no thought of what he was 
doing. Then it was at its best, but one needed 
to be near the singer. 

In a clearing back of the hotel, but sur- 
rounded by the forest, were always a goodly 
company of birds, among the rest a family of 
yellow-bellied woodpeckers ; and in a second 
similar place were white - throated sparrows, 
Maryland yellow - throats, and chestnut -sided 
warblers, the last two feeding their young. 



272 AN OWL'S JBEAD HOLIDAY. 

Immature warblers are a puzzling set. The 
birds themselves have no difficulty, I suppose ; 
but seeing young and old together, and noting 
how unlike they are, I have before now been 
reminded of Launcelot Gobbo's saying, " It is 
a wise father that knows his own child." 

While traversing the woods between these 
two clearings I saw, as I thought, a chimney 
swift fly out of the top of a tree which bad been 
broken off at a height of twenty-five or thirty 
feet. I stopped, and pretty soon the thing was 
repeated ; but even then I was not quick enough 
to be certain whether the bird really came from 
the stump or only out of the forest behind it. 
Accordingly, after sounding the trunk to make 
sure it was hollow, I sat down in a clump of 
raspberry bushes, where I should be sufficiently 
concealed, and awaited further developments. 
I waited and waited, while the mosquitoes, 
seeing how sheltered I was from the breeze, 
gathered about my head in swarms. A win- 
ter wren at my elbow struck up to sing, going 
over and over with his exquisite tune ; and a 
scarlet tanager, also, not far off, did what he 
could — which was somewhat less than the 
wren's — to relieve the tedium of my situation. 
Finally, when my patience was well-nigh ex- 
hausted, — for the afternoon was wearing away 
and I had some distance to walk, — a swift flew 



AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 273 

past me from behind, and, with none of that 
poising over the entrance such as is commonly 
seen when a swift goes down a chimney, went 
straight into the trunk. In half a minute or 
less he reappeared without a sound, and was 
out of sight in a second. Then I picked up my 
rubber coat, and with a blessing on the wren 
and the tanager, and a malediction on the mos- 
quitoes (so unjust does self-interest make us), 
started homeward. 

Conservatives and radicals ! Even the swifts, 
it seems, are divided into these two classes. 
" Hollow trees were good enough for our fa- 
thers ; who are we that we should assume to 
know more than all the generations before us ? 
To change is not of necessity to make progress. 
Let those who will, take up with smoky chim- 
neys ; for our part we prefer the old way." 

Thus far the conservatives ; but now comes 
the party of modern ideas. " All that is very 
well," say they. " Our ancestors were worthy 
folk enough ; they did the best they could in 
their time. But the world moves, and wise 
birds will move with it. Why should we make 
a fetish out of some dead forefather's example ? 
We are alive now. To refuse to take advan- 
tage of increased light and improved condi- 
tions may look like filial piety in the eyes of 
some : to us such conduct appears nothing better 

18 



274 AN OWL'S ^AD HOLIDAY. 

than a distrust of the Divine Providence, a sub- 
tle form of atheism. What are chimneys for, 
pray? And as for soot and smoke, we were 
made to live in them. Otherwise, let some of 
our opponents be kind enough to explain why 
we were created with black feathers." 

So, in brief, the discussion runs ; with the 
usual result, no doubt, tliat each side convinces 
itself. 

We may assume, however, that these old- 
school and new-school swifts do not carry their 
disagreement so far as actually to refuse to hold 
fellowship with one another. Conscience is but 
imperfectly developed in birds, as yet, and they 
can hardly feel each other's sins and errors of 
belief (if indeed these things be two, and not 
one) quite so keenly as men are accustomed to 
do. 

After all, it is something to be grateful for, 
this diversity of habit. We could not spare 
the swifts from our villages, and it would be 
too bad to lose them out of the Northern for- 
ests. May they live and thrive, both parties 
of them. ^^ 

I am glad, also, for the obscurity which at- 
tends their annual coming and going. Whether 
they hibernate or migrate, the secret is their 
own ; and for my part, I wish them the wit to 
keep it. In this age, when the world is in such 



AN OWL'S HEAD HOLIDAY. 275 

danger of becoming omniscient before the time, 
it is good to have here and there a mystery in 
reserve. Though it be only a little one, we may 
well cherish it as a treasure. 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 



And now 't was like all instruments, 
Now like a lonely flute ; 
And now it is an angel's song, 
That makes the heavens be mute. 

Coleridge. 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 



The morning of May-day was bright and 
spring-like, and should have been signalized, it 
seemed to me, by the advent of a goodly num- 
ber of birds ; but the only new-comer to be found 
was a single black-and-white creeper. Glad as 
I was to see this lowly acquaintance back again 
after his seven months' absence, and natural as 
he looked on the edge of Warbler Swamp, bob- 
bing along the branches in his own unique, end- 
for-end fashion, there was no resisting a sensa- 
tion of disappointment. Why could not the 
wood thrush have been punctual? He would 
have made the woods ring with an ode worthy 
of the festival. Possibly the hermits — who 
had been with us for several days in silence — 
divined my thoughts. At all events, one of them 
presently broke into a song — the first Hylo- 
cichla note of the year. Never was voice more 
beautiful. Like the poet's dream, it " left my 
after-morn content." 

It is too much to be expected that the wood 



280 A MOm'H^S MUSIC. 

thrusli should hold himself bound to appear at 
a given point on a fixed date. How can we 
know the multitude of reasons, any one of which 
may detain him for twenty-four hours, or even 
for a week ? It is enough for us to be assured, 
in general, that the first ten days of the month 
will bring this master of the choir. The pres- 
ent season he arrived on the 6th — the veery 
with him; last year he was absent until the 
8th ; while on the two years preceding he as- 
sisted at the observance of May-day. 

All in all, I must esteem this thrush our great- 
est singer ; although the hermit might dispute 
the palm, perhaps, but that he is merely a semi- 
annual visitor in most parts of Massachusetts. 
If perfection be held to consist in the absence 
of flaw, the hermit's is unquestionably the more 
nearly perfect song of the two. Whatever he 
attempts is done beyond criticism ; but his range 
and variety are far less than his rival's, and, for 
my part, I can forgive the latter if now and then 
he reaches after a note lying a little beyond his 
best voice, and withal is too commonly wanting 
in that absolute simplicity and ease which lend 
such an ineffable charm to the performance of 
the hermit and the veery. Shakespeare is not a 
faultless poet, but in the existing state of public 
opinion it will hardly do to set Gray above him. 

In the course of the month about which I am 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 281 

now writing (May, 1884) I was favored with 
thrush music to a quite unwonted degree. With 
the exception of the varied thrush (a New-Eng- 
lander by accident only) and the mocking-bird, 
there was not one of our Massachusetts repre- 
sentatives of the family who did not put me in 
his debt. The robin, the brown thrush, the cat- 
bird, the wood thrush, the veery, and even the 
hermit (what a magnificent sextette !) — so 
many I counted upon hearing, as a matter of 
course ; but when to these were added the Arc- 
tic thrushes — the olive-backed and the gray- 
cheeked — I gladly confessed surprise. I had 
never heard either species before, south of the 
White Mountains ; nor, as far as I then knew, 
had anybody else been more fortunate than 
myself. Yet the birds themselves were seem- 
ingly unaware of doing anything new or note- 
worthy. This was especially the case with the 
olive-backs ; and after listening to them for three 
days in succession I began to suspect that they 
were doing nothing new, — that they had sung 
every spring in the same manner, only, in the 
midst of the grand May medley, my ears had 
somehow failed to take account of their contri- 
bution. Their fourth (and farewell) appear- 
ance was on the 23d, when they sang both morn- 
ing and evening. At that time they were in a 
bit of swamp, among some taU birches, and as 



282 A MONK'S MUSIC. 

I caught the familiar and characteristic notes 
— a brief ascending spiral — I was almost ready- 
to believe myself in some primeval New Hamp- 
shire forest ; an illusion not a little aided by the 
frequent lisping of black-poll warblers, who 
chanced just then to be remarkably abundant. 

It was on the same day, and within a short dis- 
tance of the same spot, that the Alice thrushes, 
or gray-cheeks, were in song. Their music was 
repeated a good many times, but unhappily it 
ceased whenever I tried to get near the birds. 
Then, as always, it put me in mind of the 
veery's effort, notwithstanding a certain part 
of the strain was quite out of the veery's man- 
ner, and the whole was pitched in decidedly 
too high a key. It seemed, also, as if what I 
heard could not be the complete song ; but I 
had been troubled with the same feeling on 
previous occasions, and a friend whose oppor- 
tunities have been better than mine reports a 
similiar experience ; so that it is perhaps not 
uncharitable to conclude that the song, even at 
its best, is more or less broken and amorphous. 

In their Northern homes these gray-cheeks 
are excessively wild and unapproachable ; but 
while traveling they are little if at all worse 
than their congeners in this respect, — taking 
short flights when disturbed, and often doing 
nothing more than to hop upon some low perch 
to reconnoitre the intruder. 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 283 

At the risk of being thought to reflect upon 
the acuteness of more competent observers, I am 
free to express my hope of hearing the music of 
both these noble visitors again another season. 
For it is noticeable how common such things 
tend to become when once they are discovered. 
An enthusiastic botanical collector told me that 
for years he searched far and near for the adder's- 
tongue fern, till one day he stumbled upon it in 
a place over which he had long been in the habit 
of passing. Marking the peculiarities of the 
spot he straightway wrote to a kindred spirit, 
whom he knew to have been engaged in the 
same hunt, suggesting that he would probably 
find the coveted plants in a particular section 
of the meadow back of his own house (in Con- 
cord) ; and sure enough, the next day's mail 
brought an envelope from his friend, inclosing 
specimens of Ophioglossum vulgatu7n, with the 
laconic but sufiicient message. Eureka ! There 
are few naturalists, I suspect, who could not 
narrate adventures of a like sort. 

One such befell me during this same month, 
in connection with the wood wagtail, or golden- 
crowned thrush. Not many birds are more 
abundant than he in my neighborhood, and I 
fancied myself pretty well acquainted with his 
habits and manners. Above all, I had paid 
attention to his celebrated love-song, listening 



284 A Mom'H's MUSIC. 

to it almost daily for several summers. Thus 
far it had invariably been given out in the after- 
noon, and on the wing. To my mind, indeed, 
this was by far its most interesting feature (for 
in itself the song is by no means of surpassing 
beauty), and I had even been careful to record 
the earliest hour at which I had heard it — three 
o'clock P. M. But on the 6th of May aforesaid 
I detected a bird practicing this very tune in 
the morning, and from a perch ! I set the fact 
down without hesitation as a wonder, — a purely 
exceptional occurrence, the repetition of which 
was not to be looked for. Anything might hap- 
pen once. Only four days afterwards, however, 
at half-past six in the morning, I had stooped 
to gather some peculiarly bright-colored anem- 
ones (I can see the patch of rosy blossoms at 
this moment, although I am writing by a blaz- 
ing fire while the snow is falling without), when 
my ear caught the same song again ; and keep- 
ing my position, I soon descried the fellow step- 
ping through the grass within ten yards of me, 
caroling as he walked. The hurried warble, 
with the common Weechee, weechee^ weechee 
interjected in the midst, was reiterated perhaps 
a dozen times, — the full evening strain, but in 
a rather subdued tone. He was under no excite- 
ment, and appeared to be entirely by himself ; 
in fact, when he had made about half the cir- 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 285 

cuit round me lie flew into a low bush and pro- 
ceeded to dress his feathers listlessly. Probably 
what I had overheard was nothing more than a 
rehearsal. Within a week or two he would need 
to do his very best in winning the fair one of 
his choice, and for that supreme moment he had 
already put himself in training. The wise- 
hearted and obliging little beau ! I must have 
been the veriest churl not to wish him his pick 
of all the feminine wagtails in the wood. As 
for the pink anemones, they had done me a 
double kindness, in requital for which I could 
only carry them to the city, where, in their 
modesty, they would have blushed to a down- 
right crimson had they been conscious of one- 
half the admiration which their loveliness called, 
forth. 

Before the end of the month (it was on the 
morning of the 18th) I once more heard the 
wagtail's song from the ground. This time the 
affair was anything but a rehearsal. There 
were two birds, — a lover and his lass, — and 
the wooing waxed fast and furious. For that 
matter, it looked not so much like love-making 
as like an aggravated case of assault and battery. 
But, as I say, the male was warbling, and not 
improbably (so strange are the ways of the 
world), if he had been a whit less pugnacious in 
his addresses, his lady-love, who was plainly well 



286 A MONTH'S MUSIC. 

able to take care of herself, would have thought 
him deficient in earnestness. At any rate, the 
wood wagtail is not the only bird whose court- 
ship has the appearance of a scrimmage ; and I 
believe there are still tribes of men among whom 
similar practices prevail, although the greater 
part of our race have learned, by this time, to 
take somewhat less literally the old proverb, 
" None but the brave deserve the fair." Love, 
it is true, is still recognized as one of the pas- 
sions (in theory at least) even among the most 
highly civilized peoples ; but the tendency is 
more and more to count it a tender passion. 

While I am on the subject of marriage I may 
as well mention the white-eyed vireo. It had 
come to be the 16tli of the month, and as yet 
I had neither seen nor heard anything of this 
obstreperous genius ; so I made a special pil- 
grimage to a certain favorite haunt of his — 
Woodcock Swamp — to ascertain if he had ar- 
rived. After fifteen minutes or more of wait- 
ing I was beginning to believe him still absent, 
when he burst out suddenly with his loud and 
unmistakable Chip-a-wee-o. "Who are you^ 
now ? " the saucy fellow seemed to say, " Who 
are you^ now ? " Pretty soon a pair of the 
birds appeared near me, the male protesting his 
affection at a frantic rate, and the female re- 
pelling his advances with a snappish determina- 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 287 

tion which might have driven a timid suitor 
desperate. He posed before her, puffing out his 
feathers, spreading his tail, and crying hysteri- 
cally, Yip, yip, yaah, — the last note a down- 
right whine or snarl, worthy of the cat-bird. 
Poor soul ! he was well-nigh beside himself, and 
could not take no for an answer, even when the 
word was emphasized with an ugly dab of his 
beloved's beak. The pair shortly disappeared 
in the swamp, and I was not privileged to wit- 
ness the upshot of the battle ; but I consoled 
myself with believing that Phyllis knew how 
far she could prudently carry her resistance, 
and would have the discretion to yield before 
her adorer's heart was irremediably broken. 

In this instance there was no misconceiv- 
ing the meaning of the action ; but whoever 
watches birds in the pairing season is often at 
his wit's end to know what to make of their 
demonstrations. One morning a linnet chased 
another past me down the road, flying at the 
very top of his speed, and singing as he flew ; 
not, to be sure, the full and copious warble such 
as is heard when the bird hovers, but still a 
lively tune. I looked on in astonishment. It 
seemed incredible that any creature could sing 
while putting forth such tremendous muscular 
exertions ; and yet, as if to show that this was 
a mere nothing to him, the finch had no sooner 



288 A MONTH'S MUSIC. 

struck a perch than he broke forth again in his 
loudest and most spirited manner, and contin- 
ued without a pause for two or three times the 
length of his longest ordinary efforts. '' What 
lungs he must have ! " I said to myself ; and at 
once fell to wondering what could have stirred 
him up to such a pitch of excitement, and 
whether the bird he had been pursuing was 
male or female. H^e would have said, perhaps, 
if he had said anything, that that was none of 
my business. 

What I have been remarking with regard to 
the proneness of newly discovered things to be- 
come all at once common was well ilhistrated 
for me about this time by these same linnets, 
or purple finches. One rainy morning, while 
making my accustomed rounds, enveloped in 
rubber, I stopped to notice a blue-headed vireo, 
who, as I soon perceived, was sitting lazily in 
the top of a locust-tree, looking rather discon- 
solate, and ejaculating with not more than half 
his customary voice and emphasis. Mar?/ Ware ! 
— Mary Ware ! His indolence struck me as 
very surprising for a vireo ; still I had no ques- 
tion about his identity (he sat between me and 
the sun) till I changed my position, when be- 
hold ! the vireo was a linnet. A strange per- 
formance, indeed ! What could have set this 
fluent vocalist to practicing exercises of such an 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 289 

inferior, disconnected, piecemeal sort ? Within 
the next week or two, however, the same game 
was played upon me several times, and in dif- 
ferent places. No doubt the trick is an old one, 
familiar to many observers, but to me it had all 
the charm of novelty. 

There are no birds so conservative but that 
they will now and then indulge in some unex- 
pected stroke of originality. Few are more art- 
less and regular in their musical efforts than 
the pine warblers ; yet I have seen one of these 
sitting at the tip of a tree, and repeating a trill 
which toward the close invariably declined by 
an interval of perhaps three tones. Even the 
chipping sparrow, whose lay is yet more mo- 
notonous and formal than the pine warbler's, is 
not absolutely confined to his score. I once 
heard him when his trill was divided into two 
portions, the concluding half being much higher 
than the other — unless my ear was at fault, 
exactly an Qctave higher. This singular refrain 
was given out six or eight times without the 
slightest alteration. Such freaks as these, how- 
ever, are different from the linnet's Mary Ware, 
inasmuch as they are certainly the idiosyncra- 
sies of single birds, not a part of the artistic 
proficiency of the species as a whole. 

During this month I was lucky enough to 
close a little question which I had been hold- 



^ 



19 



290 A MOTH'S MUSIC. 

ing open for a number of years concerning our 
very common and familiar black-tbroated green 
warbler. This species, as is well known, has 
two perfectly well-defined tunes of about equal 
length, entirely distinct from each other. My 
uncertainty had been as to whether the two are 
ever used by the same individual. I had lis- 
tened a good many times, first and last, in hopes 
to settle the point, but hitherto without success. 
Now, however, a bird, while under my eye, de- 
livered both songs, and then went on to give 
further proof of his versatility by repeating one 
of them minus the final note. This abbrevia- 
tion, by the way, is not very infrequent with 
Dendroeca virens ; and he has still another vari- 
ation, which I hear once in a while every sea- 
son, consisting of a grace note introduced in 
the middle of the measure, in such a connec- 
tion as to form what in musical language is de- 
nominated a turn. At my first hearing of this 
I looked upon it as the private property of the 
bird to whom I was listening, — an improve- 
ment which he had accidentally hit upon. But 
it is clearly more than that ; for besides hear- 
ing it in dijBPerent seasons, I have noticed it in 
places a good distance apart. Perhaps, after 
the lapse of ten thousand years, more or less, 
the whole tribe of black-throated greens will 
have adopted it ; and then, when some ornithol- 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 291 

ogist chances to fall in with an old-fashioned 
specimen who still clings to the plain song as 
we now commonly hear it, he will fancy that 
to be the very latest modern improvement, and 
proceed forthwith to enlighten the scientific 
world with a description of the novelty. 

Hardly any incident of the month interested 
me more than a discovery (I must call it such, 
although I am almost ashamed to allude to it 
at all) which I made about the black-capped 
titmouse. For several mornings in succession 
I was greeted on waking by the trisyllabic 
minor whistle of a chickadee, who piped again 
and again not far from my window. There 
could be little doubt about its being the bird 
that I knew to be excavating a building site in 
one of our apple-trees ; but I was usually not 
out-of-doors until about five o'clock, by which 
time the music always came to an end. So one 
day I rose half an hour earlier than common 
on purpose to have a look at my little matuti- 
nal serenader. My conjecture proved correct. 
There sat the tit, within a few feet of his ap- 
ple-branch door, throwing back his head in the 
truest lyrical fashion, and calling Hear, hear 
me, with only a breathing space between the 
repetitions of the phrase. He was as plainly 
singing, and as completely absorbed in his work, 
as any thrasher or hermit thrush could have 



292 A MjmTH'S MUSIC. 

been. Heretofore I had not realized that these 
whistled notes were so strictly a song, and as 
such set apart from all the rest of the chicka- 
dee's repertory of sweet sounds ; and I was de- 
lighted to find my tiny pet recognizing thus 
unmistakably the difference between prose and 
poetry. 

But we linger unduly with these lesser lights 
of song. After the music of the Alice and the 
Swainson thrushes, the chief distinction of May, 
1884, as far as my Melrose woods were con- 
cerned, was the entirely unexpected advent of a 
colony of rose-breasted grosbeaks. For five sea- 
sons I had called these hunting-grounds my own, 
and during that time had seen perhaps about 
the same number of specimens of this royal spe- 
cies, always in the course of the vernal migra- 
tion. The present year the first comer was ob- 
served on the 15th — solitary and, except for an 
occasional monosyllable, silent. Only one more 
straggler, I assumed. But on the following 
morning I saw four others, all of them males in 
full plumage, and two of them in song. To one 
of these I attended for some time. According 
to my notes " he sang beautifully, although not 
with any excitement, nor as if he were doing his 
best. The tone was purer and smoother than 
the robin's, more mellow and sympathetic, and 
the strain was especially characterized by a drop- 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 293 

ping to a fine contralto note at the end." The 
next day I saw nothing of my new friends till 
toward night. Then, after tea, I strolled into 
the chestnut grove, and walking along the path, 
noticed a robin singing freely, remarking the 
fact because this noisy bird had been rather 
quiet of late. Just as I passed under him, how- 
ever, it flashed upon me that the voice and song 
were not exactly the robin's. They must be 
the rose-breast's then ; and stepping back to 
look up, I beheld him in gorgeous attire, perched 
in the top of an oak. He sang and sang, while 
I stood quietly listening. Pretty soon he re- 
peated the strain once or twice in a softer voice, 
and I glanced up instinctively to see if a female 
were with him ; but instead, there were two 
males sitting within a yard of each other. They 
flew off after a little, and I resumed my saunter. 
A party of chimney swifts were shooting hither 
and thither over the trees, a single wood thrush 
was chanting not far away, and in another di- 
rection a tanager was rehearsing his chip-clierr 
with characteristic assiduity. Presently I be- 
gan to be puzzled by a note which came now 
from this side, now from that, and sounded like 
the squeak of a pair of rusty shears. My first 
conjecture about the origin of this hie it would 
hardly serve my reputation to make public ; but 
I was not long in finding out that it was the 



294 A MOTH'S MUSIC. 

grosbeaks' own, and that, instead of three, there 
were at least twice that number of these bril- 
liant strangers in the grove. Altogether, the 
half hour was one of very enjoyable excitement ; 
and when, later in the evening, I sat down to 
my note-book, I started off abruptly in a hor- 
tatory vein, — *' Always take another walk ! " 

In the morning, naturally enough, I again 
turned my steps toward the chestnut grove. 
The rose-breasts were still there, and one of them 
earned my thanks by singing on the wing, fly- 
ing slowly — half-hovering, as it were — and 
singing the ordinary song, but more continu- 
ously than usual. That afternoon one of them 
was in tune at the same time with a robin, af- 
fording me the desired opportunity for a direct 
comparison. "It is really wonderful," my rec- 
ord says, " how nearly alike the two songs are ; 
but the robin's tone is plainly inferior, — less 
mellow and full. In general, too, his strain is 
pitched higher; and, what perhaps is the most 
striking point of difference, it frequently ends 
with an attempt at a note which is a little out 
of reach, so that the voice breaks." (This last 
defect, by the bye, the robin shares with his 
cousin the wood thrush, as already remarked.) 
A few days afterwards, to confirm my own im- 
pression about the likeness of the two songs, I 
called the attention of a friend with whom I was 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 295 

walking, to a grosbeak's notes, and asked him 
what bird's they were. He, having a good ear 
for matters of this kind, looked somewhat dazed 
at such an inquiry, but answered promptly, 
" Why, a robin's, of course." As one day after 
another passed, however, and I listened to both 
species in full voice on every hand, I came to 
feel that I had overestimated the resemblance. 
With increasing familiarity I discerned more 
and more clearly the respects in which the songs 
differed, and each came to have to my ear an 
individuality strictly its own. They were alike, 
doubtless, — as the red-eyed vireo's and the 
blue-head's are, — and yet they were not alike. 
Of one thing I grew better and better assured : 
the grosbeak is out of all comparison the finer 
musician of the two. To judge from my last- 
year's friends, however, his concert season is 
very short — the more 's the pity. 

I begin to perceive (indeed it has been dawn- 
ing upon me for some time) that our essay is 
not to fulfill the promise of its caption. In- 
stead of the glorious fullness and variety of the 
month's music (for May, in this latitude, is the 
musical month of months) the reader has been 
put off with a few of the more exceptional fea- 
tures of the carnival. He will overlook it, I 
trust ; and as for the great body of the chorus, 
who have not been honored with so much as a 



296 A MONTE ^S MUSIC. 

mention, they, I am assured, are far too amia- 
ble to take offense at any such unintentional 
slight. Let me conclude, then, with transcribing 
from my note-book an evening entry or two. 
Music is never so sweet as at the twilight hour ; 
and the extracts may serve at least as a con- 
venient and quasi-artistic ending for a paper 
which, so to speak, has run away with its 
writer. The first is under date of the 19th : — 

" Walked, after dinner, in the Old Road, as I have 
done often of late, and sat for a while at the entrance 
to Pyrola Grove. A wood thrush was singing not 
far off, and in the midst a Swainson thrush vouchsafed 
a few measures. I wished the latter would continue, 
but was thankful for the little. A tanager called ex- 
citedly, CMp-cherr, moving from tree to tree mean- 
while, once to a birch in full sight, and then into the 
pine over my head. As it grew dark the crowd of 
warblers were still to be seen feeding busily, making 
the most of the lingering daylight. A small-billed 
water thrush was teetering along a willow-branch, 
while his congeners, the oven-birds, were practicing 
their aerial hymn. One of these went past me as I 
stood by the roadside, rising very gradually into the 
air and repeating all the way. Chip, chip, chip, chip, 
till at last he broke into the warble, which was a full 
half longer than usual. He was evidently doing his 
prettiest. No vireos sang after sunset. A Maryland 
yellow-throat piped once or twice (he is habitually an 
evening musician), and the black-throated greens were 



A MONTH'S MUSIC. 297 

in tune, but the rest of the warblers were otherwise 
engaged. Finally, just as a distant whippoorwill be- 
gan to call, a towhee sang once from the woods ; and 
a moment later the stillness was broken by the sudden 
outburst of a thrasher. ' Now then,' he seemed to 
say, ' if the rest of you are quite done, I will see what 
/can do.' He kept on for two or three minutes in 
his best manner, and at the same time a pair of cat- 
birds were whispering love together in the thicket. 
Then an ill-timed carriage came rattling along the 
road, and when it had passed, every bird's voice was 
hushed. The hyla's tremulous cry was the only mu- 
sical sound to be heard. As I started away, one of 
these tree-frogs hopped out of my path, and I picked 
him up at the second or third attempt. What did he 
think, I wonder, when I turned him on his back to 
look at the disks at his finger-tips ? Probably he 
supposed that his hour was come ; but I had no evil 
designs upon him, — he was not to be drowned in alco- 
hol at present. Walking homeward I heard the rob- 
in's scream now and again ; but the thrasher's was 
the last song, as it deserved to be." 

Two days later I find the following : — 

" Into the woods by the Old Road. As I approached 
them, a little after sundown, a chipper was trilling, 
and song sparrows and golden warblers were sing- 
ing, — as were the black-throated greens also, and 
the Maryland yellow-throats. A wood thrush called 
brusquely, but offered no further salute to the god of 
day at his departure. Oven-birds were taking to wing 



298 A MONTH'S MUSIC. 

on the right and left. Then, as it grew dark, it grew 
silent, — except for the h ylas, — till suddenly a field 
sparrow gave out his sweet strain once. After that 
all was quiet for another interval, till a thrasher from 
the hillside began to sing. He ceased, and once more 
there was stillness. All at once the tanager broke 
forth in a strangely excited way, blurting out his 
phrase two or three times and subsiding as abruptly 
as he had commenced. Some crisis in his love-mak- 
ing, I imagined. Now the last oven-bird launched 
into the air and let fall a little shower of melody, and 
a whippoorwill took up his chant afar off. This 
should have been the end ; but a robin across the 
meadow thought otherwise, and set at work as if de- 
termined to make a night of it. Mr. Early-and-late, 
the robin's name ought to be. As I left the wood the 
whippoorwill followed; coming nearer and nearer, 
till finally he overpassed me and sang with all his 
might (while I tried in vain to see him) from a tree 
or the wall, near the big buttonwood. He too is an 
early riser, only he rises before nightfall instead of 
before daylight." 



INDEX. 



Blackbird, crow, 17 ; red-winged, 

183 ; rusty, 216. 
Bluebird, 14, 72, 160, 184, 214, 217. 
Blue-gray gnatcatcher, 152. 
Bobolink, 16, 78. 
Bunting, bay-winged, 27, 174, 234 ; 

snow, 190, 195; towhee, 25, 39, 

62, 178. 
Butcher-bird, 5, 11, 66, 208. 

Cat-bird, 3, 72, 114. 
Cedar-bird, 26, 50, 126, 269. 
Chat, yellow-breasted, 69, 152, 153. 
Che wink, 25, 39, 62, 178. 
Chickadee, 27, 58, 158, 202, 215, 237, 

291. 
Chimney swift, 23, 96, 272. 
Cowbird, 183. 
Creeper, brown, 20, 161, 205, 227, 

262; black-and-white, 21, 266, 

279. 
Crow, common, 26, 78, 209 ; fish, 

154, 209. 
Cuckoo, black-billed, 18. 

Finch, grass, 27, 174, 234 ; purple, 
27, 119, 173, 199, 217, 287 ; pine, 
206. 

Fhcker, 25, 121, 232. 

Flycatcher, great - crested, 152 ; 
least, 26, 36, 231 ; phcebe, 26, 215, 
230, 269 ; wood pewee, 36, 231, 
257; yellow-bellied, 91. 

Goldfinch, 16, 19, 60, 173, 188, 190, 

193, 236. 
Grosbeak, cardinal, 27, 37, 152, 173 ; 

pine, 197 ; rose-breasted, 173, 292. 

Humming-bird, ruby-throated, 21. 
Indigo-bird, 177. 



Jay, blue, 26, 65, 208, 264 ; Canada, 
257. 

Kingbird, 26, 78, 231. 
Kingfisher, 26, 154. 
Kinglet, golden- crested, 21, 203; 
ruby-crowned, 21, 235. 

Lark, western meadow, 40, 41 ; 

shore, 206. 
Linnet, 27, 11^, 173, 199, 217, 287 ; 

red-poll, 27, 190, 192. 

Maryland yellow-throat, 9, 21, 85, 

166, 266, 296. 
Mocking-bird, 27. 

Night-hawk, 27, 183. 
Nuthatch, red-beUied, 25 ; white- 
belUed, 24. 

Oriole, Baltimore, 16, 181 ; orchard, 

154. 
Oven-bird, 21, 42,86,124,136,256, 

283, 296. 

Pewee, wood, 36, 231, 257. 
Phoebe, 26, 215, 230, 269. 

Red-poll linnet, 27, 190, 192 

Redstart, 21, 86, 135. 

Robin, 15, 16, 35, 38, 111, 131, 160, 

202, 229, 294, 298. 

Sandpiper, spotted, 123. 

Scarlet tanager, 125, 153, 171, 257, 

296, 298. 
Shrike, 5, 11, 66, 208. 
Small -billed water thrush, 21, 86, 

266. 
Snow-bird, 90, 176, 208, 214, 221, 



300 



INDEX. 



Snow bunting, 190, 195. 

Sparrow, chipping, 10, 16, 126, 173, 
233, 289; field, 27, 40, 173, 233; 
fox-colored, 17, 173, 176, 215, 217, 
218 ; house (or " English "), 14, 
17, 20, 22, 45, 110 : savanna, 27, 
49, 78 ; song, 15, 40,' 173, 174, 200, 
214, 217, 219 ; swamp, 27 ; tree, 
27, 215; white -throated, 10, 80, 
207, 271. 

Swallow, barn, 23 ; white-bellied, 23, 
228. 

Swift, chimney, 23, 96, 272. 

Tanager, scarlet, 125, 153, 171, 257, 
296, 298. 

Thrush, brown, 16, 61, 117, 158, 184, 
234, 297 ; gray-cheeked (or Alice's), 
17, 140, 141, 281 ; golden-crowned, 
21, 42, 86, 124, 136, 256, 283, 296; 
hermit, 20, 71, 86, 140, 234, 258, 
279 ; olive-backed (or Swainson's), 
20, 86, 88, 140, 281; small-billed 
water, 21, 86, 266 ; Wilson's (or 
veery), 25, 71, 138: wood, 38,112, 
140, 258, 279. 

Titmouse, black - capped, 27, 58, 
158, 202, 215, 237,* 291 ; tufted, 
151. 

Towhee bunting, 25, 39, 62, 178. 

Veery, 25, 71, 138. 

Vireo (or greenlet), blue -headed, 



167, 168; red-eyed, 16, 167, 268; 
solitary, 167, 108 ; yellow-throated, 
27, 167 ; warbling, 16, 167, 168; 
white-eyed, 40, 41, 09, 148, 167, 
170, 286. 

Warbler, bay - breasted, 85, 166 ; 
Blackburuian, 86, 1G5, 2G5; black- 
and-yellow, 85; black-poll, 21, 85, 
1G5; black-throated blue, 21, 41, 
86, 164, 267 ; black-throated green, 
21, 41, 86, 137, 164, 267, 290; blue 
golden-winged, 42, 145, 164 ; blue 
yellow-backed, 21, 86, 164, 268; 
Canada, 21, 85, 266 ; chestnut- 
sided, 42, 266, 271 ; golden, 21, 
164 ; golden-crowned wagtail, 21, 

42, 86, 124, 136; mourning, 85; 
Nashville, 98, 266; pine-creeping, 
166, 228, 237, 289; prairie, 165; 
summer yellow -bird, 21, 164; 
worm-eating, 152 ; yellow red- 
poll, 234 ; yellow-rumped, 21, 42, 

43, 86, 269. 

Waxwing, 26, 50, 126, 269. 

Whippoorwill, 183, 298. 

Woodcock, 27, 222. 

Woodpecker, downy, 25 ; golden- 
winged, 25, 121, 232; red-beUied, 
152; red-headed, 150. 205; yel- 
low-bellied, 8, 26, 271.' 

Wren, great Carolina, 152 ; winter, 
88, 146, 225, 256, 272. 



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