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Bird Life

( Originally Published 1908 )

Walking through bare fields in the chill and birdless world some winter days, it is brought home to us what an essential feature of our surroundings the birds are, what a lack there is when they are absent ! A certain poverty lies over the earth ; the sky is no longer complete without a swift or a martin. Birds are part of the landscape ; it is they which animate it. Rarely, when it seems most destitute, a flock of snow-buntings will come swirling over the pasture, like great snowflakes driven before the blast. Again, as the wind will pick up dry snow and blow it over the field, they are off and whirling away, glittering in the pale yellow light of the winter day as they wheel and come to the ground. But their presence has re-deemed and softened the austere landscape, made the earth habitable once more and the bare fields friendly and companionable.

The first snipe and plover in the spring remind us what stay-at-homes are wt, what wanderers they. We must appear to them but poor mollusks, as they come and go each year on their way from Patagonia to the Arctic Circle. In how many States, in what diversity of climes they are at home ! And wherever they may be they get their own living by no one's favor. This prodigious self-reliance affects one as a species of heroism, whereas it is as unconscious as the falling rain.

What familiarity with the elements and with natural features of the earth the migrating birds must acquire with winds and clouds, with mountain chains and rivers and coast lines ! They know the landmarks and guide-posts of two continents and can find their own way. The whistle of curlew, or the honk of wild geese high in the air, seems a greeting out of the clouds from these cosmopolites, to us, sitting rooted to the earth beneath. A flock of wild geese on the wing is no less than an inspiration. When that strong-voiced, stout-hearted company of pioneers pass overhead, our thoughts ascend and sail with them over the roofs of the world. As band after band come into the field of vision minute glittering specks in the distant blue to cross the golden sea of the sunset and disappear in the northern twilight, their faint melodious honk is an Orphean strain drawing irresistibly.

A sort of noble madness seizes the birds in the spring, so that an exodus of inconceivable extent takes place toward the North, as though the Pole were a magnet to them. There is a suggestion of epic splendor in this vast impulse, this flight of the feathered tribes of the earth. We may well ask the bobolink, What news from Brazil? and the returning plover, What of the Frozen Sea? What bird-memories do they cherish of these re-mote regions? It casts a halo of romance about them, that they should thus be at home in lands that may perhaps remain ever unvisited by us.

As if actuated by a sublime faith, in the midst of plenty they arise and depart, drawn ever to the remote solitudes to rear their young, like those citizens who return to their own country that their children may be born in the Fatherland. I do not know if our affinity is greater with the bob-white and the ruffed grouse, which hear no call to depart, or with these nomads of the earth. In the coldest weather, redpolls, crossbills and snow-buntings come to us as to a land of plenty. This is near enough the equator for these hardy birds this is their genial South. It is pleasant to reflet that the falling mercury, which deprives us of the last of the summer residents, will at the same time bring us some dweller in the far North which perhaps otherwise we should not see.

The advancing season makes itself known through the songsters ; they have keener perceptions and receive other intimations than come to us. Day by day, as by appointment, they reappear from Florida, from the Amazon and the Orinoco, and make themselves at home again in northern pastures. I have come to look for the tree-swallows as regularly on the 1st of April, as for the oriole on the 10th of May, as if these were calendar events of real importance. Between the middle of April and the 20th of May lie the incomparable days of the migrating warblers days of discovery and adventure, when the torpor of indifference slips away, and, like a subtle fire in the blood, is felt that enthusiasm the years do not diminish. When, at night, the small birds pass overhead, their faint silvery " tseeps " come out of the silence with a weird suggestion of voices from the unseen world.

Now, the days are full of pleasing suggestions because of little birds shyly flitting with plantdown and with rootlets and dried grasses. Some are unmistakably house-hunting, and the female turns herself about in the crotch of a limb, trying if it be of the right proportions. Interest in bird life centers about this season. This is their life ; the rest is a preparation or a waiting. It is only natural there should be an air of secrecy about them now. They are doing their best to conceal and elude, as indeed they must, and this necessity, being uppermost in their minds, becomes evident in their manner.

While I am watching a pair of pewees gather lichens from an old maple for their beautiful shallow nest, the barn-swallows shoot by with mud for their adobe huts. Now and then one pulls from the mud a few fine rootlets perhaps of the white violet or gold thread growing there— and carries them off. They evidently know their trade. A chestnut warbler appears with some plant-fiber in her bill, and gives a cluck of surprise and disgust to find some one on the ground where she thought to have her secluded and private estate. She hesitates with the down still in her bill; it is evident what she must be thinking; but at length she decides to risk it, and enters the huckleberries.

She has, of course, gone into the bushes a long way from the nest. One has great sympathy with the birds in their little circumventions and dissimulation, knowing their tribulations. They live among their numerous foes much as did the early settlers in this land, that is to say, in spite of them. The weasel, the owl, and the cat the terrible cat are appointed to decimate the population of birds.

In the several nests of warblers, I am observing, the thrifty housewife is evidently the home-builder, whereas the mail seems to take it upon him-self merely to cheer and encourage her. After she has constructed a framework she settles herself in this and builds the wall around her, quite as if she were fitting a garment to herself. Her little ways while so engaged are distinctly feminine. To think that she has never been taught her trade, has perhaps never before fitted such a garment, and she is already deft and expert ! The pair seem to take an almost human satisfaction in their home. Now and again they appear to talk it over together. Who can doubt they have some pleasure in this preparation, that they have bird-plans and bird-hopes ?

We do not really know a bird till we have found its nest and seen it at home. When I came upon the nest of the snowbird in the midst of a clearing in the mountains, it was like visiting the house for the first time of one I had known for years a person of some distinction at that. It was placed high and dry on a tussock. in a flaming patch of hawkweed. She had an eye for the practical, and knew better than to put her house where the cellar might be flooded. The four greenish mottled eggs were her one priceless treasure, which was to her as life itself. They were warm, and the whole aspect of the nest was sweet and inviting. It appeared to breathe some feminine element, so dainty was it, so begirt with flowers.

A humming-bird's nest that I have been watching the present season is placed on a pitch pine-cone, and appears to a casual view to be the cone itself. It seems as if the bird had it in mind to simulate this or she would not have chosen such a peculiar site, for it affords no advantage from a structural point of view. If this be true it is a departure from all traditions, and shows a bird of some character and originality. In other respects it is like any humming-bird's nest one of the most exquisite of all natural objects.

In the course of ten days, in place of one of the eggs appeared a small and peculiarly homely object which resembled a spider as much as anything. Two days later the other egg was hatched. At this stage the bills of the young birds were very short, but day by day they lengthened and grew more needlelike. At length one bird opened its minute and shining black eyes for the first time. The other fell from the nest on the following day, before its eyes were opened, so that all it had known of life was the consciousness of hunger.

The female fed her young with much less frequency than do other birds. When so engaged she perched upon the rim of the nest and pumped the food into them after the manner of her kind. As she flew to and fro, she appeared to move always at the same speed, as if her wings were keyed to a definite rate of vibration and could not vary. Gradually the young bird emerged from its gruesome infancy, and day by day became more sylphlike. Heavy winds prevailed, but the diminutive cradle remained unharmed, though branches were everywhere blown from the trees. So was the wind tempered in that case at least, till one day the sylph left the nest, as a thistle-down might detach itself and sail away on the breeze.

Birds have their home-trees, and one whose traditions are of the pine is not drawn to build in hardwoods. The woodthrush is associated with the dogwood, as the catbird with the smilax, and the oriole with the elm. There are ancient apple orchards which have come to serve only the bees and the birds ; but what temples of music in May with the hum of bees, and in June with the song of wrens ! At this season you cannot do better than to set out for one of these old-time orchards, neglected of man and favored of heaven.

The virile hum of honey- and carpenter-bees descends from the flowery summits to the listener beneath, the contented music of a race dwelling overhead and nearer the skies than we. It is such an apple Baldwin, pippin, or russet gnarled and archaic in trunk and a bower of beauty above, which becomes the home-tree of that feathered gnome, the house-wren, a sprightly elf, living in the depths of a tree trunk and yet full to the brim of song. He may derive of the flowing sap some genial trait and takes to the apple as a swift to the chimney, or a redwing to the swamp. After the cold rains of late May have taken off the blossoms and with them the bees, the place becomes melodious with his song. It is thenceforth his estate, and he dominates it with his small personality. With him his house is his castle, and in true medieval fashion he barricades his door. Within is snug enough, but without it has a feudal and forbidding look,— a formidable barrier of twigs, erected perhaps against the house-sparrow or for fear the robber-owl may peer too closely.

In this choice of a building site the bird reveals something of itself. Contrast the wren with the phoebe, a cliff-dweller, loving the contact of the ledge itself better than any bush or tree. The song-sparrow has an eye for the wild rose and the yellow warbler for apple blossoms, but the phoebe has some austere traits which make the stern rock more congenial to her. Some birds are architects, others builders merely. The vireos are a family of artists, whereas the improvident cuckoo will not even lay a proper floor to her nest.

A look into some nests is a glance at the domestic life of a savage people, and yet we find the virtues we most esteem patience, perseverance and fortitude. Hour in and hour out the faithful kingfisher flies from the nest to the fishing-ground, bringing each time a small fish. He is a primitive and industrious fisherman who gets an honest living by his skill and supports his family, yet he is under ban, while the dilettante whips the stream for his pleasure. The hoarse rattle of the kingfisher is an altogether barbarous chant with which he beguiles himself as with a hunting song. His is an austere temperament with no room for melody. But that he returns every year to the same nest the ancestral hall is evidence of some more domestic and kindly trait in his character.

This nest is an excavation in the sand, high in a bluff, and is perhaps five feet deep,— a true cave, and its inmate a cave-dweller. We have thus both cave- and cliff-dwellers among us primitive states of man still exemplified by birds. The cave-dweller had something in common with the kingfisher, which led him to burrow in the earth for a home.

That was truly an aboriginal abode which I came upon in the spruce woods in a region of perpetual twilight. The somber spruce was relieved only by some veteran yellow birches and by ghostly patches of false miterwort on a projecting ledge. High in a birch was a small hole from which the scarlet crown and chin of a sapsucker appeared in view, as the bird thrust out his head and looked inquiringly about. A harsh imperious call brought the female, who clung to the trunk till the male came out, whereupon she dived into the hole herself, while he in turn went foraging.

Whenever the pair were absent from the nest the insatiable young were heard squealing within. It was a fearsome place that was home to these young savages, a room within a tower, lighted by a single small window far above. To think of being born and raised in the dark heart of a tree ! The old birds called to each other from time to time as they hunted over the neighborhood, and their speech was as that of wild men, the very rudiments of language rude, uncouth and evidently of few words. But, as with the speech of savages, these words were doubtless packed with meaning, whole sentences and paragraphs in them-selves, of hard and practical import. Now and then the scarlet crown appeared at the entrance of the dark wigwam. Any lurking foe would be espied from there. Probably not a twig moved below but it was noticed.

While the robin and the bluebird have come to wear a half domestic look, the woodpecker is the untutored savage still. As an Indian remains an Indian, a woodpecker remains a woodpecker. When he comes to the orchard he is an interloper from the forest. He carries the stamp of the wilderness with him. Defiance is in the poise of his head; his attitude is a challenge.

The life of owls and hawks is completely savage — a fierce, carnivorous, terrible existence which no circumstance can affect. Regarding their young with solemn ferocity, their fierce natures are not to be modified or softened in the least. A little red owl having her nest in the heart of a weeping willow, lived so secluded a life her presence was hardly suspected till she was discovered by the smaller birds dozing in a cedar. Some days later she appeared at dusk with four young owls, which she fed on large beetles. The owlets remained perched in a line on the fence while the old bird in ghostly silence departed into the night in search of food. It was wonderful to see what excess of dignity and ferocity was expressed in the personality of these little birds. As well have expected an Iroquois brave to ask for quarter. Approach them and they were on the defensive with all the tricks of appearance staring eyes, snapping bill and uncanny wavering motion of the head. Like some phantom creature, the old bird came and went, leaping noiselessly into the darkness and reappearing as by magic.

The owlets took their beetles with avidity, swallowing them whole and gulping and gagging in the process in a manner indicative of discomfit rather than any satisfaction over the meal. Once the mother brought what in the darkness appeared to be a small mouse, and this too was swallowed by one little owl, but only after heroic and pro traded efforts.

It was no great matter on the following day to gain the confidence of the young owls to a slight degree. But food was the only bond of affinity. So long as I fed them they were content to perch on my finger, fierce and solemn little ruffians, and devour bits of raw meat. Their manners remained sullen and forbidding, though they never refused to eat. Soon they lost even this slight contact with our world and disappeared into their own the nocturnal and barbarous world of the owl.

Every year there is fresh evidence that the course of true love runs far from smoothly with the birds. A pair of yellow-throated vireos built no less than three nests one season and only succeeded in occupying the last. There were two suitors for the affection of the female, and they fought continually. The rejected lover harassed the pair while at work gathering material, and that he twice stole a march on them and actually tore down the nest appears from circumstantial evidence.

Great secrecy was observed in constructing the third nest, and the rejected one no longer harassed them. Either he had transferred his affections or been fairly vanquished. Life was strenuous and impassioned with these little birds, but see what constancy and perseverance ! Fancy having two houses torn down, after completing them with your own hands, and having the courage to build still a third ! There is something of the pioneer and frontiersman in this. The offspring of this pair were the children of vigorous and romantic times, and should have inherited some heroic traits.

Even if all goes well otherwise, the sanctity of the nest is liable to be profaned by the cowbird.

This spring was an unusually favorable one for them. I noticed the least flycatcher and the Maryland yellowthroat mothering young cowbirds, and many vireos and warblers so engaged. It is a wary caution that leads the cowbird to choose the smaller birds for her victims.

It would be hard to say which of all the foster-mothers is the more solicitous of her charge. Now it appears to be the redeye; and again the chipping-sparrow. All alike are bent on bringing the birdling to maturity as though it were of first importance. That cowbird shall thrive though the heavens fall. The attention seems to be in proportion to the egregious demands of the foundling. Here at least is a waif well cared for, an upstart that takes precedence over the true and lawful heirs. Another year this same adventuress will invade the nests of her adopted sisters.

The yellow warbler is perhaps the oftenest chosen. Accessible and easily found, the nest is a beautiful cup-shaped strutture lodged in the fork of a fruit tree, with perchance a spray of blossoms just over it--a house of silk, a satin bower. How awkward and uncouth must the cowbird appear squatting on this fragile silken thing to lay her eggs ! Doubtless she watches the yellow bird strip-ping the dry grass stems and gathering the pappus of last year's cattails ; squats low in the grass and looks all unconcerned while she marks the tree to which the fluffy material is carried, and bides her time till the nest is ready. Strange that she should never discover in herself the home-making instinct, for even nomads have their tents. Stranger still she should never once wish to undertake the duties of motherhood.

For a time, perhaps, the young cowbird is influenced by the habit of the bird that happens to mother it, whether this be a ground-sparrow or a tree-loving flycatcher. But it grows up a cowbird with all the inheritance of that peculiar tribe, and its brief contact with a superior race leaves no impress upon it.

In spite of cowbirds and the exigencies of life the woods are full of young birds, their tails not yet grown. This is their childhood a brief one as the days in the nest were their infancy. They are exacting children, yet they do not clamor to be amused, but only to be fed. I have seen a young chipping-sparrow, its tail half grown, showing how recently it was from the nest, pick up a straw and carry it about. So early does the maternal instinct show itself. This straw was its doll-baby, the only plaything it could know, and this its solemn play. There is a mild and innocent expression about young birds, as there is in the faces of children, apparent to a keen vision only. They have yet to be hardened by experience and vicissitude. The countenances of the old take on an astute and alert expression. These young black and white creepers and chestnut warblers, now shifting for themselves for the first time, come about with gentle confidence. They creep and flit through the trees, coming nearer and nearer, until you look directly into their small innocent faces and could put your hand upon them. Then as it would seem they were about to descend like blessings upon your head, they withdraw and recede from view into the wilderness of leaves where only your thoughts may follow them.

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