Birds From A Door-yard In New England
( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )
TO be a lover of birds is in itself a recommendation. I shall not hesitate, therefore, to speak freely to the reader of the birds whose acquaintance I have made from my door-yard. I shall introduce him as it were into my household and make him acquainted with many of my most valued friends, some of them my constant neighbors, others regular visitors or passing acquaintances.
Let me first give an idea of the nature of the door-yard which is to be our point of view. It lies almost on the brow of a steep hill, overlooking a broad extent of fields, meadows and marshes, which spread out toward Cambridge. Beyond them rises a series of low hills, covered for the most part with a wilderness of city roofs, but at the left these give way to the more inviting wilderness of oaks in the Middlesex Fells. The sky-line is broken by spires and factory chimneys, by the tall monument on Bunker Hill and the gilt dome of the State House. Above all the varied detail of foreground and background, arches a sky, the extent of which only those who have lived on a hill-top can appreciate. It is like a sky from a vessel's deck, or from a campfire on the plains. In summer the swifts pass back and forth across this expanse of sky; in winter it is rarely broken, save by a straggling line of crows.
Back of the hill is a cedar pasture, where a stranger can lose his way completely, emerging from its recesses to find himself still in plain sight of the State House. The door-yard itself is only half an acre in extent, and is for the most part open; a few trees only are scattered over it. There are no tangles of wild growth ; there is no stream or pond; in fact, one could conceive of hundreds of small suburban half-acres much better fitted for the resort of birds. It has, however, one great advantage. It lies on the track of the most constant travel from the great southern resorts, where birds spend the winter, to their summer homes; it is on the _direct line from Palm Beach to the White Mountains.
In an essay published by Mr. Burroughs in 1868, called " The Invitation," an essay from which as a spring has flowed much of the great stream of bird study of today, occurs the following oft-quoted passage: " It (Bird-study) fits so well with other things, with fishing, with hunting, farming, walking, camping-out, with all that takes one to the fields and woods. One may go a-blackberrying and make some rare discovery; or while driving his cow to pasture, hear some new song, or make a new observation." How the air of the true farming country breathes through these sentences ! We, alas, no longer go a-blackberrying, nor drive our cows a-field; but even in our thickly settled suburbs, and during our most prosaic occupation, the birds still offer us their companionship. When I shovel the snow from under the clothes-lines, I can watch the chickadees and downy woodpeckers on the suet overhead; when I am putting creosote on the gipsy-moth eggs, I see golden-crowned kinglets, seeking still smaller eggs, or flying up under the eaves of the barn, in search of hibernating insects. I have had once to change the place where I cut my kindling wood, because a robin chose to build on the window of the woodshed.
Gardening is, however, the suburban bird-lover's best opportunity to discover the birds that are his fellow-residents. How well I recall leaning on my spade early one May, to listen to the first bobolink! He was high above me, flying due north and singing rapturously. From the height at which he flew he could perhaps see the meadows where he had been bred, and I fancied that his song was the greeting of a native returning to his home.
I have often had the fancy that to a lover of birds the country through which he rambles is like a house where dear friends have lived. The trees and bushes where his favorites have nested are repeopled in his imagination by their former tenants, just as the rooms and stairways of the old house recall to our fancy long-vanished forms. When I look out of the window into the dooryard, I am reminded of the indigo bird that sang from the top of my locust tree, of the winter wren that accepted the hospitality of my brush heap, and of the pine grosbeaks that found the frozen apples which I had put out on the veranda.
For several years I kept no visitor's book, but I have been able, by going through my note-books, to recover a fairly full list of the species that I have seen or heard from the yard. By straining a point or two I might have added several species that were just over the line, but I have been very strict, and have included in the list only those that I have observed while my feet were actually on my own land. The list now numbers over ninety. Uhland's traveler, in the poem which Long-fellow has translated, paid the boatman thrice his fee for the spirits which crossed with him unseen; perhaps the assessors would increase the valuation of my property, if they knew how often I thought of the light-winged travelers who have made the pilgrimage of the seasons with me.
It has sometimes been only by great urging on my part that some visitor, bound on his own business, has consented to become associated with the history of my yard. One spring, a year or two ago, after I conceived the idea of keeping a visitor's list, I heard an unfamiliar thrush song in a neighbor's yard several rods higher up the hill. It was like a veery's song, but with an upward sliding phrase at the close. I followed the sound with the caution which it is well to employ when dealing with thrushes, and at last found the singer perched on a low limb. He was singing softly, as a migrant hermit thrush sometimes sings, when he is thinking of some dark spruce covert on the slopes of the New Hampshire hills. The bird was small — unquestionably the small race of the gray-cheeked thrush, a bird I had never before heard sing in Massachusetts. Occasionally the bird hopped to the ground, fed daintily and then hopped back, but showed no disposition to draw nearer to my territory. At last I backed down the steep hill, keeping my glasses focussed on him, made my way over a high wall, and finally stood within my own gate, still keeping the bird in view. He was now one of my guests, though I could hardly say that he had shown any eagerness to accept my hospitality.
One of my neighbors has an arbor-vitra hedge of extraordinary height and thickness, the dormitory each year of a flock of snowbirds or juncos, that spend the winter on our warm hillside. This flock have been my guests repeatedly, and with every indication of pleasure in their entertainment. I strew hemp seed on a back piazza, almost within reach of my writing desk; the birds soon discovered it, and for two months I enjoyed their comradeship. There were at least seven in the flock, three old males, two females, one young male, and a female with a broken leg. Between six and seven, while it was yet dusk, they left their arbor-vitro shelter and made a hearty breakfast. They were by no means models of concord in their feeding habits. The biggest male took the centre of the seed covered space, and drove fiercely at any other that came near; the other males took less desirable places, and the females hovered on the out-skirts, hurrying off when the males charged down upon them. The poor one-legged female never came with the others, but gleaned after them in a shy, solitary meal. I must admit that I have never seen the snowbirds, when feeding on the open hillside, so rude and greedy; I imagine that if each has plenty of room, he leaves his neighbor in peace.
I learned from these birds the more simple elements of snowbird speech, the smack of alarm when they saw me at the window, the pew-pew-pew, when they chased each other about, and the crackling twitter when the flock rose and flew. Like many of the other sparrows, they expressed surprise by elevating the feathers of the head to form a small crest.
I put out for the snowbirds both hemp and canary seed. The hemp they found hard to crack; it is large and round, and has to be adjusted in the bill. Occasionally a seed was rejected altogether. When a hemp seed was cracked both husks and kernel were dropped and the kernel then picked up from the ground. But the canary seed was easier to manage; the kernel was held in the bill and the two husks fell out on each side. One morning I timed the one-legged female and found that she disposed of six canary seeds a minute.
After a light snow on the piazza I was interested to discover just what it is that sparrows do when they scratch with both feet at once. I have often seen them jump forward, striking the ground a little distance ahead, and then hop back. I had always imagined that by this backward hop they scratched the surface of the intervening ground. But the tracks on the snow showed that they did not disturb the intervening snow as they jumped back, but laid bare the spot from which they had originally jumped. The distance that one hopped when pursued by another bird was in one case eleven inches; they often hopped a distance of six inches.
One day while the snowbirds were away I had an unusual visitor. I noticed a very pretty pigeon on the piazza, pecking at the crushed hemp seed. A long piece of white string was entangled about its feet. By raising the window and putting seed on the ledge and in the room I induced it to come in. It allowed me to catch it and to cut off the string. I then released it, and after a little time had the satisfaction of seeing it fly off, apparently uninjured.
After a good meal the snowbirds generally returned to the hedge and rested in its recesses, sometimes stop-ping on the branches of an apple tree to pick up and swallow a little snow. After perhaps an hour they came again to the piazza for another hearty meal. One morning while I was watching them at rest in the hedge I noticed a much larger bird slipping in and out, apparently in pursuit of them. I finally got a good view of it and saw that it was a shrike, or butcher bird ; I did not know before that the shrike still-hunted in such an owl-like fashion.
Shrikes visit me but seldom; the little screech owl, on the other hand, is one of my most constant neighbors. At almost any hour of the night, especially in the fall and winter, the quavering notes of the little mouse hunter come through the open window, sometimes so low and near that I know that the bird is in the trees just outside. One spring, .toward the end of March, I saw the little fellow, at about six in the afternoon, in a maple, tree in front of the house. It was taking short noiseless flights to the limbs or twigs near by, but instead of alighting it turned on reaching the twig, often at an abrupt angle, and then lit on another limb. It was a warm evening and many canker-worm moths were about. The little owl was evidently varying his diet of mice and had turned entomologist.
The owl was so noisy during the next few weeks that my suspicions were gradually aroused, and when one evening I opened my front door to find an owl sitting on the flagging by the doorstep, I felt sure that there must be some unusual attachment to the locality. I therefore investigated all the holes in the apple trees near by, and was rewarded by finding both parents cosily ensconced in the large cavity, which contained also their two white eggs. Tucked in one corner were the bodies of two English sparrows, perhaps a loving offering from the male to the sitting female. Later the sight of a little owl in broad daylight, mobbed by outraged robins, and his appearance again the next day at an unseemly hour, suggested a calamity of some sort; and, indeed, the hollow proved to be deserted and the two eggs were cold.
The apple tree in which the screech owl's attempt at housekeeping came to such an unfortunate and unexplained end was not actually in my yard, though only a few feet away. I cannot, therefore, count the owl as one of my tenants; perhaps guests would be a more accurate term to apply to the birds that have reared their young on my premises, for though they have paid more than ample rent, yet we have never had any strict business relations; they were very welcome to any shelter or food that I could furnish as long as they did me the honor to stay.
Only six native species have actually nested, or laid their eggs, within the limits of my half-acre. A pair of robins rear two broods each year, either on some projection of the eaves or on the branches of one of the apple or spruce trees. One nest was built so low that a child could easily see it, but not see into it. There was a child who longed to see into it, but the attempt to bring the bough within reach by the aid of a rake was not wholly successful, even from the child's point of view, and a dismal disaster for the poor bird. The nest on the barn, which, as I have already said, forced me to move my chopping-block, was in an ideal place to observe the feeding of the young, and this time the children were cautioned against the sin of curiosity. But in a day or two the bird deserted the eggs, and a little cross-questioning elicited the confession that the nest had been examined more than enough times to discourage even the most long-suffering bird. I am afraid that the impatience which impels children to examine peas an hour or two after they have been planted, makes even the best-disposed child a poor neighbor to a nesting bird.
A pair of chipping sparrows are my only other constant fellow-residents. Each year I find the nest, some-times in the spruces, often in an apple-tree, once in the grapevine. The male has the honor of receiving, in Mr. Brewster's list of Cambridge birds, highest honors for punctuality; in 1903 he appeared on March 26, breaking all previous records by four or five days.
Yellow warblers and least flycatchers have also nested in the apple trees. A song-sparrow nests either on the place or very near it, but here, with two very important exceptions, the list of my tenants must end.
The story of the yellow-throated vireo which became almost an inmate of my household, fed from my fingers, and drank from a silver spoon has been told elsewhere. Three times the vireos have nested on various of my apple trees, but perhaps they felt at last that my attentions were as burdensome as the curiosity of the children. At any rate for the last two years they have deserted me for neighboring dooryards. The female did come last May to my grapevine for nesting material, but I did not even discover where she carried it.
One year a female cowbird slunk into the yard and dropped an egg into the vireo's nest. I removed it promptly; and I do not believe that while I have lived on the place any of this parasitic tribe has been reared there. Not 'hat I have any special dislike to the cowbird, but I feel that I must protect my tenants.
I wish I could present an equally clean bill of health in the matter of English sparrows. Alas, I must even plead guilty to having provided these wretches with shelter, a home, food — I was going to add raiment —but all, I hasten to explain, involuntarily. It is a sad story, and really begins with the purple martins. One June I was awakened several mornings in succession by dreaming of purple martins — that is to say, I woke with the feeling that I had been hearing the loud rich notes of the martin, — and, inasmuch as the nearest martin box that I knew of was in Lexington, four or five miles away, I assumed that it was of course a dream. A morning or two later, as I was waiting for my train, I was startled by again hearing from the sky overhead the note of a martin, and looking up I saw the broad wings of this noble swallow in the air above me. Here was a mystery, indeed! It was June, the season when the birds were surely nesting. Where was their box? A day or two later I discovered it by accident.
I was walking through a street at the foot of the hill on which my house stands, when I heard the rich twittering of martins and looking about me, saw a bird box in the small yard behind a laborer's house, and the martin perched on the edge. On inquiry I learned that the people were Germans, who had lately come over to this country, and having been used in the Fatherland to *el. come the society of singing birds, they had built this box after settling here, and to ! their faith had been rewarded. The only pair of purple martins for miles around had taken up their residence in their back-yard.
I was fired with enthusiasm and at once ordered a bird-house. I made it larger and taller than that of the German laborer. If he had reproached me with intending to lure away his one ewe-lamb, I should probably have answered that such was not my intention, that all I hoped was that the progeny of his martins, the surplus population of his colony, would in later years emigrate to my box on the hill. But if his martins had, the next year, preferred my more pretentious abode, I am not prepared to say that I should have felt it my duty to return them to him. During the winter the box was naturally occupied by English sparrows, but when spring drew near, I felt obliged to take measures to drive them out. I se-cured a gun and started on a war of extermination. But Sunday was the only day that I was much at home, and the gun made a much louder noise than I had expected, a really shocking noise, coming on the quiet of the Sabbath morn. I felt that there was something a little indecent in the situation, a director of the Audubon Society destroying small birds, even though they were English sparrows, and causing such an uproar in the peaceful little town. And often after I had broken the stillness by the discharge of my gun, the sparrow instead of drop-ping dead, flew off uninjured. Very soon, too, the spar-rows flew when they saw me coming, but returned to the box as soon as I went away. The first spring therefore found the sparrows in full possession of the box and no purple martins in sight.
Now a neighbor had put up about this time a small butter-tub, not nearly so attractive as my bird-house, which had been at once appropriated by a pair of tree swallows. When the next April came, these returned and with them appeared another pair, twittering and circling out into the expanse of warm sky, or lighting here and there to flutter their steel-blue wings or preen their snowy breasts. Imagine our excitement when they began to play about our bird-box and finally perched on the roof. The sparrows had by no means filled all the compartments; the female peered into one of the empty ones, and at last she vanished inside. In a moment her blue head appeared again at the opening. By this time, however, the sparrows had discovered the strangers, and in a moment there was a confusion of brown, white and blue, and a vast deal of noise. For three or four days the swallows kept up their interest in the box, but apparently there was to be no peace or quiet, and they finally ceased to come. If I want to see one, I must go over into my neighbor's yard, and there on a telephone wire or circling overhead, is this miracle of grace. I must do my neighbor the credit to admit that he appreciates his blessings, but that does not prevent me from coveting them.
The history of my bluebirds is still more distressing, for a pair actually began a nest in my box. I saw the female fly to the street and return with a straw which she carried into one of the rooms, while the male warbled and fluttered his wing-tips in ecstacy. I almost held my breath when I thought of actually having bluebirds, where the sparrows had so long held sway, of having color and music instead of dinginess and noise. But after a day or two the bluebirds, too, gave up the struggle. So now I patiently rear from ten to fifteen English sparrows each season. Friends coming to the house always notice the box and humiliate me by asking cheer-fully what I have in it. I suppose I ought to take it down and acknowledge my defeat.
I am glad that my neighbor has had better luck. If he had not succeeded in attracting the tree-swallows, I might never have heard the curious early morning flight-song which this swallow utters during the breeding sea-son. One May morning I happened to wake a little after three; it was still quite dark, but as I listened, there came in through the window a constant succession of notes, evidently from a bird flying well up in the air. It sounded first near, then far. No other birds were singing. The old moon was shining faintly, and soon the robins began to wake in the dark masses of the trees. Then a summer yellow-bird began to sing. But all the time, out of the darkness overhead, came the mysterious song, tik, tik-eé, tik, tik, tik-eé. I went out and waited for the first faint light to make sure of the singer, though by this time I suspected the tree-swallow. At first I could only make out the dim form of some bird, now close to the ground, now among the trees, but generally about one hundred feet up and always singing, as if the whole performance were an expression of his exuberant vitality. Even after four o'clock, after the redstarts and chipping sparrows had begun to sing, the swallow was still flying and still singing.
The list of songs that have come in through my open window in the morning would be too long to give here. In May and June, all the birds characteristic of a village street join in the chorus —that early morning chorus, so hopelessly confusing to the beginner, so full of suggestion to the practised ear. As a musician analyzes the combined sounds of an orchestra, and recognizes the part played by each separate instrument, so the bird-lover hears in the morning chorus the songs and calls of many species, the slender trill of the chipping sparrow, the languid drawl of the wood pewee, the high sharp notes of the warblers — one is tempted to go on with the list and let the imagination, at the mere mention of the, sing-ers names, conjure up the succession of delightful sounds.
In three instances even my ear, partial as it is tobird voices, has been irritated and offended by the songs of certain of my neighbors. One year a flicker, who for some unknown reason was not content with the time generally allowed by his fellows for vociferating, kept up a constant shouting all day and every day, throughout the spring. I could only suppose that he had not succeeded in finding a mate and was vigorously advertising his loneliness. First from one side of the house, then from the other, in the early morning, at noon, and at evening came the repetition of his high-pitched emphatic challenge. The second offender was an oriole whose song had a peculiarly irritating ending, suggesting but never actually giving the key-note. The third was a rose-breasted grosbeak. The song of this last performer was at first a surprise and a delight, for he not only had the rapid rich warble of his kind, but when in an unusual ecstacy he followed it by a sound that suggested a long intake of breath and then a little downward run. But this coda came only every third or fourth time, and when one lay awake early in the morning, it was impossible not to listen for it, and to wonder at each delivery of his song which form it would be. To those of my readers who are so fortunate as to know nothing of sleeplessness, I must explain that sounds that succeed each other at irregular intervals are not conducive to slumber. No lullabies have been written, as far as I know, in ragtime.
I have already spoken of the flight-song of the tree swallow, heard in the dark sky before dawn. Two other neighbors of mine have flight-songs, of which they are rather more chary than the swallow. The performance, however, is set for a time when I am more likely to be awake. The phoebe, though formerly not uncommon in the neighborhood, is gradually withdrawing, as the strictly farming country changes to suburban settlements. Occasionally one still nests near enough for me to hear his flight-song, a curious succession of notes,—whit, whit, whit, phoebe, phoebe, phoebe, which the bird utters as he flies up some distance into the air and during his quick descent. His smaller relative, the least fly-catcher, or chebec, has a similar performance, which I hear so often at about the same time in the evening that I have had the curiosity several times to note the exact minute. I find in my notebook the following entries:
Chebec's flight-song, May 21, 7.25; May 25, 7.25; June 3, 7.25. I think that the little fellow hardly keeps such exact watch of the time as these records would indicate; I fancy that the gathering darkness having reached about the same intensity, warns him to indulge in his vespers before settling for the night in some leafy shade.
In June I often sit on my veranda waiting like the chebec for the darkness to gather. I look over my neighbors' houses lower on the hillside, and often as I look, a pair of chimney swifts, sharply outlined against the sky, fly up over the opening of the chimney, and with wings held poised above their backs, drop down and vanish for the night. I have noted the time for their disappearance and find that at about the end of May it is close to seven o'clock. I have often wondered if other swifts use my chimneys for their bedroom. If they do, they are unusually quiet neighbors, for we have never been disturbed by their noise.
Birds, like the Esquimos, adapt their sleeping hours to the seasons. In winter their day is very much shorter and their night proportionately longer. One winter a chickadee used a hole in one of my apple trees for his night's lodgings. When I first saw him, on March 15, at half past five in the afternoon, he was hopping about near a hole in the apple tree and scolding so incessantly that I thought at first that he had found an owl in the hole. Then with one dive he disappeared into the hole, and though I watched for the next ten minutes, I saw nothing more of him. One November, as early as half-past four, I saw a downy woodpecker fly into his quarters for the night,— bed suggests a little more luxury than the downy is used to; the chances are that he stayed till at least six the next morning— thirteen and a half hours' sleep ! In summer, on the other hand, those birds that sing till nearly eight and again a little after three get only seven hours' sleep. Our ancestors, of course, once followed similar practices and only modified their habits when artificial light was discovered. As far as I have observed, however, the sparrows that nest over the are lights have not yet been seduced into keeping late hours.
I have already spoken of the birds that have found lodging on my premises, either shelter for the night, or permanent quarters in which they have reared their young. It seems fitting therefore to make mention of my boarders, for whom I have spread a table where they have enjoyed more or less regular meals. I have already described the snowbirds which came each day for their rations of hemp or canary seed; my other regular guests were members of the little winter company which now visit many houses where bones or suet are hung up.
The chickadee is without doubt the most attractive of these visitors; the other two, the downy and the nut-hatch, go to work with business-like determination, rarely changing their position till the meal is over. The chickadees, however, make such restless play with their wings, one succeeds the other in such quick succession, that there is a continuous flutter and excitement, and a constant succession of pleasant sounds. The cheerfulness so characteristic of the chickadee, a trait which has won him a fame as enduring as Emerson's, was well illustrated by one of my guests, who sang his phee-bee notes, not only in a downpour of winter rain, but even when the mercury stood at only fourteen above zero.
In cold weather, especially in a snow storm, the little band are almost continually at work. After a fall of snow in the night, almost the first duty of a householder should be to brush the snow off the suet, so that the birds can reach it. The birds remember the spot where it is nailed to the limb and themselves try to dig their way into it, when it is hidden by snow. I am convinced, more-over, that they remember it from year to year, for one morning in the autumn just after I had put up the first piece of suet, and while I was still in the tree, a nuthatch appeared, flew directly to it and fell to feeding. On an-other occasion I noticed, in May, a downy woodpecker in some locust trees fully twenty yards from the apple tree where the suet had been nailed through the winter. The suet had become so black during the warm weather that I could not distinguish it from the bark on which it lay, though I stood only a few feet from it. I had seen no birds at the suet for nearly two months, but to my surprise the woodpecker flew from the locust directly to the suet and began to hammer out a meal. Memory, such as is shown in these instances, is after all not surprising, when we recollect the long journeys which migrants take to and from their summer homes, or the amazing ability of some of the sea-birds to recognize their own eggs among thousands of others all alike and in similar situations.
Once in a great while I see a brown creeper steal along the limb and peck at the suet, and snowbirds occasionally stop as they fly by and pull off a loose shred. Kinglets are often in the tree, but I have never seen them at the suet. When the red-bellied nuthatches are here, they are constant visitors and are as active and amusing as ever. They fly off with little pieces of fat and hammer them into the crevices of the bark, and then hurry back for more with undignified short-tailed flight. I have never seen either the hairy woodpecker or the blue jay at the suet, though both have come into the yard. The birds never stay at the suet for any considerable length of time, except in very cold weather, but vary their diet by gleaning from the twigs and branches.
Many pictures have been shown in the last few years of chickadees and nuthatches feeding from someone's fingers or even from the lips. It is easy to train them to this pitch of confidence by holding out seeds in the gloved hand where they have been in the habit of finding a sup-ply, at first perhaps pulling down the window-shade. The curious thrill felt when the little claws grasp one's fingers is an experience which I recommend as a full re-ward for whatever time and patience are needed.