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[53]

The life of birds

When one thinks of a bird, one fancies a soft, swift, aimless, joyous thing, full of nervous energy and arrowy motions,—a song with wings. So remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language; and men only stare at their darting, inexplicable ways, as at the gyrations of the circus. Watch their little traits for hours, and it only tantalizes curiosity. Every man's secret is penetrable, if his neighbor be sharp-sighted. Dickens, for instance, can take a poor, condemned wretch. like Fagin, whose emotions neither he nor his reader has experienced, and can paint him in colors that seem made of the soul's own atoms, so that each beholder feels as if he, personally, had been the man. But this bird that hovers and alights beside me, peers up at me, takes its food, then looks again, attitudinizing, jerking, flirting his tail, with a thousand inquisitive and fantastic motions,—although I have power to grasp it in my hand and crush its life out, yet I cannot gain its secret thus, and the centre of its consciousness is really farther from mind than the remotest planetary orbit. ‘We do not steadily bear in mind,’ says Darwin, with a noble scientific humility, ‘how profoundly ignorant we are of the condition of existence of every animal.’

What sympathetic penetration can fathom the life, for instance, of yonder mysterious, almost voiceless, Humming-Bird, smallest of feathery things, and loneliest; whirring among birds, insect-like, and among insects, bird-like; his path untraceable, his home unseen? An image of airy motion, yet it sometimes seems as if there were nothing joyous in him. He seems like some exiled pygmy prince, banished, but still regal, and doomed to wings. Did gems turn to flowers, flowers to feathers, in that long-past dynasty of the Humming-Birds? It is strange to come upon his tiny nest, in some gray and tangled swamp, with this brilliant atom perched disconsolately near it, upon some mossy twig; it is like visiting Cinderella among her ashes. And from Humming-Bird to Eagle, the daily existence of every bird is a remote and bewitching mystery.

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