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.
, for instance, can take a poor, condemned wretch.
, 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.
has been charged, both before and since the days of Malvolio, with holding that ‘the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a fowl,’—that delinquent men must revisit earth as women, and delinquent women as birds.
Malvolio thought nobly of the soul, and in no way approved his opinion; but I remember that Harriet Prescott
, in her school-days, accepted this, her destiny, with glee.
‘When I saw the Oriole,’ she wrote to me, ‘from his nest among the plum-trees in the garden, sail over the air and high above the Gothic arches of the elm, a stream of flashing light, or watched him swinging silently on pendant twigs, I did not dream how near akin we were.
Or when a Humming-Bird, a winged drop of gorgeous sheen and gloss, a living gem, poising on his wings, thrust his dark, slender, honey-seeking bill into the white blossoms of a little bush beside my window, I should have thought it no such bad thing to be a bird; even if one next became a bat, like the colony in our eaves, that dart and drop and skim and skurry, all the length of moonless nights, in such ecstasies of dusky joy.’
Was this weird creature, the bat, in very truth a bird, in some far primeval time?
and does he fancy, in unquiet dreams at nightfall.
that he is one still?
I wonder whether he can enjoy the winged brotherhood into which he has thrust himself,—victim, perhaps, of some rash quadruped-ambition,—an Icarus, doomed forever not to fall.
I think, that, if required, on pain of death, to name instantly the most perfect thing in the universe, I should risk my fate on a bird's egg. There is, first, its exquisite fragility of material, strong only by the mathematical precision of that form so daintily moulded.
There is its absolute purity from external stain, since that thin barrier remains impassable until the whole is in ruins,—a purity recognized in the household proverb of ‘An apple, an egg, and a nut.’
Then, its range of tints, so varied, so subdued, and so beautiful,—whether of pure white, like the Martin
's, or pure green, like the Robin
's, or dotted and mottled into the loveliest of browns, like the Red Thrush
's, or aqua-marine, with stains of moss-agate, like the Chipping-Sparrow
's, or blotched with long, weird ink-marks on a pale ground, like the Oriole
's, as if it bore inscribed some magic clew to the bird's darting flight and pensile nest.
Above all, the associations and predictions of this little wonder,—that one may bear home between his fingers all that winged splendor, all that celestial melody, coiled in mystery within these tiny walls!
Even the chrysalis is less amazing, for its form always preserves some trace, however fantastic, of the perfect insect, and it is but moulting a skin; but this egg appears to the eye like a separate unit from some other kingdom of Nature, claiming more kindred with the very stones than with feathery existence; and it is as if a pearl opened and an angel sang.
The nest which is to contain these fair things is a wonderful study also, from the coarse masonry of the Robin
to the soft structure of the Humming-Bird
, a baby-house among nests.
Among all created things, the birds come nearest to man in their domesticity.
Their unions are usually in pairs, and for life; and with them, unlike the practice of most quadrupeds, the male labors for the young.
He chooses the locality of the nest, aids in its construction, and fights for it, if needful.
He sometimes assists in hatching the eggs.
He feeds the brood with exhausting labor, like yonder Robin, whose winged picturesque day is spent in putting worms into insatiable beaks, at the rate of one morsel in every three minutes. He has to teach them to fly, as among the Swallows, or even to hunt, as among the Hawks.
His life is anchored to his home.
Yonder Oriole fills with light and melody the thousand branches of a neighborhood; and yet the centre for all this divergent splendor is always that one drooping dome upon one chosen tree.
This he helped to build in May, confiscating cotton as if he were an army provost-marshal, and singing many songs, with his mouth full of plunder; and there he watches over his household, all through the leafy June
, perched often upon the airy cradleedge, and swaying with it in the summer wind.
And from this deep nest, after the pretty eggs are hatched, will he and his mate extract every fragment of the shell, leaving it, like all other nests, save those of birds of prey, clean and pure, when the young are flown.
This they do chiefly from an instinct of delicacy; since wood-birds are not wont to use the same nest a second time, even if they rear several broods in a season.
The subdued tints and notes which almost always mark the female sex, among birds,—unlike insects and human beings, where the female is often more showy than the male,—seem designed to secure their safety while sitting on the nest, while the brighter colors and louder song of the male enable his domestic circle to detect his whereabouts more easily.
It is commonly noticed, in the same way, that ground-birds have more neutral tints than those which build out of reach.
With the aid of these advantages, it is astonishing how well these roving creatures keep their secrets, and what sharp eyes are needed to spy out their habitations,—while it always seems as if the empty last-year's nests were very plenty.
Some, indeed, are very elaborately concealed, as of the Golden-Crowned Thrush
, called, for this reason, the Oven-Bird
, with its burrowed gallery among the grass,—and the Kingfisher
, which mines four feet into the earth.
Many of the rarer nests would hardly be discovered, only that the maternal instinct seems sometimes so overloaded by Nature as to defeat itself, and the bird flies and chirps in agony, when she might pass unnoticed by keeping still.
The most marked exception I have noticed is that of the Red Thrush
, which, in this respect, as in others, has the most high-bred manners among all our birds: both male and female sometimes flit in perfect silence through the bushes, and show solicitude only in a sob that is scarcely audible.
Passing along the shore-path by our lake, one day in June, I heard a great sound of scuffling and yelping before me, as if dogs were hunting rabbits or woodchucks.
On approaching, I saw no sign of such disturbances, and presently a Partridge came running at me through the trees, with ruff and tail expanded, bill wide open, and hissing like a goose,— then turned suddenly, and with ruff and tail furled, but with no pretence of lameness, scudded off through the woods in a circle,—then at me again fiercely, approaching within two yards, and spreading all her furbelows, to intimidate, as before,—then, taking in sail, went off again, always at the same rate of speed, yelping like an angry squirrel, squealing like a pig, occasionally clucking like a hen, and, in general, so filling the woods with bustle and disturbance that there seemed no room for anything else.
Quite overawed by the display, I stood watching her for some time, then entered the underbrush, where the little, invisible brood had been unceasingly piping, in their baby way. So motionless were they, that, for all their noise, I stood with my feet among them, for some minutes, without finding it possible to detect them.
When found and taken from the ground, which they so closely resembled, they made no attempt to escape; but when replaced, they presently ran away fast, as if conscious that the first policy had failed, and that their mother had retreated.
Such is the summer life of these little things; but come again in the fall, when the wild autumnal winds go marching through the woods, and a dozen pairs of strong wings will thrill like thunder through the arches of the trees, as the full-grown brood whirrs away around you.
Not only have we scarcely any species of birds which are thoroughly and unquestionably identical with European
species, but there are certain general variations of habit.
For instance, in regard to migration.
This is, of course, a universal instinct, since even tropical birds migrate for short distances from the equator, so essential to their existence do these wanderings seem.
But in New England
, among birds as among men, the roving habit seems unusually strong, and abodes are shifted very rapidly.
The whole number of species observed in Massachusetts
is about the same as in England
,—some three hundred in all. But of this number, in England
, about a hundred habitually winter on the island, and half that number even in the Hebrides, some birds actually breeding in Scotland
during January and February, incredible as it may seem.
Their habits can, therefore, be observed through a long period of the year; while with us the bright army comes and encamps for a month or two and then vanishes.
You must attend their dress-parades while they last; for you will have but few opportunities, and their domestic life must commonly be studied during a few weeks of the season, or not at all.
Wonderful as the instinct of migration seems, it is not, perhaps, so altogether amazing in itself as in some of
its attendant details.
To a great extent, birds follow the open foliage northward, and flee from its fading, south; they must keep near the food on which they live, and secure due shelter for their eggs.
Our earliest visitors shrink from trusting the bare trees with their nests; the Song-Sparrow
seeks the ground; the Bluebird finds a box or a hole somewhere; the Red-Winged Blackbird
haunts the marshy thickets, safer in spring than at any other season; and even the sociable Robin prefers a pine-tree to an apple-tree, if resolved to begin housekeeping prematurely.
The movements of birds are chiefly timed by the advance of vegetation; and the thing most thoroughly surprising about them is not the general fact of the change of latitude, but their accuracy in hitting the precise locality.
That the same Cat-bird should find its way back, every spring, to almost the same branch of yonder larch-tree,—that is the thing astonishing to me. In England
, a lame Redstart was observed in the same garden for sixteen successive years; and the astonishing precision of course which enables some birds of small size to fly from Australia
to New Zealand
in a day-probably the longest single flight ever taken — is only a part of the same mysterious instinct of direction.
In comparing modes of flight, the most surprising, of course, is that of the Swallow
tribe, remarkable not merely for its velocity, but for the amazing boldness and instantaneousness of the angles it makes; so that eminent European
mechanicians have speculated in vain upon the methods used in its locomotion, and prizes have been offered, by mechanical exhibitions, to him who could best explain it. With impetuous dash they sweep through our perilous streets, these wild hunters of the air, ‘so near, and yet so far;’ they bathe flying, and flying they feed their young.
In my immediate vicinity, the Chimney-Swallow
is not now common, nor the Sand-Swallow
; but the Cliff-Swallow
, that strange emigrant from the Far West
, the Barn-Swallow
, and the white-breasted species, are abundant, together with the Purple Martin
I know no prettier sight than a bevy of these bright little creatures, met from a dozen different farm-houses to picnic at a wayside pool, splashing and fluttering, with their long wings expanding like butterflies, keeping poised by a constant hovering motion, just tilting upon their feet, which scarcely touch the moist ground.
You will seldom see them actually perch on anything less airy than some telegraphic wire; but when they do alight, each will make chatter enough for a dozen, as if all the rushing hurry of the wings had passed into the tongue.
Between the swiftness of the Swallow
and the stateliness of the birds of prey, the whole range of bird-motion seems included.
The long wave of a Hawk
's wings seems almost to send a slow vibration through the atmosphere, tolling upon the eye as yon distant bell upon the ear. I never was more impressed with the superior dignity of these soarings than in observing a bloodless contest in the air, last April.
Standing beside a little grove, on a rocky hillside,
I heard Crows cawing near by, and then a sound like great flies buzzing, which I really attributed, for a moment, to some early insect.
Turning, I saw two Crows flapping their heavy wings among the trees, and observed that they were teasing a Hawk about as large as themselves, which was also on the wing.
Presently all three had risen above the branches, and were circling higher and higher in a slow spiral.
The Crows kept constantly swooping at their enemy, with the same angry buzz, one of the two taking decidedly the lead.
They seldom struck at him with their beaks, but kept lumbering against him, and flapping him with their wings, as if in a fruitless effort to capsize him; while the Hawk
kept carelessly eluding the assaults, now inclining on one side, now on the other, with a stately grace, never retaliating, but seeming rather to enjoy the novel amusement, as if it were a skirmish in balloons.
During all this, indeed, he scarcely seemed once to wave his wings; yet he soared steadily aloft, till the Crows refused to follow, though already higher than I ever saw Crows before, dim against the fleecy sky; then the Hawk
flew northward, but soon after he sailed over us once again, with loud, scornful chirr
, and they only cawed, and left him undisturbed.
When we hear the tumult of music from these various artists of the air, it seems as if the symphony never could be analyzed into its different instruments.
But with time and patience it is not so difficult; nor can we really enjoy the performance so long as it is only a confused chorus to our ears.
It is not merely the highest form of animal language, but in strictness of etymology, the only form, if it be true, as is claimed, that no other animal employs its tongue, lingua
, in producing sound.
In the Middle Ages
, the song of birds was called their Latin, as was any other foreign dialect.
It was the old German superstition, that any one who should eat the heart of a bird would thenceforth comprehend its language; and one modern philologist of the same nation (Masius declares) has so far studied the sounds produced by domestic fowls as to announce a Goose-Lexicon.
Dupont de Nemours
asserted that he understood eleven words of the Pigeon
language, the same number of that of Fowls, fourteen of the Cat tongue, twenty-two of that of Cattle, thirty of that of Dogs, and the Raven language he understood completely.
But the ordinary observer seldom attains farther than to comprehend some of the cries of anxiety and fear around him, often so unlike the accustomed carol of the bird,—as the mew of the Cat-Bird
, the the lamb-like bleating of the Veery and his impatient yeoick
, the chaip
of the Meadow-Lark
, the towyee
of the Chewink, the petulant psit
of the Red-Winged Blackbird
, and the hoarse cooing of the Bobolink.
And with some of our most familiar birds the variety of notes is so great as really to promise difficulties in the American
department of the bird-lexicon.
I have watched two Song-Sparrows, perched near each other, in whom the spy-glass could show not the slightest difference of marking, even in the characteristic stains upon the
breast, who yet chanted to each other, for fifteen minutes, over and over, two elaborate songs which had nothing in common.
I have observed a similar thing in two Wood
-Sparrows, with their sweet, distinct, monotonous note; nor can I find it stated that the difference is sexual.
Who can claim to have heard the whole song of the Robin?
Taking shelter from a shower beneath an oak-tree, the other day, I caught a few of the notes which one of those cheery creatures, who love to sing in wet weather, tossed down to me through the drops.
(Before noticing me,)
(pausing in alarm, at my approach,)
(broken presently by a thoughtful strain,)
(then softer and more confiding,)
che, che, che;
see, see, see;
(then the original note, in a whisper,)
(often broken by a soft note,)
(and an odder one,)
(and a mellow note,)
And all these were mingled with more complex combinations, and with half-imitations, as of the Bluebird, so that it seemed almost impossible to doubt that there was some specific meaning, to him and his peers, in this endless vocabulary.
Yet other birds, as quick-witted as the Robins, possess but one or two chirping notes, to which they seem unable to give more than the very rudest variation of accent.
The controversy between the singing-birds of Europe
has had various phases and influential disputants.
easily convinced himself that our Thrushes had no songs, because the voices of all birds grew harsh in savage countries, such as he naturally held this continent to be. Audubon
, on the other hand, relates that even in his childhood he was assured by his father that the American
songsters were the best, though neither Americans
nor Europeans could be convinced of it. MacGillivray, the Scottish naturalist, reports that Audubon
himself, in conversation, arranged our vocalists in the following order: first, the Mocking-Bird
, as unrivalled; then, the Wood-Thrush
, the Cat-Bird
, and Red-Thrush
; the Rose-breasted, Pine, and Blue Grosbeak; the Orchard
and Golden Oriole; the Tawny and Hermit Thrushes; several Finches,—Bachmann's, the White-Crowned
, the Indigo, and the Nonpareil; and, finally, the Bobolink.
Among those birds of this list which frequent Massachusetts
might well put the Wood-Thrush
at the head.
As I sat the other day in the deep woods beside a black brook which dropped from stone to stone beneath the shadow of our Rattlesnake Rocks, the air seemed at first as silent above me as the earth below.
The buzz of summer
sounds had not begun.
Sometimes a bee hummed by with a long, swift thrill like a chord of music; sometimes a breeze came resounding up the forest like an approaching locomotive, and then died utterly away.
Then, at length, a Veery's delicious note rose in a fountain of liquid melody from beneath me; and when it was ended, the clear, calm, interrupted chant of the Wood-Thrush
fell like solemn water-drops from some source above.
I am acquainted with no sound in Nature so sweet, so elevated, so serene.
Flutes and flageolets are Art
's poor efforts to recall that softer sound.
It is simple, and seems all prelude; but the music to which it is the overture belongs to other spheres.
It might be the Angelus
of some lost convent.
It might be the meditation of some maiden-hermit, saying over to herself in solitude, with recurrent tuneful pauses, the only song she knows.
Beside this soliloquy of seraphs, the carol of the Veery seems a familiar and almost domestic thing; yet it is so charming that Audubon
must have designed to include this among the Thrushes whose merits he proclaims.
But the range of musical perfection is a wide one; and if the standard of excellence be that wondrous brilliancy and variety of execution suggested by the Mocking-Bird
, then the palm belongs, among our New England
songsters, to the Red Thrush
, otherwise called the Mavis or Brown Thrasher
I know not how to describe the voluble and fantastic notes which fall like pearls and diamonds from the beak of our Mavis, while his stately attitudes and high-born bearing are in full harmony with the song.
I recall the steep, bare hillside, and the two great boulders which guard the lonely grove, where I first fully learned the wonder of this lay, as if I had met St. Cecilia there.
A thoroughly happy song, overflowing with life, it gives even its most familiar phrases an air of gracious condescension, as when some great violinist stoops to the ‘Carnival of Venice
The Red Thrush
does not, however, consent to any parrot-like mimicry, though every note of wood or field-Oriole, Bobolink, Crow
, Robin, Whippoorwill-appears to pass in veiled procession through the song.
Retain the execution of the Red Thrush
, but hopelessly impair his organ, and you have the Cat-Bird
This accustomed visitor would seem a gifted vocalist but for the inevitable comparison between his thinner note and the gushing melodies of the lordlier bird.
Is it some hopeless consciousness of this disadvantage which leads him to pursue that peculiar habit of singing softly to himself very often, in a fancied seclusion?
When other birds are cheerily out-of-doors, on some bright morning in May or June, one will often discover a solitary Cat-Bird
sitting concealed in the middle of a dense bush, and twittering busily, in subdued rehearsal, the whole copious variety of his lay, practising trills and preparing half-imitations, which, at some other time, sitting on the topmost twig, he shall hilariously seem to improvise before all the world.
Can it be that he is really in some slight disgrace with Nature, with that demi-mourning garb of his, and that his
feline cry of terror, which makes his opprobrium with boys, is but a part of some hidden doom?
No, the lovely color of the eggs which his companion watches on that laboriously builded staging of twigs shall vindicate this familiar companion from any suspicion of original sin. Indeed, it is well demonstrated by our American oologist, Dr. Brewer
, that the eggs of the Cat-Bird
affiliate him with the Robin and the Wood-Thrush
, all three being widely separated in this respect from the Red Thrush
The Red Thrush
builds on the ground, and has mottled eggs; while the whole household establishment of the Wood-Thrush
is scarcely distinguishable from that of the Robin, and the Cat-bird differs chiefly in being more of a carpenter and less of a mason.
The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, which Audubon
places so high on his list of minstrels, comes annually to one region in this vicinity, but I am not sure of having heard it. The young Pine Grosbeaks come to our woods in winter, and have then but a subdued twitter.
Every one knows the Bobolink; and almost all recognize the Oriole, by sight at least, even if unfamiliar with all the notes of his cheery and resounding song.
The Red-Eyed Flycatcher
, heard even more constantly, is less generally identified by name; but his note sounds all day among the elms of our streets, and seems a sort of piano-adaptation, popularized for the million, of the rich notes of the Thrushes.
He is not mentioned by Audubon
among his favorites, and has no right to complain of the exclusion.
Yet the birds which most endear summer are not necessarily the finest performers; and certainly there is none whose note I could spare less easily than the little Chipping-Sparrow
, called hereabouts the Hair-Bird
To lie half awake on a warm morning in June, and hear that soft, insect-like chirp draw in and out with long, melodious pulsations, like the rising and falling of the human breath, condenses for my ear the whole luxury of summer.
Later in the day, among the multiplicity of noises, the chirping becomes louder and more detached, losing that faint and dream-like thrill.
The bird-notes which have the most familiar fascination are perhaps simply those most intimately associated with other rural things.
This applies especially to the earliest spring songsters.
Listening to these delicious prophets upon some of those still and moist days which slip in between the rough winds of March, and fill our lives for a moment with anticipated delights, it seems as if their varied notes were sent to symbolize all the different elements of spring association.
The Bluebird appears to represent simply spring's faint, tremulous, liquid sweetness, the Song-Sparrow
its changing pulsations of more positive and varied joy, and the Robin its cheery and superabundant vitality.
The later birds of the season, suggesting no such fine-drawn sensations, yet identify themselves with their chosen haunts, so that we cannot think of the one without the other.
In the meadows we hear the languid and tender drawl of the Meadow
Lark,—one of the most peculiar of notes, almost amounting to affectation in its excess of laborious sweetness.
When we reach the thickets and wooded streams, there is no affectation in the Maryland Yellow-Throat
, that little restless busybody, with his eternal which-is-it, which-is-it, which-is-it
, emphasizing each syllable at will, in despair of response.
Passing into the loftier woods, we find them resounding with the loud proclamation of the Golden-Crowned Thrush
,— scheat, scheat, scheat, scheat
,—rising and growing louder in a vigorous way that rather suggests some great Woodpecker than such a tiny thing.
And penetrating to some yet lonelier place, we find it consecrated to that life-long sorrow, whatever it may be, which is made immortal in the plaintive cadence of the Pewee-Flycatcher.
There is one favorite bird,—the Chewink, or Ground-Robin,—which, I always fancied, must have been known to Keats
when he wrote those few words of perfect descriptiveness,—
If an innocent bird
Before my heedless footsteps stirred and stirred
In little journeys.
What restless spirit is in this creature, that, while so shy in its own personal habits, it yet watches every visitor with a Paul-Pry curiosity, follows him in the woods, peers out among the underbrush, scratches upon the leaves with a pretty pretence of important business there, and presently, when disregarded, ascends some small tree and begins to carol its monotonous song, as if there were no such thing as man in the universe?
There is something irregular and fantastic in the coloring, also, of the Chewink: unlike the generality of ground-birds, it is a showy thing, with black
, and bay intermingled, and it is one of the most unmistakable of all our feathery creatures, in its aspect and its ways.
Another of my favorites, perhaps from our sympathy as to localities, since we meet freely every summer at a favorite lake, is the King-Bird
, or Tyrant-Flycatcher.
The habits of royalty or tyranny I have never been able to perceive,—only a democratic habit of resistance to tyrants; but this bird always impresses me as a perfectly well-dressed and well-mannered person, who amid a very talkative society prefers to listen, and shows his character by action only.
So long as he sits silently on some stake or bush in the neighborhood of his family circle, you notice only his glossy black cap and the white feathers in his handsome tail: but let a Hawk or a Crow come near, and you find that he is
something more than a mere lazy listener to the Bobolink: far up in the air, determined to be thorough in his chastisements, you will see him, with a comrade or two, driving the bulky intruder away into the distance, till you wonder how he ever expects to find his own way back again.
He speaks with emphasis on these occasions, and then reverts, more sedately than ever, to his accustomed silence.
We know but little, even now, of the local distribution of our birds.
I remember that in my latest conversation with Thoreau
, in December, 1861, he mentioned most remarkable facts in this department, which had fallen under his unerring eyes.
most common at Concord
, the Red-Tailed
species, is not known near the sea-shore, twenty miles off, —as at Boston
The White-Breasted Sparrow
is rare in Concord
; but the Ashburnham woods, thirty miles away, are full of it. The Scarlet Tanager's is the commonest note in Concord
, except the Red-Eyed Flycatcher
's; yet one of the best field-ornithologists in Boston
had never heard it. The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak is seen not infrequently at Concord
, though its nest is rarely found; but in Minnesota
found it more abundant than any other bird, far more so than the Robin.
But his most interesting statement, to my fancy, was, that, during a stay of ten weeks on Monadnock
, he found that the Snow-Bird
built its nest on the top of the mountain, and probably never came down through the season.
That was its Arctic; and it would probably yet be found, he predicted, on Wachusett and other Massachusetts
It is known that the Snow-Bird
, or ‘Snow-Flake
,’ as it is called in England
, was reported by Audubon
as having only once been proved to build in the United States
, namely, among the White Mountains
, though Wilson
found its nests among the Alleghanies
; and in New England
it used to be the rural belief that the Snow-Bird
and the Chipping-Sparrow
were the same.
After July most of our birds grow silent, and, but for the insects, August would be almost the stillest month in the year,—stiller than the winter, when the woods are often vocal with the Crow, the Jay
, and the Chickadee.
But with patient attention one may hear, even far into the autumn, the accustomed notes.
As I sat in my boat, one sunny afternoon of last September, beneath the shady western shore of our quiet lake, with the low sunlight striking almost level across the wooded banks, it seemed as if the last hoarded drops of summer's sweetness were being poured over all the world.
The air was full of quiet sounds.
Turtles rustled beside the brink and slid into the water,— cows plashed in the shallows,—fishes leaped from the placid depths,—a squirrel sobbed and fretted on a neighboring stump,—a katydid across the lake maintained its hard, dry croak,—the crickets chirped pertinaciously, but with little, fatigued pauses, as if glad that their work was almost done,—the grasshoppers kept up their continual chant, which
seemed thoroughly melted and amalgamated into the summer, as if it would go on indefinitely, though the body of the little creature were dried into dust.
All this time the birds were silent and invisible, as if they would take no more part in the symphony of the year.
Then, seemingly by preconcerted signal, they joined in: Crows cawed anxiously afar; Jays screamed in the woods; a Partridge clucked to its brood, like the gurgle of water from a bottle; a Kingfisher wound his rattle, more briefly than in spring, as if we now knew all about it and the merest hint ought to suffice; a Fish-Hawk flapped into the water, with a great, rude splash, and then flew heavily away; a flock of Wild-Ducks went southward overhead, and a smaller party returned beneath them, flying low and anxiously, as if to pick up some lost baggage; and, at last, a Loon laughed loud from behind a distant island, and it was pleasant to people these woods and waters with that wild shouting, linking them with Katahdin Lake
But the later the birds linger in the autumn, the more their aspect differs from that of spring.
In spring, they come, jubilant, noisy, triumphant, from the South
, the winter conquered and the long journey done.
In autumn, they come timidly from the North
, and, pausing on their anxious retreat, lurk within the fading copses and twitter snatches of song as fading.
Others fly as openly as ever, but gather in flocks, as the Robins, most piteous of all birds at this season,—thin, faded, ragged, their bold note sunk to a feeble quaver, and their manner a mere caricature of that inexpressible military smartness with which they held up their heads in May.
Yet I cannot really find anything sad even in November.
When I think of the thrilling beauty of the season past, the birds that came and went, the insects that took up the choral song as the birds grew silent, the procession of the flowers, the glory of autumn,—and when I think that, this also ended, a new gallery of wonder is opening, almost more beautiful, in the magnificence of frost and snow,—there comes an impression of affluence and liberality in the universe which seasons of changeless and uneventful verdure would never give.
The catkins already formed on the alder, quite prepared to droop into April's beauty,—the white edges of the May-flower's petals, already visible through the bud, show in advance that winter is but a slight and temporary retardation of the life of Nature, and that the barrier which separates November from March is not really more solid than that which parts the sunset from the sunrise.