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The Birds' Calendar
birds, great nature's happy commoners,
That haunt in woods, in meads, and flowery gardens,
Rifle the sweets, and taste the choicest fruits."
ORNITHOLOGY is well-nigh the humblest member in the fraternity of Natural Sciences. It has little or no recognition in school or college, and hitherto has excited comparatively little general interest. It is accounted a surprising thing when a person is found who can speak intelligently in regard to a dozen of the very commonest species of birds. Yet notwithstanding the slight hold this science seems to have upon the popular mind, we find that in every Natural History museum in the world the section that proves most generally attractive, and is most interestedly commented upon, is that containing the ornithological specimens. The public takes a lively interest in dead birds; why is it so indifferent to the living ones? What is a visit to the best assortment in the world of mounted skins neatly arranged in show-cases, faded and voiceless, in comparison with one of nature's walks, where
Deep tangled, tree irregular, and bush
Bending with dewy moisture, o'er the heads
Of the coy quiristers that lodge within,
Are prodigal of harmony?"
The anomaly is only explicable by the fact of the general impression that for the world at large ornithology is an utterly impracticable pursuit, exclusively reserved for the few who can, as it were, make a business of it; that it is a science to be mastered before one can reap any reward from it; that any smattering in this subject is profitless.
Such a notion in regard to any study is a permanent discouragement and an insuperable barrier to popular interest in its pursuit. But it is a misconception indeed as regards ornithology. For this science is almost unique in its simplicity, in the absence of necessary preliminary technical study, and in the possibility of immediate, definite, and pleasurable results, greater or less according to the circumstances of the individual.
One commonly feels helpless to undertake botany, chemistry, biology, etc., without a teacher, and supposes that ornithology requires the same formality of instruction, as well as very exceptional opportunities of observation. But, unlike most other sciences, there are two distinct lines of procedure in this, two sides to it: the indoor and the outdoor — the purely scientific and the popular — school and field ornithology. The one is technical and anatomical, the dead data — rather dry, as some would count dryness; the other has to do with the bird's life-history — coloration, habits, and song — with all the associations of the most delightful surroundings in nature: leading one away from the haunts of worriment or business into the quiet places where, as Spenser says,
The thrush replies; the mavis descant plays;
The ousel shrills; the redbreast warbles soft."
This distinction between the two lines of study finds a literal illustration in the difference between school and field botany; still better, however, in the contrast between medical and field botany: the latter associated with all the exhilaration of search and discovery, of mountain air and woodland ramble, of the fascination of Nature's society and solitude. Medical botany has all the rigid formalism of economic root-and-herb analysis of the laboratory; dealing with the dead, and not with the living — brainy but juiceless. Field botany is vital, abounding in the spirit and atmosphere of outdoor excursion; instinct with sentiment, poetic, restful; an unfailing source of humanizing influences, even as the deeper springs of life are not of the head but of the heart.
The purely scientific side of ornithology (and of botany, too, it must be confessed) is as yet too much of a makeshift to be very captivating, even to those whose predilections are of an intellectual rather than of a sentimental sort. Its principles of classification are not yet very profoundly established, and by the highest authorities upon the subject are confessedly tentative.
In counting the number of feathers in the wing, and in examining the anatomy of a bird's foot, for tests of relationship, we hardly penetrate deep enough into the real nature of a bird to feel any intense glow of enthusiasm. Swallows, warblers, and finches are temperamentally different; — a difference by no means accounted for by existing criteria of classification. And botany is not in advance of ornithology in this respect.
But it is aside from our present purpose to quarrel with the scientists. In field ornithology we are happily beyond the reach of false speculation. The different groups of birds are quite distinct, whether we can clearly see the reason for it or not. Indeed, it adds a spice of interest to know there is an unexplored remainder. They entertain us by their songs and charming ways, quite oblivious of man's efforts to check them off into class, order, family, genus, and species. They live amicably when not related (according to science), and quarrel when in the same family, just like human beings. A thrush by any other name would sing as well, and the oven-bird will be just as dainty, comical, and happy, whether we classify it with the thrushes, as formerly, or with the warblers, as latterly. Free as the air, they rise above all external limitation; and in habits and plumage they are not the less entertaining for their sublime indifference to man's scrutiny.
Is as melodious and as free
As if they sung to pleasure you."
In one important respect this study is unique and favored, as compared with the other branches of natural history. If one would study the botany of Labrador or of Mexico, he must needs go to Labrador or Mexico for his specimens. Plants adhere to their own zone and climate. But by the laws of migration, as explained hereafter, the avifauna of these and of even more remote regions accommodatingly comes to our own doors every spring and fall. One can find in his front yard strange visitors from tropic and arctic climes, if he is only up betimes to greet them. This is what makes locality a matter of so much less significance in ornithology than in any kindred pursuit. Ornithology might well be called the panoramic science; even more so in this latitude than botany and entomology. A specimen that you find at Washington in March may be singing you a welcome to Canada in June.
Field ornithology can no more be taught than the art of writing poetry can be taught. You must put yourself in the way of catching the fever, and then let the disease work. The chief rule for studying a bird in its wild state is, first find your bird. The only way to success in this and the kindred sciences is through patience and the art of observation. The study will prove disciplinary as well as pleasurable.
An enjoyment incident to ornithology that is worth mentioning is the fact that while other friends come and go, one never loses the friends he makes among the birds, for his attachment is to the class, not to the individual. Specimens die, bid the species abide. One never thinks of age in connection with these creatures. They seem to have discovered the elixir of life, and to maintain the perennial freshness of youth. Year after year they arrive at just about the same time in the spring, sing the same old songs, repeat their love-passages, nest in the same fashion, and perpetuate all their graceful ways and charming oddities. The old man finds his cherry-trees plundered by apparently the very same robins that he saw in his boyhood in his father's orchard, and drives away the same everlasting crows from his cornfield. The woodpecker's vigorous tapping never becomes feeble, nor the song sparrow less blithesome. The burden of sorrow is never lifted from the ever-lamenting pewee, and in season and out of season, with sometimes provoking equanimity, the chickadee is brimful of merriment. These sights and sounds are among the stabilities of life, the changeless things that give equilibrium to nature, binding the present to the past, and spreading a pleasing and restful aspect of permanence over the mutabilities of existence.
Furthermore, in the prevalent distribution of their principal types, botany and ornithology insure to the student a comfortable home-feeling, wherever he may walk abroad, in the sense of old-time companionship. In the same zone, even continent answereth to continent in identical and similar types, and one can never be utterly a stranger in a strange land, when he discovers on every hand the counterparts of forms and faces familiarized and endeared by the memories of early life.
But the herbarium and the stuffed specimens! Good for bait, to catch the wandering interest of the novice. There is something depressing, almost melancholy, in these dead and withered specimens within brick walls, when one has seen their living, joyous confreres in their native haunts, the air laden with the fragrant smells of earth in the dewy freshness of an early breeze, and has heard them sing
To gratulate the sweet return of morn."
What a pitiable travesty do we find in the contrast of nature's vital, melodious handiwork, with this dull, dead remainder, — the grace and wild-wood spirit gone, a relict of tissue, skin, and feathers. Verily, I would rather see a living crow than a dead bird-of-paradise. Every ornithologist realizes how much more intelligent pleasure there is in studying the habits and song of the very commonest bird that comes about the door, than in looking at the finest assortment of pale-feathered, beady-eyed, cotton-stuffed, and wire-mounted mummies that the world has ever seen.
The following pages are an informal diary of a year's observations made, as business would permit, in Central Park, of New York City, in 1893. The area of observation is not mentioned as giving any additional interest to the narrative, only as the localizing of such impressions naturally imparts to them more definiteness and reality. It is the foil of substantial background to set off the prominent objects in the picture.
While the Park is scarcely half a mile in width, and about two and one-half miles long, the observations here recorded, with slight exceptions, were all made in that small section known as "The Ramble," covering only about one-sixteenth of a square mile. There is a significance in this fact that should not be overlooked, for it effectually disposes of the common argument against the practicability of this pursuit, on the ground of its requiring one to traverse large areas, at great expense of time, and perhaps of money, thus making it incompatible with all business pursuits. When almost in the heart of a great metropolis such facilities are afforded to the naturalist, they will not be very far to seek in any locality. Within this little retreat I have, during the year, found represented nineteen of the twenty-one families of song birds in the United States; some of them quite abundantly in genera and species; with a sprinkling of species from several other classes of land and water birds.
An ornithologist can scour the country, and pick up one bit of rare experience here, and another there, and the narration of his choicest discoveries during a course of years makes most delightful reading. But it may be questioned whether such books are not as much a discouragement as an incentive to those who, not having equal opportunities of research, are likely to depreciate and thus fail to utilize their own more limited advantages. If there be any practical value in the following narrative, it lies just in the fact that it is not exceptional. Any observant visitor to the Park can verify for himself the record here given; nor do I apprehend that the Park itself, as compared with equal areas elsewhere, is remarkably favored in opportunities for this pursuit. Indeed, during a large part of the year its public character and exposure are plainly detrimental to the success of the naturalist, and innumerable places throughout the country are equally favorable, or more so, for this line of study. The encouragement of this record to the beginner is in the fact that it is such an ordinary one.
The work, however, will be found to contain much more than a year's individual experience; for by interweaving with the narrative the discussion of all the prominent aspects of bird-life that pertain to field ornithology, the book aims to give a much more comprehensive view of the subject than could be afforded in a merely personal and local chronicle. And while it may not contain any new disclosures for the experienced naturalist, yet in the event of such perusal, it is a satisfaction to remember that sometimes it is as pleasant to be reminded of what we already know, as to be told something new, — to see a familiar object through another's eyes, as an unfamiliar one through our own.
Between the purely literary works upon ornithology that flit about over the subject like a butterfly, and require a previous knowledge of birds for their full appreciation, and the technical books of reference whose information is so methodical, impersonal, coldly accurate, and highly prosaic — between these extremes there seems to be a gap, which this book will perhaps help to fill.
The path opening before us discloses also in its long vista a deeper enjoyment of nature in all her varied and manifold aspects. It is one of the charms of nature that her revealments and concealments go hand in hand. Everywhere mystery covers all, like the fulness of the sea. To the sensitive soul no scene can be commonplace. Even the departed glories of primal Paradise seem faintly to linger and echo in a fair morning's dewy and fragrant baptism of earth and air, in the resplendent sky-flush of purple and crimson, when
and in the shower of song from every woodland choir; those ceremonials that usher in the dawning of a summer's day — a golden relic for a fallen world.