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| "And hark how blithe the throstle
He, too, is no mean preacher."
VERY field ornithologist has more or less of an ambition to beat his own record (and everyone's else), in the number of species he has found in a given time or in a certain locality. It is quite useless to ridicule or ignore this impulse, which is sometimes violent enough to be properly called a distemper. It is involved in his system as constitutionally as ever measles or mumps were imbedded in his body — with the difference, however, that having once "broken out," it is extremely doubtful whether he ever fully recovers from it. However one may smile at the sometimes childish aspect of such an ambition, he will do well to avoid a too contemptuous tone in speaking of it, for the same trait, in some one of its thousand manifestations, is discernible in every mind, and is essentially that propensity to which the world is chiefly indebted for all its advancement in the arts and sciences.
The sentiment of ambition, in the abstract, is regarded as a most laudable instinct, but when the various impelling motives are stated in clear detail, most of them will shrink from close scrutiny. Even to surpass one's self is not an ideal motive, and still less to surpass one's neighbor, which is the essence of emulation. It is ungrateful for the steam in the boiler to make slighting remarks about the kind of coal that goes into the furnace, and yet it is curious, all the same, to watch the ornithologist who is under the spell of this numerical craze, who finds that everything feathered, from a hawk to a humming-bird, is grist for his hopper. He needs to know nothing about the habits or the habitat of the bird — and for the time being perhaps cares nothing — while a single view of it is just as good as a thousand; when he has had one full look at it — or, with a lack of conscience, half a look — he has, so to speak, bagged his game, added a new name to his list, and is inexpressibly happy. This fever is at its height in May, and as the migrants must be caught on the wing, as it were, he cannot stop fully to enjoy anything he sees, for fear that in the meantime something else will escape him. After the migrations are over — that is, about the first or second week in June — the fever abates (with a slight relapse in the fall months), and recovering his mental equipoise he will, if a true ornithologist, sit down comfortably for a time, and with fewer of his winged friends around him, derive a deeper satisfaction in the cultivation of a closer acquaintance. He then realizes, for a full enjoyment of the finest aspects of nature, and to come into closest sympathy with all its life, how indispensable is a spirit of leisureliness, which has such an absorbent quality. Only in this way, which in regard to some species of creation may mean years of patient observation, can one arrive at anything like an adequate knowledge of the higher forms of animal life, with their manifold instincts and countless diversities.
Two of the migrants, still lingering into June, deserve a special word. A fine, insect-like sound, soft, and yet seeming to pervade the air, so that it was impossible to locate it, one afternoon apprised me of a probable new-comer. There were still a few species due and overdue, and this unfamiliar sound was probably from one of them. Endeavoring to locate it, I went backward and forward, the same pervading, directionless sound constantly coming to my ears, until I was in despair, when I chanced to look upward, and saw a little specimen, too distant to identify, hopping from branch to branch. As he gradually descended I brought my glass to bear on his head — the most vulnerable point of attack in such a hunt — and detected a black cap covering the top of his head and reaching below the eyes — the very fellow I had been seeking for more than a week — the black-poll warbler; not a notable beauty, but daintly attired in olive; darkly streaked above, and mostly white beneath, while the glossy "cap" is a conspicuous article of dress — a decoration, it hardly needs to be observed, that is monopolized by the males, the females being either obliged or content to go bareheaded.
The indifferent observer might mistake this for the black-and-white creeper, which it somewhat resembles in color; but the black-poll carries himself very differently, not having the restless manner of running about, and the inquisitive examination of the under side of everything, that characterize the creeper. The song of the black-poll is weak, as if he had such a cold as to be almost inaudible, and monotonous, while that of the creeper is much louder and more varied.
The last migrant of the season — the bay-breasted warbler — is one of the few that are said to have the peculiarity of adopting one route in the spring, and another in the fall migrations. According to one writer, "Avoiding the Eastern and Middle States, the majority pass along the borders of the Great Lakes, through Ohio, southern Illinois, down the Mississippi Valley, across into Texas, and so on into Mexico and Central America, where they winter. Returning in spring they pursue a more eastern route, keeping along the coast as far as the New England States, where they ascend the Connecticut Valley, generally avoiding eastern Massachusetts."
In other respects there is little to be said of this warbler. To be fully appreciated, it should have been one of the earliest instead of the latest to arrive, for with all its brilliant predecessors in mind, it can scarcely be called a handsome bird, with its prevailing colors of chestnut, black, and white; but at least it "counts one" in the list, and, to tell the truth, it gives one a comfortable feeling to read that it is quite rare in some portions of its general route; so that a pleasure which the sight of its chestnut breast could not give, is imparted by the fact that some of my neighbors cannot see it at all. This may be a villainous sort of delight, but the odium of such unmitigated selfishness belongs equally to every class of naturalists, and, in extenuation of their fault, it may truly be urged that naturalists are no worse than all others, as this trait of depravity is not generated, but only brought to the surface, by natural research.
When birds are located for the summer there is little fluctuation from day to day in numbers and varieties at a given place. But with the incoming and outgoing tides of spring and fall, a few hours will often make a great difference. One day a particular area may be quite deserted, and the very next every tree and bush may be alive with birds. Thus the bay-breasted came in large numbers one morning, and in a few hours quite disappeared; evidently for the most part males, from their full plumage, although among the number I observed one very dilapidated looking specimen, which I take it had the honor of being a female.
One of the least considered, but most wonderful, aspects of a bird is the instinct controlling its migrations, together with its power of communication with its fellows. What a marvellous ability these voyagers have, who, without a chart, and with the light neither of sun nor moon nor star to guide them, know how to find their way unerringly through trackless space.
It gives one a strange feeling, to wake in the dead of night and think of and occasionally hear the thousands of kinglets, red-polls, pine creepers and black-throated greens, with others large and small, pursuing their weird flight over his head. By what language do they signal their gathering together for the long journey in spring? And when the movement is begun, is each a law unto himself, or do they elect a leader, and how is it done? Or, when they stop here and there for rest, what determines the resumption of the journey? And at the close of summer, when their thoughts turn southward, how is the rendezvous appointed from which the host is to return to a warmer clime?
"Who bids the stork, Columbus-like, explore Heavens not his own, and worlds unknown before? Who calls the council, states the certain day? Who forms the phalanx, and who points the way?"
Are these creatures possibly endowed with a "sixth sense," or with a faculty of communication not dreamed of by those who are so proud of the possession of "intelligence," rather than what they contemptuously call "mere instinct?" Really, we human beings flatter ourselves quite too much; and, moreover, our very familiarity with the many wonderful manifestations of instinct all about us breeds a contempt therefor that discounts our own intelligence, and causes us to fall into still greater condemnation; for surely no charge more serious can be brought against the supremacy of man's reasoning powers than the fact that the mere prevalence of anything inexplicable, so far from increasing our wonderment thereat, invariably reduces it to a minimum, eventually becoming a sort of reason for eliminating all sense of mystery. In other words, a marvellous exhibition of the Creator's wisdom and power evokes a thousand times less of admiration when the display is a thousand times repeated. Where does the instinct of the "lower" animals lead to any such foolishness as this?
The classification of objects in natural science is a recognition of the two diametrically opposed principles underlying creation, viz.: repetition and change — unity and variety. Systematic science would be impossible if these two principles were not simultaneously operant, and intelligent creation is hardly conceivable along any other lines. Variation alone is heterogeneous, repetition alone is monotonous, and there could be no such thing as classification of objects if they did not show grounds for being both conjoined and disjoined. These two principles may be likened to centripetal and centrifugal forces, the one seeking uniformity, the other, change; and by their combined operation objects show at the same time similarity and individuality, while in the recognition of a single type under several forms, which is the resultant, the naturalist derives additional satisfaction in studying his specimens. Thus there is a pleasure in finding a second species of a thrush, or of a woodpecker, which a single species can never give, for it is a new disclosure of the intelligent scheme in creation, whose cardinal principle is, permanence in modification. This atmosphere of relationship in which we thus look at every flower, and bird, and insect, gives a zest to our enjoyment of even their specific qualities, such as we seldom stop to realize. In this view of the case the naturalist, with each fresh discovery, brings out of the storehouse of nature a treasure that is both new and old.
The spirit of gayety, so evidently animating the great majority of our woodland birds, is as strikingly and almost pathetically absent from one of the families — the flycatchers. The longer one studies them, the more he is impressed by their strange temperament. They are not only very quiet, as compared with their fellows, but their mood seems to be distinctively a gloomy one, as if constantly living under the shadow of sorrow. Whether this is so apparent in the tropical species I do not know, but it is a prevalent trait in the northern varieties. It is a solitary, and for the most part silent, bird, that seems to be out of touch with its surroundings, and yet not uninteresting to the observer, for it is punctiliously neat in appearance, picturesque in pose and motion, and its melancholy doth become it well.
One species, even more of a recluse than his kindred, and the largest of this region, is the great crested flycatcher, commonly seen high in a tree, and more brightly colored than his fellows with a sulphurous-yellow breast, and tail-feathers largely chestnut. It is so shy that it commonly makes off the instant one approaches it, and, although apparently sluggish as seen in repose, it is extremely quick and dexterous as it darts forth to secure the helpless insect that falls in its way. An unexplained and not very winsome peculiarity of this bird is, that almost invariably its nest is, in part, composed of cast-off snake skins; doubtless for a good reason. Science would hardly be worth the study if it were a mere collection of irrational, capricious facts. But whatever path one may follow in nature, he is sure to start up inquiries so much faster than he solves them that, after all, the wisest scientist is he whose head is the most filled with unanswered questions.
Another inquiry suggested by the flycatchers is, the purpose served by that peculiarity common to all of this family, and quite rare in all the others — the more or less erectile crown-feathers, and whether there is any relation between this singularity and their distinctive habits. Unless we regard many of such peculiar details as arbitrary and hap-hazard, which seems an unreasonable assumption, there must be numerous adaptations of structure to life, and much significance of coloring, too, in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, which we do not dream of as yet. If everything in nature is reasonable, and the definition of beauty be true, that it is "Reason expressed in form," then the monstrous bill of the pelican, the excrescence of the marabou stork, and the hump of the camel must challenge our exceeding admiration.
The most familiar of this secluded family, at least as regards the sound of its voice, is the wood pewee, that utters its plaintive, upward-inflected note throughout the day, and even quite far into the night, in the lonely woods. Its olive-brown back and dingy-white breast do not make it a conspicuous object, so that it is much oftener heard than seen; and yet it is not difficult to find it, as it will remain a long time in one spot, at short intervals repeating its sigh, and it is not so timid as to withdraw itself hastily when one approaches it.
There is a delicious sadness in this note of the pewee, like a minor chord interposed in the predominating jubilant major strains of the forest choir. It voices the spirit of silent and gloomy woods. A plaintive effect is very rare among the song-birds, which are so generally keyed to merriment. The goldfinch has an evident touch of it, recurring now and then in a song that is otherwise joyous and like rippling laughter. One of the charms of the fox sparrow, too, is a subtle quality of mournfulness tingeing a melody that is cheerful, if not joyous. But the pewee's note is like a faint, despairing cry, not so desperate as to agonize the listener, and yet appealing strongly to his sympathies. It appears to be the most disconsolate of all the family, the victim of chronic melancholia. What a contrast to the hilarious disposition of the ruby-crowned kinglet and the chickadee, that bubble over with songful laughter!
If the appeal of the sorrowing pewee can haunt one in the daytime, infusing a shadow into the sunlight, how much more potent its effect when heard in the congenial twilight. One day at sundown I wandered through some woods that were filled with the songs of birds. It almost seemed that Nature was devout, and this, her vesper-service; and as the strain of the cheery song sparrow, the noble and mellow carol of the robin, and the strangely rich and liquid tones of the wood thrush, one by one dropped out of the air, leaving the forest to the solemn stillness of the night, there sounded last of all, out of the gathering gloom, the distant, sad refrain of the pewee, like a mournful "finis" to the day. It seemed the essence of darkness transmuted into song.
It is interesting to note how every physical condition of the globe peculiarly fosters its own forms of life. Heat and cold, moist and dry, light and darkness, are each promotive of its own species, vegetable and animal, for which any other condition would be injurious or fatal. The edelweiss flourishes in the arctic clefts of the Alps, the coral polyp deep beneath the ocean, the soil itself teems with life; and while in general sunlight is so essential to healthful vitality, yet darkness hath its charms as well, and vegetation sometimes reserves its blossoming for the night, while the setting sun is the signal for many a beast and bird, crawling reptile and hovering insect, to awake and resume its daily activity.
While birds are chiefly diurnal, a few, like the owls, are nocturnal, and a few are crepuscular or twilight birds — not altogether inactive during the day (especially when it is cloudy), and sometimes roaming about very late in the evening; but finding their most congenial period of activity — which among birds chiefly means foraging for food — during the short interval of half-light.
Occasionally during the day, oftener at dusk, I have seen or heard, as anyone in the country is likely to do during the summer months, that very familiar specimen of the crepuscular birds, but much better known by its sound than otherwise — the "night-hawk." The only exceptions that can be taken to the name are that it is not a "night" bird, as it flies about mostly at dusk, sometimes in midday, nor yet is it a hawk, being called so only from a resemblance when on the wing, and in its general appearance at a distance. This bird and the whippoorwill are allied, and resemble each other as closely as twins, both being just about as large as a robin, and "indescribably variegated or mottled with several quiet colors." In one the tail is forked, in the other rounded, and the nighthawk has a white patch on the wing, which is lacking in the other. Otherwise they are well-nigh indistinguishable. Probably there is not one in a hundred of those who are familiar with the sounds of both these birds, who has any idea of their appearance. As regards the night-hawk, we may well say sound instead of note, for its noise could hardly be called musical, even in the sense in which the rustling of leaves or the lowing of cattle could be so considered; usually the only evidence of its presence is its indescribable squeak, as it flies hither and thither — invisible in the dusk at the height at which it usually remains, its great cavernous mouth wide open for catching the insects on which it chiefly subsists. It can sometimes be seen in the daytime, but the sound it commonly makes, as well as the strange "booming" when it suddenly drops from a great height, the production of which is not understood, are rarely heard save in the twilight.
The night-hawk is
among the few of the
land birds that make little or no pretence at nest-building, although
many among the water fowl show an equal want of skill or interest in
this matter. In general among land birds, the larger the bird the
more clumsy is the nest, and this results not altogether from the coarser
materials necessarily used, but in many cases from an evident
lack of the sense of artistic workmanship.
The night-hawk deposits its eggs sometimes on the ground, with perhaps the rudest outline of a nest in coarse twigs, sometimes on the bare rock, and they have even been found on the concrete roofs of city houses. This gives rise to the suspicion of a culpable lack of domestic zeal, but possibly such judgment should be modified in the light of the attendant circumstance, that the chicks are not born in the unprotected condition of most birdlings, but when they come out of the shell they are downy, and densely so on the under side, which is an offset to the lack of nest-protection. According to the Darwinian scheme of development this is a significant conjunction of facts, but it does not necessarily settle the case in favor of the "hawk." Did nature first provide the thick down, and the birds, observing the fact and taking counsel together, conclude that under the circumstances it would be a waste of time and energy to fashion anything elaborate? Or shall we suppose that from time immemorial these birds were too lazy to treat their offspring in a proper parental manner, and that then nature rose to the occasion, by struggling up into a protective down? As it is improbable, according to Darwin, that the two facts were originally synchronous, which shall we consider the cause, and which the effect? The credit of the species seriously depends upon the answer. The fact that they show great courage and fidelity in the defence of their offspring when danger threatens, makes it a reasonable inference that they can only be charged with being practical rather than sentimental.
The latest lingering migrant among the thrushes was the "olive-backed," the least attractive of all the thrushes in appearance, being of a uniform and dull olive color on the back. It did not finally disappear till the second week in June, and during the last week in May it was the commonest bird in the Park, not even excepting the robin. In the Ramble I could hardly go ten feet without stirring up at least one or two. Until just previous to their departure they uttered only an occasional harsh call-note, in striking contrast to that of the wood thrush, which is so delicious; but three or four days before they left I heard the first effort of song, not full-voiced, but soft and veiled, as is often the case when a species begins to sing in spring.
The appearance of a bird is positive — you can tell the day and hour; its disappearance is negative. They seem to steal away mysteriously. One day you see several specimens of a kind here and there, and the next day, not finding any, you suppose that you have overlooked them; but on the third day you discover none, nor on the fourth, and then, if it is late in the season, you conclude they have gone and left no sign. After all, is not this a pleasanter way to take leave of a friend, than to be conscious that you are seeing him for the last time?