Here to return to
CHARACTER IN FEATHERS.
IN this economically governed world the same thing serves many uses. Who will take upon himself to enumerate the offices of sunlight, or water, or indeed of any object whatever? Because we know it to be good for this or that, it by no means follows that we have discovered what it was made for. What we have found out is perhaps only something by the way; as if a man should think the sun were created for his own private convenience. In some moods it seems doubtful whether we are yet acquainted with the real value of anything. But, be that as it may, we need not scruple to admire so much as our ignorance permits us to see of the workings of this divine frugality. The piece of woodland, for instance, which skirts the village, how various are its ministries to the inhabitants, each of whom, without forethought or question, takes the benefit proper to himself! The poet saunters there as in a true Holy Land, to have his heart cooled and stilled. Mr. A. and Mr. B., who hold the deeds of the “property,” walk through it to look at the timber, with an eye to dollars and cents. The botanist has his errand there, the zoologist his, and the child his. Oftenest of all, perhaps (for barbarism dies hard, and even yet the ministers of Christ find it a capital sport to murder small fishes), — oftenest of all comes the man, poor soul, who thinks of the forest as of a place to which he may go when he wishes to amuse himself by killing something. Meanwhile, the rabbits and the squirrels, the hawks and the owls, look upon all such persons as no better than intruders (do not the woods belong to those who live in them?); while nobody remembers the meteorologist, who nevertheless smiles in his sleeve at all these one-sided notions, and says to himself that he knows the truth of the matter.
So is it with everything; and with all the rest, so is it with the birds. The interest they excite is of all grades, from that which looks upon them as items of millinery, up to that of the makers of ornithological systems, who ransack the world for specimens, and who have no doubt that the chief end of a bird is to be named and catalogued, — the more synonyms the better. Somewhere between these two extremes comes the person whose interest in birds is friendly rather than scientific; who has little taste for shooting, and an aversion from dissecting; who delights in the living creatures themselves, and counts a bird in the bush worth two in the hand. Such a person, if he is intelligent, makes good use of the best works on ornithology; he would not know how to get along without them; but he studies most the birds themselves, and after a while he begins to associate them on a plan of his own. Not that he distrusts the approximate correctness of the received classification, or ceases to find it of daily service; but though it were as accurate as the multiplication table, it is based (and rightly, no doubt) on anatomical structure alone; it rates birds as bodies, and nothing else: while to the person of whom we are speaking birds are, first of all, souls; his interest in them is, as we say, personal; and we are none of us in the habit of grouping our friends according to height, or complexion, or any other physical peculiarity.
But it is not proposed in this paper to attempt a new classification of any sort, even the most unscientific and fanciful. All I am to do is to set down at random a few studies in such a method as I have indicated; in short, a few studies in the temperaments of birds. Nor, in making this attempt, am I unmindful how elusive of analysis traits of character are, and how diverse is the impression which the same personality produces upon different observers. In matters of this kind every judgment is largely a question of emphasis and proportion; and, moreover, what we find in our friends depends in great part on what we have in ourselves. This I do not forget; and therefore I foresee that others will discover in the birds of whom I write many things that I miss, and perhaps will miss some things which I have treated as patent or even conspicuous. It remains only for each to testify what he has seen, and at the end to confess that a soul, even the soul of a bird, is after all a mystery.
Let our first example, then, be the common black-capped titmouse, or chickadee. He is, par excellence, the bird of the merry heart. There is a notion current, to be sure, that all birds are merry; but that is one of those second-hand opinions which a man who begins to observe for himself soon finds it necessary to give up. With many birds life is a hard struggle. Enemies are numerous, and the food supply is too often scanty. Of some species it is probable that very few die in their beds. But the chickadee seems to be exempt from all forebodings. His coat is thick, his heart is brave, and, whatever may happen, something will be found to eat. Take no thought for the morrow “is his creed, which he accepts, not for substance of doctrine,” but literally. No matter how bitter the wind or how deep the snow, you will never find the chickadee, as the saying is, under the weather. It is this perennial good humor, I suppose, which makes other birds so fond of his companionship; and their example might well be heeded by persons who suffer from fits of depression. Such unfortunates could hardly do better than to court the society of the joyous tit. His whistles and chirps, his graceful feats of climbing and hanging, and withal his engaging familiarity (for, of course, such good-nature as his could not consist with suspiciousness) would most likely send them home in a more Christian mood. The time will come, we may hope, when doctors will prescribe bird-gazing instead of blue-pill.
To illustrate the chickadee’s trustfulness, I may mention that a friend of mine captured one in a butterfly-net, and, carrying him into the house, let him loose in the sitting-room. The little stranger was at home immediately, and seeing the window full of plants, proceeded to go over them carefully, picking off the lice with which such window-gardens are always more or less infested. A little later he was taken into my friend’s lap, and soon he climbed up to his shoulder; where, after hopping about for a few minutes on his coat-collar, he selected a comfortable roosting place, tucked his head under his wing, and went to sleep, and slept on undisturbed while carried from one room to another. Probably the chickadee’s nature is not of the deepest. I have never seen him when his joy rose to ecstasy. Still his feelings are not shallow, and the faithfulness of the pair to each other and to their offspring is of the highest order. The female has sometimes to be taken off the nest, and even to be held in the hand, before the eggs can be examined.
Our American goldfinch is one of the loveliest of birds. With his elegant plumage, his rhythmical, undulatory flight, his beautiful song, and his more beautiful soul, he ought to be one of the best beloved, if not one of the most famous; but he has never yet had half his deserts. He is like the chickadee, and yet different. He is not so extremely confiding, nor should I call him merry. But he is always cheerful, in spite of his so-called plaintive note, from which he gets one of his names, and always amiable. So far as I know, he never utters a harsh sound; even the young ones, asking for food, use only smooth, musical tones. During the pairing season his delight often becomes rapturous. To see him then, hovering and singing, — or, better still, to see the devoted pair hovering together, billing and singing, — is enough to do even a cynic good.
The happy lovers! They have never read it in a book, but it is written on their hearts, —
“The gentle law, that each should be
The other’s heaven and harmony.”
The goldfinch bas the advantage of the titmouse in several respects, but he lacks that sprightliness, that exceeding light-heartedness, which is the chickadee’s most endearing characteristic.
For the sake of a strong contrast, we may look next at the brown thrush, known to farmers as the planting-bird and to ornithologists as Harporhynchus rufus; a staid and solemn Puritan, whose creed is the Preacher’s, — “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” No frivolity and merry-making for him! After his brief annual period of intensely passionate song, he does penance for the remainder of the year, — skulking about, on the ground or near it, silent and gloomy. He seems ever on the watch against an enemy, and, unfortunately for his comfort, he has nothing of the reckless, bandit spirit, such as the jay possesses, which goes to make a moderate degree of danger almost a pastime. Not that he is without courage; when his nest is in question he will take great risks; but in general his manner is dispirited, “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Evidently he feels
“The heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world;”
and it would not be surprising if he sometimes raised the question, “Is life worth living?” It is the worst feature of his case that his melancholy is not of the sort which softens and refines the nature. There is no suggestion of saintliness about it. In fact, I am convinced that this long-tailed thrush has a constitutional taint of vulgarity. His stealthy, underhand manner is one mark of this, and the same thing comes out again in his music. Full of passion as his singing is (and we have hardly anything to compare with it in this regard), yet the listener cannot help smiling now and then; the very finest passage is followed so suddenly by some uncouth guttural note, or by some whimsical drop from the top to the bottom of the scale.
In neighborly association with the brown thrush is the towhee bunting, or chewink. The two choose the same places for their summer homes, and, unless I am deceived, they often migrate in company. But though they are so much together, and in certain of their ways very much alike, their habits of mind are widely dissimilar. The towhee is of a peculiarly even disposition. I have seldom heard him scold, or use any note less good-natured and musical than his pleasant cherawink. I have never detected him in a quarrel such as nearly all birds are once in a while guilty of, ungracious as it may seem to mention the fact; nor have I ever seen him hopping nervously about and twitching his tail, as is the manner of most species, when, for instance, their nests are approached. Nothing seems to annoy him. At the same time, he is not full of continual merriment like the chickadee, nor occasionally in a rapture like the goldfinch. Life with him is pitched in a low key; comfortable rather than cheerful, and never jubilant. And yet, for all the towhee’s careless demeanor, you soon begin to suspect him of being deep. He appears not to mind you; he keeps on scratching among the dry leaves as if he had no thought of being driven away by your presence; but in a minute or two you look that way again, and he is not there. If you pass near his nest, he makes not a tenth part of the ado which a brown thrush would make in the same circumstances, but (partly for this reason) you will find half a dozen nests of the thrush sooner than one of his. With all his simplicity and frankness, which puts him in happy contrast with the thrush, he knows as well as anybody how to keep his own counsel. I have seen him with his mate for two or three days together about the flower-beds in the Boston Public Garden, and so far as appeared they were feeding as unconcernedly as though they had been on their own native heath, amid the scrub-oaks and huckleberry bushes; but after their departure it was remembered that they had not once been heard to utter a sound. If self-possession be four fifths of good manners, our red-eyed Pipilo may certainly pass for a gentleman.
We have now named four birds, the chickadee, the goldfinch, the brown thrush, and the towhee, — birds so diverse in plumage that no eye could fail to discriminate them at a glance. But the four differ no more truly in bodily shape and dress than they do in that inscrutable something which we call temperament, disposition. If the soul of each were separated from the body and made to stand out in sight, those of us who have really known the birds in the flesh would have no difficulty in saying, This is the titmouse, and this the towhee. It would be with them as we hope it will be with our friends in the next world, whom we shall recognize there because we knew them here; that is, we knew them, and not merely the bodies they lived in. This kind of familiarity with birds has no necessary connection with ornithology. Personal intimacy and a knowledge of anatomy are still two different things. As we have all heard, ours is an age of science; but, thank fortune, matters have not yet gone so far that a man must take a course in anthropology before he can love his neighbor.
It is a truth only too patent that taste and conscience are sometimes at odds. One man wears his faults so gracefully that we can hardly help falling in love with them, while another, alas, makes even virtue itself repulsive. I am moved to this commonplace reflection by thinking of the blue jay, a bird of doubtful character, but one for whom, nevertheless, it is impossible not to feel a sort of affection and even of respect. He is quite as suspicious as the brown thrush, and his instinct for an invisible perch is perhaps as unerring as the cuckoo’s; and yet, even when he takes to hiding, his manner is not without a dash of boldness. He has a most irascible temper, also, but, unlike the thrasher, he does not allow his ill-humor to degenerate into chronic sulkiness. Instead, he flies into a furious passion, and is done with it. Some say that on such occasions he swears, and I have myself seen him when it was plain that nothing except a natural impossibility kept him from tearing his hair. His larynx would make him a singer, and his mental capacity is far above the average; but he has perverted his gifts, till his music is nothing but noise and his talent nothing but smartness. A like process of depravation the world has before now witnessed in political life, when a man of brilliant natural endowments has yielded to low ambitions and stooped to unworthy means, till what was meant to be a statesman turns out to be a demagogue. But perhaps we wrong our handsome friend, fallen angel though he be, to speak thus of him. Most likely he would resent the comparison, and I do not press it. We must admit that juvenile sportsmen have persecuted him unduly; and when a creature cannot show himself without being shot at, he may be pardoned for a little misanthropy. Christians as we are, how many of us could stand such a test? In these circumstances, it is a point in the jay’s favor that he still has, what is rare with birds, a sense of humor, albeit it is humor of a rather grim sort, — the sort which expends itself in practical jokes and uncivil epithets. He has discovered the school-boy’s secret: that for the expression of unadulterated derision there is nothing like the short sound of a, prolonged into a drawl. Yăh, yăh, he cries; and sometimes, as you enter the woods, you may hear him shouting so as to be heard for half a mile, “Here comes a fool with a gun; look out for him!”
It is natural to think of the shrike in connection with the jay, but the two have points of unlikeness no less than of resemblance. The shrike is a taciturn bird. If he were a politician, he would rely chiefly on what is known as the “still hunt,” although he too can scream loudly enough on occasion. His most salient trait is his impudence, but even that is of a negative type. “Who are you,” he says, “that I should be at the trouble to insult you?” He has made a study of the value of silence as an indication of contempt, and is almost human in his ability to stare straight by a person whose presence it suits him to ignore. His imperturbability is wonderful. Watch him as closely as you please, you will never discover what he is thinking about. Undertake, for instance, now that the fellow is singing from the top of a small tree only a few rods from where you are standing, — undertake to settle the* long dispute whether his notes are designed to decoy small birds within his reach. Those whistles and twitters, — hear them! So miscellaneous! so different from anything which would be expected from a bird of his size and general disposition! so very like the notes of sparrows! They must be imitative. You begin to feel quite sure of it. But just at this point the sounds cease, and you look up to discover that Collurio has fallen to preening his feathers in the most listless manner imaginable. “Look at me,” he says; “do I act like one on the watch for his prey? Indeed, sir, I wish the innocent sparrows no harm; and besides, if you must know it, I ate an excellent game-breakfast two hours ago, while laggards like you were still abed.” In the winter, which is the only season when I have been able to observe him, the shrike is to the last degree unsocial, and I have known him to stay for a month in one spot all by himself, spending a good part of every day perched upon a telegraph wire. He ought not to be very happy, with such a disposition, one would think; but he seems to be well contented, and sometimes his spirits are fairly exuberant. Perhaps, as the phrase is, he enjoys himself; in which case he certainly has the advantage of most of us, — unless, indeed, we are easily pleased. At any rate, he is philosopher enough to appreciate the value of having few wants; and I am not sure but that he anticipated the vaunted discovery of Teufelsdröckh, that the fraction of life may be increased by lessening the denominator. But even the stoical shrike is not without his epicurean weakness. When he has killed a sparrow, he eats the brains first; after that, if he is still hungry, he devours the coarser and less savory parts. In this, however, he only shares the well-nigh universal inconsistency. There are never many thorough-going stoics in the world. Epictetus declared with an oath that he should be glad to see one.1 To take everything as equally good, to know no difference between bitter and sweet, penury and plenty, slander and praise, — this is a great attainment, a Nirvana to which few can hope to arrive. Some wise man has said (and the remark has more meaning than may at once appear) that dying is usually one of the last things which men do in this world.
Against the foil of the butcher-bird’s stolidity we may set the inquisitive, garrulous temperament of the white-eyed vireo and the yellow-breasted chat. The vireo is hardly larger than the goldfinch, but let him be in one of his conversational moods, and he will fill a smilax thicket with noise enough for two or three catbirds. Meanwhile he keeps his eye upon you, and seems to be inviting your attention to his loquacious abilities. The chat is perhaps even more voluble. Staccato whistles and snarls follow each other at most extraordinary intervals of pitch, and the attempt at showing off is sometimes unmistakable. Occasionally he takes to the air, and flies from one tree to another; teetering his body and jerking his tail, in an indescribable fashion, and chattering all the while. His “inner consciousness” at such a moment would be worth perusing. Possibly he has some feeling for the grotesque. But I suspect not; probably what we laugh at as the antics of a clown is all sober earnest to him.
At best, it is very little we can know about what is passing in a bird’s mind. We label him with two or three sesquipedalia verba, give his territorial range, describe his notes and his habits of nidification, and fancy we have rendered an account of the bird. But how should we like to be inventoried in such a style? “His name was John Smith; he lived in Boston, in a three-story brick house; he had a baritone voice, but was not a good singer.” All true enough; but do you call that a man’s biography?
The four birds last spoken of are all wanting in refinement. The jay and the shrike are wild and rough, not to say barbarous, while the white-eyed vireo and the chat have the character which commonly goes by the name of oddity. All four are interesting for their strong individuality and their picturesqueness, but it is a pleasure to turn from them to creatures like our four common New England Hylocichlæ, or small thrushes. These are the real patricians. With their modest but rich dress, and their dignified, quiet demeanor, they stand for the true aristocratic spirit. Like all genuine aristocrats, they carry an air of distinction, of which no one who approaches them can long remain unconscious. When you go into their haunts they do not appear so much frightened as offended. “Why do you intrude?” they seem to say; “these are our woods;” and they bow you out with all ceremony. Their songs are in keeping with this character; leisurely, unambitious, and brief, but in beauty of voice and in high musical quality excelling all other music of the woods. However, I would not exaggerate, and I have not found even these thrushes perfect. The hermit, who is my favorite of the four, has a habit of slowly raising and depressing his tail when his mind is disturbed — a trick of which it is likely he is unconscious, but which, to say the least, is not a mark of good breeding; and the Wilson, while every note of his song breathes of spirituality, has nevertheless a most vulgar alarm call, a petulant, nasal, one-syllabled yeork. I do not know anything so grave against the wood thrush or the Swainson; although when I have fooled the former with decoy whistles, I have found him more inquisitive than seemed altogether becoming to a bird of his quality. But character without flaw is hardly to be insisted on by sons of Adam, and, after all deductions are made, the claim of the Hylocichlæ to noble blood can never be seriously disputed. I have spoken of the four together, but each is clearly distinguished from all the others; and this I believe to be as true of mental traits as it is of details of plumage and song. No doubt, in general, they are much alike; we may say that they have the same qualities; but a close acquaintance will reveal that the qualities have been mixed in different proportions, so that the total result in each case is a personality strictly unique.
And what is true of the Hylocichlæ is true of every bird that flies. Anatomy and dress and even voice aside, who does not feel the dissimilarity between the cat-bird and the robin, and still more the difference, amounting to contrast, between the cat-bird and the bluebird? Distinctions of color and form are what first strike the eye, but on better acquaintance these are felt to be superficial and comparatively unimportant; the difference is not one of outside appearance. It is his gentle, high-bred manner and not his azure coat, which makes the bluebird; and the cat-bird would be a cat-bird in no matter what garb, so long as he retained his obtrusive self-consciousness and his prying, busy-body spirit; all of which, being interpreted, comes, it may be, to no more than this, “Fine feathers don’t make fine birds.”
Even in families containing many closely allied species, I believe that every species has its own proper character, which sufficient intercourse would enable us to make a due report of. Nobody ever saw a song-sparrow manifesting the spirit of a chipper, and I trust it will not be in my day that any of our American sparrows are found emulating the virtues of their obstreperous immigrant cousin. Of course it is true of birds, as of men, that some have much more individuality than others. But know any bird or any man well enough, and he will prove to be himself, and nobody else. To know the ten thousand birds of the world well enough to see how, in bodily structure, habit of life, and mental characteristics, every one is different from every other is the long and delightful task which is set before the ornithologist.
1 This does not harmonize exactly with a statement which Emerson makes somewhere, to the effect that all the stoics were stoics indeed. But Epictetus had never lived in Concord.