Here to return to
AMONG those of us who are in the habit of attending to bird-songs, there can hardly be anybody, I think, who has not found himself specially and permanently attracted by the music of certain birds who have little or no general reputation. Our favoritism may perhaps be the result of early associations: we heard the singer first in some uncommonly romantic spot, or when we were in a mood of unusual sensibility; and, in greater or less degree, the charm of that hour is always renewed for us with the repetition of the song. Or it may be (who will assert the contrary?) that there is some occult relation between the bird’s mind and our own. Or, once more, something may be due to the natural pleasure which amiable people take (and all lovers of birds may be supposed, a priori, to belong to that class) in paying peculiar honor to merit which the world at large, less discriminating than they, has thus far failed to recognize, and in which, therefore, as by “right of discovery,” they have a sort of proprietary interest. This, at least, is evident: our preference is not determined altogether by the intrinsic worth of the song; the mind is active, not passive, and gives to the music something from itself, — “the consecration and the poet’s dream.”
Furthermore, it is to be said that a singer — and a bird no less than a man — may be wanting in that fullness and scope of voice and that large measure of technical skill which are absolutely essential to the great artist, properly so called, and yet, within his own limitations, may be competent to please even the most fastidious ear. It is with birds as with other poets: the smaller gift need not be the less genuine; and they whom the world calls greatest, and whom we ourselves most admire, may possibly not be the ones who touch us most intimately, or to whom we return often est and with most delight.
This may be well illustrated by a comparison of the chickadee with the brown thrush. The thrush, or, as he is sometimes profanely styled, the thrasher, is the most pretentious, perhaps I ought to say the greatest, of New England songsters, if we rule out the mocking-bird, who is so very rare with us as scarcely to come into the competition; and still, in my opinion, his singing seldom produces the effect of really fine music. With all his ability, which is nothing short of marvelous, his taste is so deplorably uncertain, and his passion so often becomes a downright frenzy, that the excited listener, hardly knowing what to think, laughs and shouts Bravo! by turns. Something must be amiss, certainly, when the deepest feelings of the heart are poured forth in a manner to suggest the performance of a buffo. The chickadee, on the other hand, seldom gets mention as a singer. Probably he never looked upon himself as such. You will not find him posing at the top of a tree, challenging the world to listen and admire. But, as he hops from twig to twig in quest of insects’ eggs and other dainties, his merry spirits are all the time bubbling over in little chirps and twitters, with now and then a Chickadee, dee, or a Hear, hear me, every least syllable of which is like “the very sound of happy thoughts.” For my part, I rate such trifles with the best of all good music, and feel that we cannot be grateful enough to the brave tit, who furnishes us with them for the twelve months of every year.
So far as the chickadee is concerned, I see nothing whatever to wish different; but am glad to believe that, for my day and long after, he will remain the same unassuming, careless-hearted creature that he now is. If I may be allowed the paradox, it would be too bad for him to change, even for the better. But the bluebird, who like the titmouse is hardly to be accounted a musician, does seem to be somewhat blameworthy. Once in a while, it is true, he takes a perch and sings; but for the most part he is contented with a few simple notes, having no semblance of a tune. Possibly he holds that his pure contralto voice (I do not remember ever to have heard from him any note of a soprano, or even of a mezzo-soprano quality) ought by itself to be a sufficient distinction; but I think it likelier that his slight attempt at music is only one manifestation of the habitual reserve which, more than anything else per. haps, may be said to characterize him. How differently he and the robin impress us in this particular! Both take up their abode in our door-yards and orchards; the bluebird goes so far, indeed, as to accept our hospitality outright, building his nest in boxes put up for his accommodation, and making the roofs of our houses his favorite perching stations. But, while the robin is noisily and jauntily familiar, the bluebird maintains a dignified aloofness; coming and going about the premises, but keeping his thoughts to himself, and never becoming one of us save by the mere accident of local proximity. The robin, again, loves to travel in urge flocks, when household duties are over for the season but although the same has been reported of the bluebird, I have never myself seen such a thing, and am satisfied that, as a rule, this gentle spirit finds a family party of six or seven company enough. His reticence, as we cheerfully admit, is nothing to quarrel with; it is all well-bred, and not in the least unkindly; in fact, we like it, on the whole, rather better than the robin’s pertness and garrulity; but, none the less, its natural consequence is that the bird has small concern for musical display. When he sings, it is not to gain applause, but to express his affection; and while, in one aspect of the case, there is nothing out of the way in this, — since his affection need not be the less deep and true because it is told in few words and with unadorned phrase, — yet, as I said to begin with, it is hard not to feel that the world is being defrauded, when for any reason, however amiable, the possessor of such a matchless voice has no ambition to make the most of it.
It is always a double pleasure to find a plodding, humdrum-seeming man with a poet’s heart in his breast; and a little of the same delighted surprise is felt by every one, I imagine, when he learns for the first time that our little brown creeper is a singer. What life could possibly be more prosaic than his? Day after day, year in and out, he creeps up one tree-trunk after another, pausing only to peer right and left into the crevices of the bark, in search of microscopic tidbits. A most irksome sameness, surely! How the poor fellow must envy the swallows, who live on the wing, and, as it were, have their home in heaven! So it is easy for us to think; but I doubt whether the creeper himself is troubled with such suggestions. He seems, to say the least, as well contented as the most of us; and, what is more, I am inclined to doubt whether any except “free moral agents,” like ourselves, are ever wicked enough to find fault with the orderings of Divine Providence. I fancy, too, that we may have exaggerated the monotony of the creeper’s lot. It can scarcely be that even his days are without their occasional pleasurable excitements. After a good many trees which yield little or nothing for his pains, he must now and then light upon one which is like Canaan after the wilderness, — “a land flowing with milk, and honey.” Indeed, the longer I think of it the more confident I feel that every aged creeper must have had sundry experiences of this sort, which he is never weary of recounting for the edification of his nephews and nieces, who, of course, are far too young to have anything like the wide knowledge of the world which their venerable three-years-old uncle possesses. Certhia works all day for his daily bread; and yet even of him it is true that “the life is more than meat.” He has his inward joys, his affectionate delights, which no outward infelicity can touch. A bird who thinks nothing of staying by his nest and his mate at the sacrifice of his life is not to be written down a dullard or a drudge, merely because his dress is plain and his occupation unromantic. He has a right to sing, for he has something within him to inspire the strain.
There are descriptions of the creeper’s music which liken it to a wren’s. I am sorry that I have myself heard it only on one occasion: then, however, so far was it from being wren-like that it might rather have been the work of one of the less proficient warblers, — a somewhat long opening note followed by a hurried series of shorter ones, the whole given in a sharp, thin voice, and having nothing to recommend it to notice, considered simply as music. All the while the bird kept on industriously with his journey up the tree; and it is not in the least unlikely that he may have another and better song, which he reserves for times of more leisure.1
Our American wood-warblers are all to be classed among the minor songsters; standing in this respect in strong contrast with the true Old World warblers, of whose musical capacity enough, perhaps, is said when it is mentioned that the nightingale is one of them. But, comparisons apart, our birds are by no means to be despised, and not a few of their songs have a good degree of merit. That of the well-known summer yellow-bird may be taken as fairly representative of the entire group, being neither one of the best nor one of the poorest. He, I have noticed, is given to singing late in the day. Three of the New England species have at the same time remarkably rough voices and black throats, — I mean the black-throated blue, the black-throated green, and the blue golden-wing, — and seeing that the first two are of the genus Dendroeca, while the last is a Helminthophaga, I have allowed myself to query (half in earnest) whether they may not, possibly, be more nearly related than the systematists have yet discovered. Several of the warbler songs are extremely odd. The blue yellow-back’s, for example, is a brief, hoarse, upward run, — a kind of scale exercise; and if the practice of such things be really as beneficial as music teachers affirm, it would seem that this little beauty must in time become a vocalist of the first order. Nearly the same might be said of the prairie warbler; but his étude is a little longer and less hurried, besides being in a higher key. I do not call to mind any bird who sings a downward scale. Having before spoken of the tendency of warblers to learn two or even three set tunes, I was the more interested when, last summer, I added another to my list of the species which aspire to this kind of liberal education. It was on the side of Mount Clinton that I heard two Blackburnians, both in full sight and within a few rods of each other, who were singing two entirely distinct songs. One of these — it is the common one, I think — ended quaintly with three or four short notes, like zip, zip, zip; while the other was not unlike a fraction of the winter wren’s melody. Those who are familiar with the latter bird will perhaps recognize the phrase referred to if I call it the willie, willie, winkie, —with a triple accent on the first syllable of the last word. Most of the songs of this family are rather slight, but the extremest case known to me is that of the black-poll (Dendroeca striata), whose zee, zee, zee is almost ridiculously faint. You may hear it continually in the higher spruce forests of the White Mountains; but you will look a good many times before you discover its author, and not improbably will begin by taking it for the call of the kinglet. The music of the bay-breasted warbler is similar to the black-poll’s, but hardly so weak and formless. It seems reasonable to believe not only that these two species are descended from a common ancestry, but that the divergence is of a comparatively recent date: even now the young of the year can be distinguished only with great difficulty, although the birds in full feather are clearly enough marked.
Warblers’ songs are often made up of two distinct portions: one given deliberately, the other hurriedly and with a concluding flourish. Indeed, the same may be said of bird-songs generally, -- those of the song sparrow, the bay-winged bunting, and the wood thrush being familiar examples. Yet there are many singers who attempt no climax of this sort, but make their music to consist of two, or three, or more parts, all alike. The Maryland yellow-throat, for instance, cries out over and over, “What a pity, what a pity, what a pity!” So, at least, he seems to say; though, I confess, it is more than likely I mistake the words, since the fellow never appears to be feeling badly, but, on the contrary, delivers his message with an air of cordial satisfaction. The song of the pine-creeping warbler is after still another fashion, — one simple short trill. It is musical and sweet; the more so for coming almost always out of a pine-tree.
The vireos, or greenlets, are akin to the warblers in appearance and habits, and like them are peculiar to the western continent. We have no birds that are more unsparing of their music (prodigality is one of the American virtues, we are told): they sing from morning till night, and — some of them, at least — continue thus till the very end of the season. It is worth mentioning, however, that the red-eye makes a short day; becoming silent just at the time when the generality of birds grow most noisy. Probably the same is true of the rest of the family, but on that point I am not prepared to speak with positiveness. Of the five New England species (I omit the brotherly-love greenlet, never having been fortunate enough to know him) the white-eye is decidedly the most ambitious, the warbling and the solitary are the most pleasing, while the red-eye and the yellow-throat are very much alike, and both of them rather too monotonous and persistent. It is hard, sometimes, not to get out of patience with the red-eye’s ceaseless and noisy iteration of his trite theme; especially if you are doing your utmost to catch the notes of some rarer and more refined songster. In my note-book I find an entry describing my vain attempts to enjoy the music of a rose-breasted grosbeak, —who at that time had never been a common bird with me, — while “a pesky Wagnerian red-eye kept up an incessant racket.”
The warbling vireo is admirably named; there is no one of our birds that can more properly be said to warble. He keeps further from the ground than the others, and shows a strong preference for the elms of village streets, out of which his delicious music drops upon the ears of all passers underneath. How many of them hear it and thank the singer is unhappily another question.
The solitary vireo may once in a while be heard in a roadside tree, chanting as familiarly as any red-eye; but he is much less abundant than the latter, and, as a rule, more retiring. His ordinary song is like the red-eye’s and the yellow-throat’s, except that it is pitched somewhat higher and has a peculiar inflection or cadence, which on sufficient acquaintance becomes quite unmistakable. This, however, is only the smallest part of his musical gift. One morning in May, while strolling through a piece of thick woods, I came upon a bird of this species, who, all alone like myself, was hopping from one low branch to another, and every now and then breaking out into a kind of soliloquizing song, — a musical chatter, shifting suddenly to an intricate, low-voiced warble. Later in the same day I found another in a chestnut grove. This last was in a state of quite unwonted fervor, and sang almost continuously; now in the usual disconnected vireo manner, and now with a chatter and warble like what I had heard in the morning, but louder and longer. His best efforts ended abruptly with the ordinary vireo call, and the instantaneous change of voice gave to the whole a very strange effect. The chatter and warble appeared to be related to each other precisely as are those of the ruby-crowned kinglet; while the warble had a certain tender, affectionate, some would say plaintive quality, which at once put me in mind of the goldfinch.
I have seldom been more charmed with the song of any bird than I was on the 7th of last October with that of this same Vireo solitarius. The morning was bright and warm, but the birds had nearly all taken their departure, and the few that remained were silent. Suddenly the stillness was broken by a vireo note, and I said to myself with surprise, A red-eye? Listening again, however, I detected the solitary’s inflection; and after a few moments the bird, in the most obliging manner, came directly towards me, and began to warble in the fashion already described. He sang and sang, — as if his song could have no ending, — and meanwhile was flitting from tree to tree, intent upon his breakfast. As far as I could discover, he was without company; and his music, too, seemed to be nothing more than an unpremeditated, half-unconscious talking to himself. Wonderfully sweet it was, and full of the happiest content. “I listened till I had my fill,” and returned the favor, as best I could, by hoping that the little wayfarer’s lightsome mood would not fail him, all the way to Guatemala and back again.
Exactly a month before this, and not far from the same spot, I had stood for some minutes to enjoy the recital “of the solitary’s saucy cousin, the white-eye. Even at that time, although the woods were swarming with birds, — many of them travelers from the North, — this white-eye was nearly the only one still in song. He, however, was fairly brimming over with music; changing his tune again and again, and introducing (for the first time in Weymouth, as concert programmes say) a notably fine shake. Like the solitary, he was all the while busily feeding (birds in general, and vireos in particular, hold with Mrs. Browning that we may “prove our work the better for the sweetness of our song”), and one while was exploring a poison-dogwood bush, plainly without the slightest fear of any ill-result. It occurred to me that possibly it is our fault, and not that of Rhus venenata, when we suffer from the touch of that graceful shrub.
The white-eyed greenlet is a vocalist of such extraordinary versatility and power that one feels almost guilty in speaking of him under the title which stands at the head of this paper. How he would scold, out-carlyling Carlyle, if he knew what were going on? Nevertheless I cannot rank him with the great singers, exceptionally clever and original as, beyond all dispute, he is; and for that matter, I look upon the solitary as very much his superior, in spite of —or, shall I say, because of? —the latter’s greater simplicity and reserve.
But if we hesitate thus about these two inconspicuous vireos, whom half of those who do them the honor to read what is here said about them will have never seen, how are we to deal with the scarlet tanager? Our handsomest bird, and with musical aspirations as well, shall we put him into the second class? It must be so, I fear: yet such justice is a trial to the flesh; for what critic could ever quite leave out of account the beauty of a prima donna in passing judgment on her work? Does not her angelic face sing to his eye, as Emerson says?
Formerly I gave the tanager credit for only one song, — the one which suggests a robin laboring under an attack of hoarseness; but I have discovered that he himself regards his chip-cherr as of equal value. At least, I have found him perched at the tip of a tall pine, and repeating this inconsiderable and not very melodious trochee with all earnestness and perseverance. Sometimes he rehearses it thus at nightfall; but even so I cannot call it highly artistic. I am glad to believe, however, that he does not care in the least for my opinion. Why should he? He is too true a gallant to mind what anybody else thinks, so long as one is pleased; and she, no doubt, tells him every day that he is the best singer in the grove. Beside his divine chip-cherr the rhapsody of the wood thrush is a mere nothing, if she is to be the judge. Strange, indeed, that so shabbily dressed a creature as this thrush should have the presumption to attempt to sing at all! “But then,” she charitably adds, “perhaps he is not to blame; such things come by nature; and there are some birds, you know, who cannot tell the difference between noise and music.”
We trust that the tanager will improve as time goes on; but in any case we are largely in his debt. How we should miss him if he were gone, or even were become as rare as the summer red-bird and the cardinal are in our latitude! As it is, he lights up our Northern woods with a truly tropical splendor, the like of which no other of our birds can furnish. Let us hold him in hearty esteem, and pray that he may never be exterminated; no, not even to beautify the head-gear of our ladies, who, if they only knew it, are already sufficiently bewitching.
What shall we say now about the lesser lights of that most musical family, the finches? Of course the cardinal and rose-breasted grosbeaks are not to be included in any such category. Nor will I put there the goldfinch, the linnet, the fox-colored sparrow, and the song sparrow. These, if no more, shall stand among the immortals; so far, at any rate, as my suffrage counts. But who ever dreamed of calling the chipping sparrow a fine singer? And yet, who that knows it does not love his earnest, long-drawn trill, dry and tuneless as it is? I can speak for one, at all events; and he always has an ear open for it by the middle of April. It is the voice of a friend, — a friend so true and gentle and confiding that we do not care to ask whether his voice be smooth and his speech eloquent.
The chipper’s congener, the field sparrow, is less neighborly than he, but a much better musician. His song is simplicity itself; yet, even at its lowest estate, it never fails of being truly melodious, while by one means and another its wise little author contrives to impart to it a very considerable variety, albeit within pretty narrow limits. Last spring the field sparrows were singing constantly from the middle of April till about the 10th of May, when they became entirely dumb. Then, after a week in which I heard not a note, they again grew musical. I pondered not a little over their silence, but concluded that they were just then very much occupied with preparations for housekeeping.
The bird who is called indiscriminately the grass finch, the bay-winged bunting. the bay-winged sparrow, the vesper sparrow, and I know not what else (the ornithologists have nicknamed him Poœcetes gramineus), is a singer of good parts, but is especially to be commended for his refinement. In form his music is strikingly like the song sparrow’s; but the voice is not so loud and ringing, and the two or three opening notes are less sharply emphasized. In general the difference between the two songs may perhaps be well expressed by saying that the one is more declamatory, the other more cantabile; a difference exactly such as we might have expected, considering the nervous, impetuous disposition of the song sparrow and the placidity of the bay-wing.
As one of his titles indicates, the bay-wing is famous for singing in the evening, when, of course, his efforts are doubly acceptable; and I can readily believe that Mr. Minot is correct in his “impression” that he has once or twice heard the song in the night. For while spending a few days at a New Hampshire hotel, which was surrounded with fine lawns such as the grass finch delights in, I happened to be awake in the morning, long before sunrise, — when, in fact, it seemed like the dead of night, — and one or two of these sparrows were piping freely. The sweet and gentle strain had the whole mountain valley to itself. How beautiful it was, set in such a broad “margin of silence,” I must leave to be imagined. I noticed, moreover, that the birds sang almost incessantly the whole day through. Much of the time there were two singing antiphonally. Manifestly, the lines had fallen to them in pleasant places: at home for the summer in those luxuriant Sugar-Hill fields, in continual sight of yonder magnificent mountain panorama, with Lafayette himself looming grandly, in the foreground; while they, innocent souls, had never so much as heard of hotel-keepers and their bills. “Happy commoners,” indeed! Their “songs in the night” seemed nowise surprising. I fancied that I could be happy myself in such a case.
Our familiar and ever-welcome snow-bird, known in some quarters as the black chipping. bird, and often called the black snow-bird, has a long trill, not altogether unlike the common chipper’s, but in a much higher key. It is a modest lay, yet doubtless full of meaning; for the singer takes to the very tip of a tree, and throws his head back in the most approved style. He does his best, at any rate, and so far ranks with the angels; while, if my testimony can be of any service to him, I am glad to say (‘t is too bad the praise is so equivocal) that I have heard many human singers who gave me less pleasure; and further, that he took an indispensable though subordinate part in what was one of the most memorable concerts at which I was ever happy enough to be a listener. This was given some years ago in an old apple-orchard by a flock of fox-colored sparrows, who, perhaps for that occasion only, had the “valuable assistance” of a large choir of snow-birds. The latter were twittering in every tree, while to this goodly accompaniment the sparrows were singing their loud, clear, thrush-like song. The combination was felicitous in the extreme. I would go a long way to hear the like again.
If distinction cannot be attained by one means, who knows but that it may be by another? It is denied us to be great? Very well, we can at least try the effect of a little originality. Something like this seems to be the philosophy of the indigo-bird; and he carries it out both in dress and in song. As we have said already, it is usual for birds to reserve the loudest and most taking parts of their music for the close, though it may be doubted whether they have any intelligent purpose in so doing. Indeed, the apprehension of a great general truth such as lies at the basis of this well-nigh universal habit, — the truth, namely, that everything depends upon the impression finally left on the hearer’s mind; that to end with some grand burst, or with some surprisingly lofty note, is the only, or to speak cautiously, the principal, requisite to a really great musical performance, — the intelligent grasp of such a truth as this, I say, seems to me to lie beyond the measure of a bird’s capacity in the present stage of his development. Be this as it may, however, it is noteworthy that the indigo-bird exactly reverses the common plan. He begins at his loudest and sprightliest, and then runs off into a diminuendo, which fades into silence almost imperceptibly. The strain will never be renowned for its beauty; but it is unique, and, further, is continued well into August. Moreover, — and this adds grace to the most ordinary song, — it is often let fall while the bird is on the wing.
This eccentric genius has taken possession of a certain hillside pasture, which, in another way, belongs to me also. Year after year he comes back and settles down upon it about the middle of May; and I have often been amused to see his mate — who is not permitted to wear a single blue feather — drop out of her nest in a barberry bush and go fluttering off, both wings dragging helplessly through the grass. I should pity her profoundly but that I am in no doubt her injuries will rapidly heal when once I am out of sight. Besides, I like to imagine her beatitude, as, five minutes afterward, she sits again upon the nest, with her heart’s treasures all safe underneath her. Many a time was a boy of my acquaintance comforted in some ache or pain with the words, “Never mind! ‘t will feel better when it gets well;” and so, sure enough, it always did. But what a wicked world this is, where nature teaches even a bird to play the deceiver!
On the same hillside is always to be found the chewink, — a creature whose dress and song are so unlike those of the rest of his tribe that the irreverent amateur is tempted to believe that, for once, the men of science have made a mistake. What has any finch to do with a call like cherawink, or with such a three-colored harlequin suit? But it is unsafe to judge according to the outward appearance, in ornithology as in other matters; and I have heard that it is only those who are foolish as well as ignorant who indulge in off-hand criticisms of wiser men’s conclusions. So let us call the towhee a finch, and say no more about it.
But whatever his lineage, it is plain that the chewink is not a bird to be governed very strictly by the traditions of the fathers. His usual song is characteristic and pretty, yet he is so far from being satisfied with it that he varies it continually and in many ways, some of them sadly puzzling to the student who is set upon telling all the birds by their voices. I remember well enough the morning I was inveigled through the wet grass of two pastures — and that just as I was shod for the city — by a wonderfully foreign note, which filled me with lively anticipations of a new bird, but which turned out to be the work of a most innocent-looking towhee. It was perhaps this same bird, or his brother, whom I one day heard throwing in between his customary cherawinks a profusion of staccato notes of widely varying pitch, together with little volleys of tinkling sounds such as his every-day song concludes with. This medley was not laughable, like the chat’s, which it suggested, but it had the same abrupt, fragmentary, and promiscuous character. All in all, it was what I never should have expected from this paragon of self-possession.
For self-control, as I have elsewhere said, is Pipilo’s strong point. One afternoon last summer a young friend and I found ourselves, as we suspected, near a chewink’s nest, and at once set out to see which of us should have the honor of the discovery. We searched diligently, but without avail, while the father-bird sat quietly in a tree, calling with all sweetness and with never a trace of anger or trepidation, cherawink, cherawink. Finally we gave over the hunt, and I began to console my companion and myself for our disappointment by shaking in the face of the bird a small tree which very conveniently leaned toward the one in which he was perched. By rather vigorous efforts I could make this pass back and forth within a few inches of his bill; but he utterly disdained to notice it, and kept on calling as before. While we were laughing at his impudence (his impudence!) the mother suddenly appeared, with an insect in her beak, and joined her voice to her husband’s. I was just declaring how cruel as well as useless it was for us to stay, when she ungratefully gave a ludicrous turn to what was intended for a very sage and considerate remark, by dropping almost at my feet, stepping upon the edge of her nest, and offering the morsel to one of her young.
We watched the little tableau admiringly (I had never seen a prettier show of nonchalance), and thanked our stars that we had been saved from an involuntary slaughter of the innocents while trampling all about the spot. The nest, which we had tried so hard to find, was in plain sight, concealed only by the perfect agreement of its color with that of the dead pine-branches in the midst of which it was placed. The shrewd birds had somehow learned— by experience, perhaps, like ourselves — that those who would escape disagreeable and perilous conspicuity must conform as closely as possible to the world around them.
According to my observation, the towhee is not much given to singing after July; but he keeps up his call, which is little less musical than his song, till his departure in late September. At that time of the year the birds collect together in their favorite haunts; and I remember my dog’s running into the edge of a roadside pasture among some cedar-trees, when there broke out such a chorus of cherawinks that I was instantly reminded of a swamp full of frogs in April.
After the tanager the Baltimore oriole (named for Lord Baltimore, whose colors he wears) is probably the most gorgeous, as he is certainly one of the best known, of New England birds. He has discovered that men, bad as they are, are less to be dreaded than hawks and weasels, and so, after making sure that his wife is not subject to sea-sickness, he swings his nest boldly from a swaying shade-tree branch, in full view of whoever may choose to look at it. Some morning in May — not far from the 10th — you will wake to hear him fifing in the elm before your window. He has come in the night, and is already making himself at home. Once I saw a pair who on the very first morning had begun to get together materials for a nest. His whistle is one of the clearest and loudest, but he makes little pretensions to music. I have been pleased and interested, however, to see how tuneful he becomes in August, after most other birds have ceased to sing, and after a long interval of silence on his own part. Early and late he pipes and chatters, as if he imagined that the spring were really coming back again forthwith. What the explanation of this lyrical revival may be I have never been able to gather; but the fact itself is very noticeable, so that it would not be amiss to call the “golden robin” the bird of August.
The oriole’s dusky relatives have the organs of song well developed; and although most of the species have altogether lost the art of music, there are none of them, even now, that do not betray more or less of the musical impulse. The red-winged blackbird, indeed, has some really praiseworthy notes; and to me — for personal reasons quite aside from any question about its lyrical value — his rough cucurree is one of the very pleasantest of sounds. For that matter, however, there is no one of our birds — be he, in technical language, “oscine” or “non-oscine” — whose voice is not, in its own way, agreeable. Except a few uncommonly superstitious people, who does not enjoy the whip-poor-will’s trisyllabic exhortation, and the yak of the nighthawk? Bob White’s weather predictions, also, have a wild charm all their own, albeit his persistent No more wet is often sadly out of accord with the farmer’s hopes. We have no more untuneful bird, surely, than the cow bunting; yet even the serenades of this shameless polygamist have one merit, — they are at least amusing. With what infinite labor he brings forth his forlorn, broken-winded whistle, while his tail twitches convulsively, as if tail and larynx were worked by the same spring!
1 Since this was written I have heard the creeper sing a tune very different from the one described above. See p. 227.