Here to return to
WINTER BIRDS ABOUT BOSTON.
A WEED has been defined as a plant the use of which is not yet discovered. If the definition be correct there are few weeds. For the researches of others beside human investigators must be taken into the account. What we complacently call the world below us is full of intelligence. Every animal has a lore of its own; not one of them but is — what the human scholar is more and more coming to be — a specialist. In these days the most eminent botanists are not ashamed to compare notes with the insects, since it turns out that these bits of animate wisdom long ago anticipated some of the latest improvements of our modern systematists.1 We may see the red squirrel eating, with real epicurean zest, mushrooms, the white and tender flesh of which we have ourselves looked at longingly, but have never dared to taste. How amused he would be (I fear he would even be rude enough to snicker) were you to caution him against poison! As if Sciurus Hudsonius didn’t know what he were about! Why should men be so provincial as to pronounce anything worthless merely because they can do nothing with it? The clover is not without value, although the robin and the oriole may agree to think so. We know better; and so do the rabbits and the humblebees. The wise respect their own quality wherever they see it, and are thankful for a good hint from no matter what quarter. Here is a worthy neighbor of mine whom I hear every summer complaining of the chicory plants which disfigure the roadside in front of her windows. She wishes they were exterminated, every one of them. And they are homely, there is no denying it, for all the beauty of their individual sky-blue flowers. No wonder a neat housewife finds them an eyesore. But I never pass the spot in August (I do not pass it at all after that) without seeing that hers is only one side of the story. My approach is sure to startle a few goldfinches (and they too are most estimable neighbors), to whom these scraggy herbs are quite as useful as my excellent lady’s apple-trees and pear-trees are to her. I watch them as they circle about in musical undulations, and then drop down again to finish their repast; and I perceive that, in spite of its unsightliness, the chicory is not a weed, — its use has been discovered.
In truth, the lover of birds soon ceases to feel the uncomeliness of plants of this sort; he even begins to have a peculiar and kindly interest in them. A piece of “waste ground,” as it is called, an untidy garden, a wayside thicket of golden-rods and asters, pig-weed and evening primrose, — these come to be almost as attractive a sight to him as a thrifty field of wheat is to an agriculturalist. Taking his cue from the finches, he separates plants into two grand divisions, — those that shed their seeds in the fall, and those that hold them through the winter. The latter, especially if they are of a height to overtop a heavy snow-fall, are friends in need to his clients; and he is certain to have marked a few places within the range of his every-day walks where, thanks to somebody’s shiftlessness, perhaps, they have been allowed to flourish.
It is not many years since there were several such winter gardens of the birds in Commonwealth Avenue, — vacant house-lots overgrown with tall weeds. Hither came flocks of goldfinches, red-poll linnets, and snow buntings; and thither I went to watch them. It happened, I remember, that the last two species, which are not to be met with in this region every season, were unusually abundant during the first or second year of my ornithological enthusiasm. Great was the delight with which I added them to the small but rapidly increasing list of my feathered acquaintances.
The red-polls and the goldfinches often travel together, or at least are often to be found feeding in company; and as they resemble each other a good deal in size, general appearance, and ways, the casual observer is very likely not to discriminate between them. Only the summer before the time of which I speak I had spent a vacation at Mount Wachusett; and a resident of Princeton, noticing my attention to the birds (a taste so peculiar is not easily concealed), had one day sought an interview with me to inquire whether the “yellow-bird” did not remain in Massachusetts through the winter. I explained that we had two birds which commonly went by that name, and asked whether he meant the one with a black forehead and black wings and tail. Yes, he said, that was the one. I assured him, of course, that this bird, the goldfinch, did stay with us all the year round, and that whoever had informed him to the contrary must have understood him to be speaking about the golden warbler. He expressed his gratification, but declared that he had really entertained no doubt of the fact himself; he had often seen the birds on the mountain when he had been cutting wood there in midwinter. At such times, he added, they were very tame, and would come about his feet to pick up crumbs while- he was eating his dinner. Then he went on to tell me that at that season of the year their plumage took on more or less of a reddish tinge: he had seen in the same flock some with no trace of red, others that were slightly touched with it, and others still of a really bright color. At this I had nothing to say, save that his red birds, whatever else they were, could not have been goldfinches. But next winter, when I saw the “yellow-birds” and the red-poll linnets feeding together in Commonwealth Avenue, I thought at once of my Wachusett friend. Here was the very scene he had so faithfully described, — some of the flock with no red at all, some with red crowns, and a few with bright carmine crowns and breasts. They remained all winter, and no doubt thought the farmers of Boston a very good and wise set, to cultivate the evening primrose so extensively. This plant, like the succory, is of an ungraceful aspect; yet it has sweet and beautiful blossoms, and as an herb bearing seed is in the front rank. I doubt whether we have any that surpass it, the birds being judges.
Many stories are told of the red-polls’ fearlessness and ready reconciliation to captivity, as well as of their constancy to each other. I have myself stood still in the midst of a flock, until they were feeding round my feet so closely that it looked easy enough to catch one or two of them with a butterfly net. Strange that creatures so gentle and seemingly so delicately organized should choose to live in the regions about the North Pole! Why should they prefer Labrador and Greenland, Iceland and Spitzbergen, to more southern countries? Why? Well, possibly for no worse a reason than this, that these are the lands of their fathers. Other birds, it may be, have grown discouraged, and one after another ceased to come back to their native shores as the rigors of the climate have increased; but these little patriots are still faithful. Spitzbergen is home, and every spring they make the long and dangerous passage to it. All praise to them!
If any be ready to call this an over-refinement, deeming it incredible that beings so small and lowly should come so near to human sentiment and virtue, let such not be too hasty with their dissent. Surely they may in reason wait till they can point to at least one country where the men are as universally faithful to their wives and children as the birds are to theirs.
The red-poll linnets, as I have said, are irregular visitors in this region; several years may pass, and not one be seen; but the goldfinch we have with us always. Easily recognized as he is, there are many well-educated New-Englanders, I fear, who do not know him, even by sight; yet when that distinguished ornithologist, the Duke of Argyll, comes to publish his impressions of this country, he avers that he has been hardly more interested in the “glories of Niagara” than in this same little yellow-bird, which he saw for the first time while looking from his hotel window at the great cataract. “A golden finch, indeed!” he exclaims. Such a tribute as this from the pen of a British nobleman ought to give Astragalinus tristis immediate entrance into the very best of American society.
It is common to say that the goldfinches wander about the country during the winter. Undoubtedly this is true in a measure; but I have seen things which lead me to suspect that the statement is sometimes made too sweeping.
Last winter, for example, a flock took up their quarters in a certain neglected piece of ground on the side of Beacon Street, close upon the boundary between Boston and Brookline, and remained there nearly or quite the whole season. Week after week I saw them in the same place, accompanied always by half a dozen tree sparrows. They had found a spot to their mind, with plenty of succory and evening primrose, and were wise enough not to forsake it for any uncertainty.
The goldfinch loses his bright feathers and canary-like song as the cold season approaches, but not even a New England winter can rob him of his sweet call and his cheerful spirits; and for one, I think him never more winsome than when he hangs in graceful attitudes above a snowbank, on a bleak January morning.
Glad as we are of the society of the goldfinches and the red-polls at this time of the year, we cannot easily rid ourselves of a degree of solicitude for their comfort; especially if we chance to come upon them after sunset on some bitterly cold day, and mark with what a nervous haste they snatch here and there a seed, making the utmost of the few remaining minutes of twilight. They will go to bed hungry and cold, we think, and were surely better off in a milder clime. But, if I am to judge from my own experience, the snow buntings awaken no such emotions. Arctic explorers by instinct, they come to us only with real arctic weather, and almost seem to be themselves a part of the snow-storm with which they arrive. No matter what they are doing: running along the street before an approaching sleigh; standing on a wayside fence; jumping up from the ground to snatch the stein of a weed, and then setting at work hurriedly to gather the seeds they have shaken down; or, best of all, skimming over the snow in close Order, their white breasts catching the sun as they veer this way or that, — whatever they may be doing, they are the most picturesque of all our cold-weather birds. In point of suspiciousness their behavior is very different at different times, as, for that matter, is true of birds generally. Seeing the flock alight in a low roadside lot, you steal silently to the edge of the sidewalk to look over upon them. There they are, sure enough, walking and running about, only a few rods distant. What lovely creatures, and how prettily they walk! But just as you are wishing, perhaps, that they were a little nearer, they begin to fly from right under your feet. You search the ground eagerly, right and left, but not a bird can you discover; and still they continue to start up, now here, now there, till you are ready to question whether, indeed, “eyes were made for seeing.” The “snow-flakes” wear protective colors, and, like most Other animals, are of opinion that, for such as lack the receipt of fern-seed, there is often nothing safer than to sit still. The worse the weather, the less timorous they are, for with them, as with wiser heads, one thought drives out another; and it is nothing uncommon, when times are hard, to see them stay quietly upon the fence while a sleigh goes past, or suffer a foot passenger to come again and again within a few yards.
It gives a lively touch to the imagination to overtake these beautiful strangers in the middle of Beacon Street; particularly if one has lately been reading about them in some narrative of Siberian travel. Coming from so far, associating in flocks, with costumes so becoming and yet so unusual, they might be expected to attract universal notice, and possibly to get into the newspapers. But there is a fashion even about seeing; and of a thousand persons who may take a Sunday promenade over the Milldam, while these tourists from the North Pole are there, it is doubtful whether a dozen are aware of their presence. Birds feeding in the street? Yes, yes; English sparrows, of course; we haven’t any other birds in Boston nowadays, you know.
With the pine grosbeaks the case is different. When a man sees a company of rather large birds about the evergreens in his door-yard, most of them of a neutral ashy-gray tint, but one or two in suits of rose-color, he is pretty certain to feel at least a momentary curiosity about them. Their slight advantage in size counts for something; for, without controversy, the bigger the bird the more worthy he is of notice. And then the bright color! The very best men are as yet but imperfectly civilized, and there must be comparatively few, even of Bostonians, in whom there is not some lingering susceptibility to the fascination of red feathers. Add to these things the fact that the grosbeaks are extremely confiding, and much more likely than the buntings to be seen from the windows of the house, and you have, perhaps, a sufficient explanation of the more general interest they excite. Like the snow buntings and the red-polls, they roam over the higher latitudes of Europe, Asia, and America, and make only irregular visits to our corner of the world.2
I cannot boast of any intimate acquaintance with them. I have never caught them in a net, or knocked them over with a club, as other per‑sons have done, although I have seen them when their tameness promised success to any such loving experiment. Indeed, it was several years before my lookout for them was rewarded. Then, one day, I saw a flock of about ten fly across Beacon Street, — on the edge of Brookline, — and alight in an apple-tree; at which I forthwith clambered over the picket-fence after them, heedless alike of the deep snow and the surprise of any steady-going citizen who might chance to witness my highhanded proceeding. Some of the birds were feeding upon the rotten apples; picking them off the tree, and taking them to one of the large main branches or to the ground, and there tearing them to pieces, — for the sake of the seeds, I suppose. The rest sat still, doing nothing. I was most impressed with the exceeding mildness and placidity of their demeanor; as if they had time enough, plenty to eat, and nothing to fear. Their only notes were in quality much like the goldfinch’s, and hardly louder, but without his characteristic inflection. I left the whole company seated idly in a maple-tree, where, to all appearance, they proposed to observe the remainder of the day as a Sabbath.
Last winter the grosbeaks were uncommonly abundant. I found a number of them within a few rods of the place just mentioned; this time in evergreen trees, and so near the road that I had no call to commit trespass. Evergreens are their usual resort, — so, at least, I gather from books, — but I have seen them picking up provender from a bare-looking last year’s garden. Natives of the inhospitable North, they have learned by long experience how to adapt themselves to circumstances. If one resource fails, there is always another to be tried. Let us hope that they even know how to show fight upon occasion.
The purple finch — a small copy of the pine grosbeak, as the indigo bird is of the blue grosbeak — is a summer rather than a winter bird with us; yet he sometimes passes the cold season in Eastern Massachusetts, and even in Northern New Hampshire. I have never heard him sing more gloriously than once when the ground was deep under the snow; a wonderfully sweet and protracted warble, poured out while the singer circled about in the air with a kind of half-hovering flight.
As I was walking briskly along a West End street, one cold morning in March, I heard a bird’s note close at hand, and, looking down, discovered a pair of these finches in a front yard. The male, in bright plumage, was flitting about his mate, calling anxiously, while she, poor thing, sat motionless upon the snow, too sick or too badly exhausted to fly. I stroked her feathers gently while she perched on my finger, and then resumed my walk; first putting her into a little more sheltered position on the sill of a cellar window, and promising to call on my way back, when, if she were no better, I would take her home with me, and give her a warm room and good nursing. When I returned, however, she was nowhere to be found. Her mate, I regret to say, both on his own account and for the sake of the story, had taken wing and disappeared the moment I entered the yard. Possibly he came back and encouraged her to fly off with him; or perhaps some cat made a Sunday breakfast of her. The truth will never be known; our vigilant city police take no cognizance of tragedies so humble.
For several years a few song sparrows — a pair or two, at least — have wintered in a piece of ground just beyond the junction of Beacon street and Brookline Avenue. I have grown accustomed to listen for their tseep as I go by the spot, and occasionally I catch sight of one of them perched upon a weed, or diving under the plank sidewalk. It would be a pleasure to know the history of the colony: how it started; whether the birds are the same year after year, as I suppose to be the case; and why this particular site was selected. The lot is small, with no woods or bushy thicket near, while it has buildings in one corner, and is bounded on its three sides by the streets and the railway; but it is full of a rank growth of weeds, especially a sturdy species of aster and the evergreen golden-rod, and I suspect that the plank walk, which on one side is raised some distance from the ground, is found serviceable for shelter in severe weather, as it is certainly made to take the place of shrubbery for purposes of concealment.
Fortunately, birds, even those of the same species, are not all exactly alike in their tastes and manner of life. So, while by far the greater part of our song sparrows leave us in the fall, there are always some who prefer to stay. They have strong local attachments, perhaps; or they dread the fatigue and peril of the journey; or they were once incapacitated for flight when their companions went away, and, having found a Northern winter not so unendurable as they had expected, have since done from choice what at first they did of necessity. Whatever their reasons, — and we cannot be presumed to have guessed half of them, — at all events a goodly number of song sparrows do winter in Massachusetts, where they open the musical season before the first of the migrants make their appearance. I doubt, however, whether many of them choose camping grounds so exposed and public as this in the rear of the “Half-way House.”
Our only cold-weather thrushes are the robins. They may be found any time in favorable situations; and even in so bleak a place as Boston Common I have seen them in every month of the year except February. This exception, moreover, is more apparent than real, — at the most a matter of but twenty-four hours, since I once saw four birds in a tree near the Frog Pond on the last day of January. The house sparrows were as much surprised as I was at the sight, and, with characteristic urbanity, gathered from far and near to sit in the same tree with the visitors, and stare at them.
We cannot help being grateful to the robins and the song sparrows, who give us their society at so great a cost; but their presence can scarcely be thought to enliven the season. At its best their bearing is only that of patient submission to the inevitable. They remind us of the summer gone and the summer coming, rather than brighten the winter that is now upon us; like friends who commiserate us in some affliction, but are not able to comfort us. How different the chickadee! In the worst weather his greeting is never of condolence, but of good cheer. He has no theory upon the subject, probably; he is no Shepherd of Salisbury Plain; but he knows better than to waste the exhilarating air of this wild and frosty day in reminiscences of summer time. It is a pretty-sounding couplet,
“Thou hast no sorrow in thy song,
No winter in thy year,” —
but rather incongruous, he would think. Chickadee, dee, he calls, — chickadee, dee; and though the words have no exact equivalent in English, their meaning is felt by all such as are worthy to hear them.
Are the smallest birds really the most courageous, or does an unconscious sympathy on our part inevitably give them odds in the comparison? Probably the latter supposition comes nearest the truth. When a sparrow chases a butcher-bird we cheer the sparrow, and then when a humming-bird puts to flight a sparrow, we cheer the humming-bird; we side with the kingbird against the crow, and with the vireo against the kingbird. It is a noble trait of human nature — though we are somewhat too ready to boast of it — that we like, as we say, to see the little fellow at the top. These remarks are made, not with any reference to the chickadee, — I admit no possibility of exaggeration in his case, — but as leading to a mention of the golden-crested kinglet. He is the least of all our winter birds, and one of the most engaging. Emerson’s “atom in full breath” and “scrap of valor” would apply to him even better than to the titmouse. He says little, — zee, zee, zee is nearly the limit of his vocabulary; but his lively demeanor and the grace and agility of his movements are in themselves an excellent language, speaking infallibly a contented mind. (It is a fact, on which I forbear to moralize, that birds seldom look unhappy except when they are idle.) His diminutive size attracts attention even from those who rarely notice such things. About the first of December, a year ago, I was told of a man who had shot a humming-bird only a few days before in the vicinity of Boston. Of course I expressed a polite surprise, and assured my informant that such a remarkable capture ought by all means to be put on record in “The Auk,” as every ornithologist in the land would be interested in it. On this he called upon the lucky sportsman’s brother, who happened to be standing by, to corroborate the story. Yes, the latter said, the fact was as had been stated. “But then,” he continued, “the bird didn’t have a long bill, like a humming-bird;” and when I suggested that perhaps its crown was yellow, bordered with black, he said, “Yes, yes; that’s the bird, exactly.” So easy are startling discoveries to an observer who has just the requisite amount of knowledge, — enough, and (especially) not too much!
The brown creeper is quite as industrious and good-humored as the kinglet, but he is less taking in his personal appearance and less romantic in his mode of life. The same may be said of our two black-and-white woodpeckers, the downy and the hairy; while their more showy but less hardy relative, the flicker, evidently feels the weather a burden. The creeper and these three woodpeckers are with us in limited numbers every winter; and in the season of 1881-82 we had an altogether unexpected visit from the red-headed woodpecker, — such a thing as had not been known for a long time, if ever. Where the birds came from, and what was the occasion of their journey, nobody could tell. They arrived early in the autumn, and went away, with the exception of a few stragglers, in the spring; and as far as I know have never been seen since. It is a great pity they did not like us well enough to come again; for they are wide-awake, entertaining creatures, and gorgeously attired. I used to watch them in the oak groves of some Longwood estates, but it was not till our second or third interview that I discovered them to be the authors of a mystery over which I bad been exercising my wits in vain, a tree-frog’s note in winter! One of their amusements was to drum on the tin girdles of the shade trees; and meanwhile they themselves afforded a pastime to the gray squirrels, who were often to be seen creeping stealthily after them, as if they imagined that Melanerpes erythrocephalus might possibly be caught, if only he were hunted long enough. I laughed at them; but, after all, their amusing hallucination was nothing but the sportsman’s instinct; and life would soon lose its charm for most of us, sportsmen or not, if we could no longer pursue the unattainable.
Probably my experience is not singular, but there are certain birds, well known to be more or less abundant in this neighborhood, which for some reason or other I have seldom, if ever, met. For example, of the multitude of pine finches which now and then overrun Eastern Massachusetts in winter I have never seen one, while on the other hand I was once lucky enough to come upon a few of the very much smaller number which pass the summer in Northern New Hampshire. This was in the White Mountain Notch, first on Mount Willard and then near the Crawford House, at which latter place they were feeding on the lawn and along the railway track as familiarly as the gold-finches.
The shore larks, too, are no doubt common near Boston for a part of every year; yet I found half a dozen five or six years ago in the marsh beside a Back Bay street, and have seen none since. One of these stood upon a pile of earth, singing to himself in an undertone, while the rest were feeding in the grass. Whether the singer was playing sentinel, and sounded an alarm, I was not sure, but all at once the flock started off, as if on a single pair of wings.
Birds which elude the observer in this manner year after year only render themselves all the more interesting. They are like other species with which we deem ourselves well acquainted, but which suddenly appear in some quite unlooked-for time or place. The long-expected and the unexpected have both an especial charm. I have elsewhere avowed my favoritism for the white-throated sparrow; but I was never more delighted to see him than on one Christmas afternoon. I was walking in a back road, not far from the city, when I descried a sparrow ahead of me, feeding in the path, and, coming nearer, recognized my friend the white-throat. He held his ground till the last moment (time was precious to him that short day), and then flew into a bush to let me pass, which I had no sooner done than he was back again; and on my return the same thing was repeated. Far and near the ground was white, but just at this place the snow-plough had scraped bare a few square feet of earth, and by great good fortune this solitary and hungry straggler had hit upon it. I wondered what he would do when the resources of this garden patch were exhausted, but consoled myself with thinking that by this time he must be well used to living by his wits, and would probably find a way to do so even in his present untoward circumstances.
The snow-birds (not to be confounded with the snow buntings) should have at least a mention in such a paper as this. They are among the most familiar and constant of our winter guests, although very much less numerous at that time than in spring and autumn, when the fields and lanes are fairly alive with them.
A kind word must be said for the shrike, also, who during the three coldest months is to be seen on the Common oftener than any other of our native birds. There, at all events, he is doing a good work. May he live to finish it!
The blue jay stands by us, of course. You will not go far without hearing his scream, and catching at least a distant view of his splendid coat, which he is too consistent a dandy to put off for one of a duller shade, let the season shift as it will. He is not always good-natured; but none the less he is generally in good spirits (he seems to enjoy his bad temper), and, all in all, is not to be lightly esteemed in a time when bright feathers are scarce.
1 See a letter by Dr. Fritz Müller, “Butterflies as Botanists:” Nature, vol. xxx. p. 240. Of similar import is the case, cited by Dr. Asa Gray (in the American Journal of Science, November, 1884, p. 325), of two species of plantain found in this country, which students have only of late discriminated, although it turns out that the cows have all along known them apart, eating one and declining the other, — the bovine taste being more exact, it would seem, or at any rate more prompt, than the botanist’s lens.
2 Unlike the snow bunting and the red-poll, however, the pine grosbeak is believed to breed sparingly in Northern New England.