Here to return to
A BIRD-LOVER’S APRIL.
IT began on the 29th of March; in the afternoon of which day, despite the authority of the almanac and the banter of my acquaintances (March was March to them, and it was nothing more), I shook off the city’s dust from my feet, and went into summer quarters. The roads were comparatively dry; the snow was entirely gone, except a patch or two in the shadow of thick pines under the northerly side of a hill; and all tokens seemed to promise an early spring. So much I learned before the hastening twilight cut short my first brief turn out-of-doors. In the morning would be time enough to discover what birds had already reported themselves at my station.
Unknown to me, however, our national weather bureau had announced a snow-storm, and in the morning I drew aside the curtains to look out upon a world all in white, with a cold, high wind blowing and snow falling fast. “The worst Sunday of the winter,” the natives said. The “summer boarder” went to church, of course. To have done otherwise might have been taken for a confession of weakness; as if inclemency of this sort were more than he had bargained for. The villagers, lacking any such spur to right conduct, for the most part stayed at home; feeling it not unpleasant, I dare say, some of them, to have a natural inclination providentially confirmed, even at the cost of an hour’s exercise with the shovel. The bravest parishioner of all, and the sweetest singer, — the song sparrow by name, — was not in the meeting-house, but by the roadside. What if the wind did blow, and the mercury stand at fifteen or twenty degrees below the freezing point? In cold as in heat “the mind is its own place.”
Three days after this came a second storm, one of the heaviest snow-falls of the year. The robins were reduced to picking up seeds in the asparagus bed. The bluebirds appeared to be trying to glean something from the bark of trees, clinging rather awkwardly to the trunk meanwhile. (They are given to this, more or less, at all times, and it possibly has some connection with their half-woodpeckerish habit of nestling in holes.) Some of the snow-birds were doing likewise; I noticed one traveling up a trunk, — which inclined a good deal, to be sure, — exploring the crannies right and left, like any creeper. Half a dozen or more phoebes were in the edge of a wood; and they too seemed to have found out that, if worst came to worst, the tree-boles would yield a pittance for their relief. They often hovered against them, pecking hastily at the bark, and one at least was struggling for a foothold on the perpendicular surface. Most of the time, however, they went skimming over the snow and the brook, in the regular flycatcher style. The chickadees were put to little or no inconvenience, since what was a desperate makeshift to the others was to them only an every-day affair. It would take a long storm to bury their granary.1 After the titmice, the fox-colored sparrows had perhaps the best of it. Looking out places where the snow had collected least, at the foot of a tree or on the edge of water, these adepts at scratching speedily turned up earth enough to checker the white with very considerable patches of brown. While walking I continually disturbed song sparrows, fox sparrows, tree sparrows, and snow-birds feeding in the road; and when I sat in my room I was advised of the approach of carriages by seeing these “pensioners upon the traveler’s track” scurry past the window in advance of them.
It is pleasant to observe how naturally birds flock together in hard times, — precisely as men do, and doubtless for similar reasons. The edge of the wood, just mentioned, was populous with them: robins, bluebirds, chickadees, fox sparrows, snow-birds, song sparrows, tree sparrows, phoebes, a golden-winged woodpecker, and a rusty blackbird. The last, noticeable for his conspicuous light-colored eye-ring, had somehow become separated from his fellows, and remained for several days about this spot entirely alone. I liked to watch his aquatic performances; they might almost have been those of the American dipper himself, I thought. He made nothing of putting his head and neck clean under water, like a duck, and sometimes waded the brook when the current was so strong that he was compelled every now and then to stop and brace himself against it, lest he should be carried off his feet.
It is clear that birds, sharing the frailty of some who are better than many sparrows, are often wanting in patience. As spring draws near they cannot wait for its coming. What it has been the fashion to call their unerring instinct is after all infallible only as a certain great public functionary is, — in theory; and their mistaken haste is too frequently nothing but a hurrying to their death. But I saw no evidence that this particular storm was attended with any fatal consequences. The snow completely disappeared within a day or two; and even while it lasted the song sparrows, fox sparrows, and linnets could be heard singing with all cheerfulness. On the coldest day, when the mercury settled to within twelve degrees of zero, I observed that the song sparrows, as they fed in the road, had a trick of crouching till their feathers all but touched the ground, so protecting their legs against the biting wind.
The first indications of mating were noticed on the 5th, the parties being two pairs of bluebirds. One of the females was rebuffing her suitor rather petulantly, but when he flew away she lost no time in following. Shall I be accused of slander if I suggest that possibly her No meant nothing worse than Ask me again? I trust not; she was only a bluebird, remember. Three days later I came upon two couples engaged in house-bunting. In this business the female takes the lead, with a silent, abstracted air, as if the matter were one of absorbing interest; while her mate follows her about somewhat impatiently, and with a good deal of talk, which is plainly intended to hasten the decision. “Come, come,” he says; “the season is short, and we can’t waste the whole of it in getting ready.” I never could discover that his eloquence produced much effect, however. Her ladyship will have her own way; as indeed she ought to have, good soul, considering that she is to have the discomfort and the hazard. In one case I was puzzled by the fact that there seemed to be two females to one of the opposite sex. It really looked as if the fellow proposed to set up housekeeping with whichever should first find a house to her mind. But this is slander, and I hasten to take it back. No doubt I misinterpreted his behavior; for it is true — with sorrow I confess it — that I am as yet but imperfectly at home in the Sialian dialect.
For the first fortnight my note-book is full of the fox-colored sparrows. It was worth while to have come into the country ahead of time, as city people reckon, to get my fill of this Northern songster’s music. Morning and night, wherever I walked, and even if I remained indoors, I was certain to hear the loud and beautiful strain; to which I listened with the more attention because the birds, I knew, would soon be off for their native fields, beyond the boundaries of the United States.
It is astonishing how gloriously birds may sing, and yet pass unregarded. We read of nightingales and skylarks with a self-satisfied thrill of second-hand enthusiasm, and meanwhile our native songsters, even the best of them, are piping unheeded at our very doors. There may have been half a dozen of the town’s people who noticed the presence of these fox sparrows, but I think it doubtful; and yet the birds, the largest, handsomest, and most musical of all our many sparrows, were, as I say, abundant everywhere, and in full voice.
One afternoon I stood still while a fox sparrow and a song sparrow sang alternately on either side of me, both exceptionally good vocalists, and each doing his best. The songs were of about equal length, and as far as theme was concerned were not a little alike; but the fox sparrow’s tone was both louder and more mellow than the other’s, while his notes were longer, — more sustained, — and his voice was “carried” from one pitch to another. On the whole, I had no hesitation about giving him the palm; but I am bound to say that his rival was a worthy competitor. In some respects, indeed, the latter was the more interesting singer of the two. His opening measure of three pips was succeeded by a trill of quite peculiar brilliancy and perfection; and when the other bird had ceased he suddenly took a lower perch, and began to rehearse an altogether different tune in a voice not more than half as loud as what he had been using; after which, as if to cap the climax, he several times followed the tune with a detached phrase or two in a still fainter voice. This last was pretty certainly an improvised cadenza, such a thing as I do not remember ever to have heard before from Melospiza melodia.
The song of the fox sparrow has at times an almost thrush-like quality; and the bird himself, as he flies up in front of you, might easily be mistaken for some member of that noble family. Once, indeed, when I saw him eating burning-bush berries in a Boston garden, I was half ready to believe that I had before my eyes a living example of the development of one species out of another, — a finch already well on his way to become a thrush. Most often, however, his voice puts me in mind of the cardinal grosbeak’s; his voice, and perhaps still more his cadence, and especially his practice of the portamento.
The 11th of the month was sunny, and the next morning I came back from my accustomed rounds under a sense of bereavement: the fox sparrows were gone. Where yesterday there had been hundreds of them, now I could find only two silent stragglers. They had been well scattered over the township, — here a flock and there a flock; but in some way — I should be glad to have anybody tell me how — the word had passed from company to company that after sundown Friday night all hands would set out once more on their north ward journey. There was one man, at least, who missed them, and in the comparative silence which followed their departure appreciated anew how much they had contributed to fill the wet and chilly April mornings with melody and good cheer.
The snow-birds tarried longer, but from this date became less and less abundant. For the first third of the month they had been as numerous, I calculated, as all other species put together. On one occasion I saw a large company of them chasing an albino, the latter dashing wildly round a pine-tree, with the whole flock in furious pursuit. They drove him off, across an impassable morass, before I could get close enough really to see him, but I presumed him to be of their own kind. As far as. I could make out he was entirely white. For the moment it lasted, it was an exciting scene; and I was especially gratified to notice with what extreme heartiness and unanimity the birds discountenanced their wayward brother’s heterodoxy. I agreed with them that one who cannot be content to dress like other people ought not to be allowed to live with them. The world is large, — let him go to Rhode Island!
On the evening of the 6th, just at dusk, I had started up the road for a lazy after-dinner saunter, when I was brought to a sudden halt by what on the instant I took for the cry of a night-hawk. But no night-hawk could be here thus early in the season, and listening further, I perceived that the bird, if bird it was, was on the ground, or, at any rate, not far from it. Then it flashed upon me that this was the note of the woodcock, which I had that very day startled upon this same hillside. Now, then, for another sight of his famous aerial courtship act! So, scrambling down the embankment, and clambering over the stone-wall, I pushed up the hill through bushes and briers, till, having come as near the bird as I dared, I crouched, and awaited further developments. I had not long to wait, for after a few yaks, at intervals of perhaps fifteen or twenty seconds, the fellow took to wing, and went soaring in a circle above me; calling hurriedly click, click, click, with a break now and then, as if for breath-taking. All this he repeated several times; but unfortunately it was too dark for me to see him, except as he crossed a narrow illuminated strip of sky just above the horizon line. I judged that he mounted to a very considerable height, and dropped invariably into the exact spot from which he had started. For a week or two I listened every night for a repetition of the yak; but I heard nothing more of it for a month. Then it came to my ears again, this time from a field between the road and a swamp. Watching my opportunity, while the bird was in the air, I hastened across the field, and stationed myself against a small cedar. He was still clicking high overhead, but soon alighted silently within twenty yards of where I was standing, and commenced to “bleat,” prefacing each yak with a fainter syllable which I had never before been near enough to detect. Presently he started once more on his skyward journey. Up he went, in a large spiral, “higher still and higher” till the cedar cut off my view for an instant, after which I could not again get my eye upon him. Whether he saw me or not I cannot tell, but he dropped to the ground some rods away, and did not make another ascension, although he continued to call irregularly, and appeared to be walking about the field. Perhaps by this time the fair one for whose benefit all this parade was intended had come out of the swamp to meet and reward her admirer.
Hoping for a repetition of the same programme on the following night, I invited a friend from the city to witness it with me; one who, less fortunate than the “forest seer,” had never “heard the woodcock’s evening hymn,” notwithstanding his knowledge of birds is a thousand-fold more than mine, as all students of American ornithology would unhesitatingly avouch were I to mention his name. We waited till dark; but though Philohela was there, and sounded his yak two or three times, — just enough to excite our hopes, — yet for some reason he kept to terra firma. Perhaps he was aware of our presence, and disdained to exhibit himself in the rôle of a wooer under our profane and curious gaze; or possibly, as my more scientific (and less sentimental) companion suggested, the light breeze may have been counted unfavorable for such high-flying exploits.
After all, our matter-of-fact world is surprisingly full of romance. Who would have expected to find this heavy-bodied, long-billed, gross-looking, bull-headed bird singing at heaven’s gate? He a “scorner of the ground”? Verily, love worketh wonders! And perhaps it is really true that the outward semblance is sometimes deceptive. To be candid, however, I must end with confessing that, after listening to the woodcock’s hymn “a good many times, first and last, I cannot help thinking that it takes an imaginative ear to discover anything properly to be called a song in its monotonous click, click, even at its fastest and loudest.2
While I was enjoying the farewell matinée of the fox-colored sparrows on the 11th, suddenly there ran into the chorus the fine silver thread of the winter wren’s tune. Here was pleasure unexpected. It is down in all the books, I believe, that this bird does not sing while on his travels; and certainly I had myself never known him to do anything of the sort before. But there is always something new under the sun.
I was all ear, of course, standing motionless while the delicious music calve again and again out of a tangle of underbrush behind a dilapidated stone-wall, — a spot for all the world congenial to this tiny recluse, whose whole life, we may say, is one long game of hide-and-seek. Altogether the song was repeated twenty times at least, and to my thinking I had never heard it given with greater brilliancy and fervor. The darling little minstrel! he will never know how grateful. I felt. I even forgave him when he sang thrice from a living bush, albeit in so doing he spoiled a sentence which I had already committed to “the permanency of print.” Birds of all kinds will play such tricks upon us; but whether the fault be chargeable to fickleness or a mischievous spirit on their part, rather than to undue haste on the part of us their reporters, is a matter about which I am perhaps not sufficiently disinterested to judge. In this instance, however, it was reasonably certain that the singer did not show himself intentionally; for unless the whole tenor of his life belies him, the winter wren’s motto is, Little birds should be heard, and not seen.
Two days afterward I was favored again in like manner. But not by the same bird, I think; unless my hearing was at fault (the singer was further off than before), this one’s tune was in places somewhat broken and hesitating, — as if he were practicing a lesson not yet fully learned.
I felt under a double obligation to these two specimens of Anorthura troglodytes hiemalis: first for their music itself; and then for the support which it gave to a pet theory of mine, that all our singing birds will yet be found to sing more or less regularly in the course of the vernal migration.
Within another forty-eight hours this same theory received additional confirmation. I was standing under an apple-tree, watching a pair of titmice who were hollowing out a stub for a nest, when my ear caught a novel song not far away. Of course I made towards it; but the bird flew off, across the road and into the woods. My hour was up, and I reluctantly started homeward, but had gone only a few rods before the song was repeated. This was more than human nature could bear, and, turning back upon the run, I got into the woods just in time to see two birds chasing each other round a tree, both uttering the very notes which had so roused my curiosity. Then away they went; but as I was again bewailing my evil luck, one of them returned, and flew into the oak, directly over my head, and as he did so fell to calling anew, Sue, suky, suky. A single glance upward revealed that this was another of the silent migrants, — a brown creeper! Only once before had I heard from him anything beside his customary lisping zee, zee; and even on that occasion (in June and in New Hampshire) the song bore no resemblance to his present effort. I have written it down as it sounded at the moment, Sue, suky, suky, five notes, the first longer than the others, and all of them brusque, loud, and musical, though with something of a warbler quality.3
It surprised me to find how the migratory movement lagged for the first half of the month. A pair of white-breasted swallows flew over my head while I was attending to the winter wren on the 11th, and on the 14th appeared the first pine-creeping warblers, — welcome for their own sakes, and doubly so as the forerunners of a numerous and splendid company; but aside from these two, I saw no evidence that a single new species arrived at my station for the entire fortnight.
Robins sang sparingly from the beginning, and became perceptibly more musical on the 8th, with signs of mating and jealousy; but the real robin carnival did not open till the morning of the 14th. Then the change was wonderful. Some of the birds were flying this way and that, high in air, two or three together; others chased each other about nearer the ground; some were screaming, some hissing, and more singing. So sudden was the outbreak and so great the commotion that I was persuaded there must have been an arrival of females in the night.
I have heard it objected against these thrushes, whose extreme commonness renders them less highly esteemed than they would otherwise be, that they find their voices too early in the morning. But I am not myself prepared to second the criticism. They are not often at their matins, I think, until the eastern sky begins to flush, and it is not quite certain to my mind that they are wrong in assuming that daylight makes daytime. I have questioned before now whether our own custom of sitting up for five or six hours after sunset, and then lying abed two or three hours after sunrise, may not have come down to us from times when there were still people in the world who loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil; and whether, after all, in this as in some other respects, we might not wisely take pattern of the fowls of the air.
Individually, the phoebes were almost as noisy as the robins, but of course their numbers were far less. They are models of perseverance. Were their voice equal to the nightingale’s they could hardly be more assiduous and enthusiastic in its use. As a general thing they are content to repeat the simple Phoebe, Phoebe (there are moods in the experience of all of us, I hope, when the repetition of a name is by itself music sufficient), but it is not uncommon for this to be heightened to Phoebe, O Phoebe; and now and then you will hear some fellow calling excitedly, Phoebe, Phoebe-be-be-be-be, — a comical sort of stuttering, in which the difficulty is not in getting hold of the first syllable, but in letting go the last one. On the 15th I witnessed a certain other performance of theirs, — one that I had seen two or three times the season previous, and for which I had been on the lookout from the first day of the month. I heard a series of chips, which might have been the cries of a chicken, but which, it appeared, did proceed from a phœbe, who, as I looked up, was just in the act of quitting his perch on the ridge-pole of a barn. He rose for perhaps thirty feet, not spirally, but in a zigzag course, — like a horse climbing a hill with a heavy load, — all the time calling, chip, chip, chip. Then he went round and round in a small circle, with a kind of hovering action of the wings, vociferating hurriedly, Phoebe, Phoebe, Phoebe; after which he shot down into the top of a tree, and with a lively flirt of his tail took up again the same eloquent theme. During the next few weeks I several times found birds of this species similarly engaged. And it is worthy of remark that, of the four flycatchers which regularly pass the summer with us, three may be said to be in the habit of singing in the air, while the fourth (the wood pewee) does the same thing, only with less frequency. It is curious, also, on the other hand, that not one of our eight common New England thrushes, as far as I have ever seen or heard, shows the least tendency toward any such state of lyrical exaltation. Yet the thrushes are song birds par excellence, while the phoebe, the least flycatcher, and the kingbird are not supposed to be able to sing at all. The latter have the soul of music in them, at any rate; and why should it not be true of birds, as it is of human poets and would-be poets, that sensibility and faculty are not always found together? Perhaps those who have nothing but the sensibility have, after all, the better half of the blessing.
The golden-winged woodpeckers shouted comparatively little before the middle of the month, and I heard nothing of their tender wick-a-wick until the 22d. After that they were noisy enough. With all their power of lungs, however, they not only are not singers; they do not aspire to be. They belong to the tribe of Jubal. Hearing somebody drumming on tin, I peeped over the wall, and saw one of these pigeon woodpeckers hammering an old tin pan lying in the middle of the pasture. Rather small sport, I thought, for so large a bird. But that was a matter of opinion, merely, and evidently the performer himself had no such scruples. He may even have considered that his ability to play on this instrument of the tinsmith’s went far to put him on an equality with some who boast themselves the only tool-using animals. True, the pan was battered and rusty; but it was resonant, for all that, and day after day he pleased himself with beating reveille upon it. One morning I found him sitting in a tree, screaming lustily in response to another bird in an adjacent field. After a while, waxing ardent, he dropped to the ground, and, stationing himself before his drum, proceeded to answer each cry of his rival with a vigorous rubadub, varying the programme with an occasional halloo. How long this would have lasted there is no telling, but he caught sight of me, skulking behind a tree-trunk, and flew back to his lofty perch, where he was still shouting when I came away. It was observable that, even in his greatest excitement, he paused once in a while to dress his feathers. At first I was inclined to take this as betraying a want of earnestness; but further reflection led me to a different conclusion. For I imagine that the human lover, no matter how consuming his passion, is seldom carried so far beyond himself as not to he able to spare now and then a thought to the parting of his hair and the tie of his cravat.
Seeing the great delight which this woodpecker took in his precious tin pan, it seemed to me not at all improbable that he had selected his summer residence with a view to being near it, just as I bad chosen mine for its convenience of access to the woods on the one hand, and to the city on the other. I shall watch with interest to see whether he returns to the same pasture another year.
A few field sparrows and chippers showed themselves punctually on the 15th; but they were only scouts, and the great body of their followers were more than a week behind them.
I saw no bay-winged buntings until the 22d, although it is likely enough they had been here for some days before that. By a lucky chance, my very first bird was a peculiarly accomplished musician: he altered his tune at nearly every repetition of it, sang it sometimes loudly and then softly, and once in a while added cadenza-like phrases. It lost nothing by being heard on a bright, frosty morning, when the edges of the pools were filmed with ice.
Only three species of warblers appeared during the month: the pine-creeping warblers already spoken of, who were trilling on the 14th; the yellow-rumped, who came on the 23d; and the yellow red-polls who followed the next morning. The black-throated greens were mysteriously tardy, and the black-and-white creepers waited for May-day.
A single brown thrush was leading the chorus on the 29th. “A great singer,” my note-book says: “not so altogether faultless as some, but with a large voice and style, adapted to a great part; “and then is added, I thought this morning of Titiens, as I listened to him!” — a bit of impromptu musical criticism, which, under cover of the saving quotation marks may stand for what it is worth.
Not long after leaving him I ran upon two hermit thrushes (one had been seen on the 25th), flitting about the woods like ghosts. I whistled softly to the first, and he condescended to answer with a low chuck, after which I could get nothing more out of him. This demure taciturnity is very curious and characteristic, and to me very engaging. The fellow will neither skulk nor run, but hops upon some low branch, and looks at you, — behaving not a little as if you were the specimen and he the student! And in such a case, as far as I can see, the bird equally with the man has a right to his own point of view.
The hermits were not yet in tune; and without forgetting the fox-colored sparrows and the linnets, the song sparrows and the bay-wings, the winter wrens and the brown thrush, I am almost ready to declare that the best music of the month came from the smallest of all the month’s birds, the ruby-crowned kinglets. Their spring season is always short with us, and unhappily it was this year shorter even than usual, my dates being April 23d and May 5th. But we must be thankful for a little, when the little is of such a quality. Once I descried two of them in the topmost branches of a clump of tall maples. For a long time they fed in silence; then they began to chase each other about through the trees, in graceful evolutions (I can imagine nothing more graceful), and soon one, and then the other, broke out into song. “‘Infinite riches in a little room,’” my note-book says, again; and truly the song is marvelous, — a prolonged and varied warble, introduced and often broken into, with delightful effect, by a wrennish chatter. For fluency, smoothness, and ease, and especially for purity and sweetness of tone, I have never heard any bird-song that seemed to me more nearly perfect. If the dainty creature would bear confinement, — on which point I know nothing, — he would make an ideal parlor songster; for his voice, while round and full, — in contrast with the goldfinch’s, for example, — is yet, even at its loudest, of a wonderful softness and delicacy. Nevertheless, I trust that nobody will ever cage him. Better far go out-of-doors, and drink in the exquisite sounds as they drop from the thick of some tall pine, while you catch now and then a glimpse of the tiny author, flitting. busily from branch to branch, warbling at his work; or, as you may oftener do, look and listen to your heart’s content, while he explores some low cedar or a cluster of roadside birches, too innocent and happy to heed your presence. So you will carry home not the song only, but “the river and sky.”
But if the kinglets were individually the best singers, I must still confess that the goldfinches gave the best concert. It was on a sunny afternoon, — the 27th, — and in a small grove of tall pitch-pines. How many birds there were I could form little estimate, but when fifteen flew away for a minute or two the chorus was not perceptibly diminished. All were singing, twittering, and calling together; some of them directly over my head, the rest scattered throughout the wood. No one voice predominated in the least; all sang softly, and with an indescribable tenderness and beauty. Any who do not know how sweet the goldfinch’s note is may get some conception of the effect of such a concert if they will imagine fifty canaries thus engaged out-of-doors. I declared then that I had never heard anything so enchanting, and I am not certain even now that I was over-enthusiastic.
A pine-creeping warbler, I remember, broke in upon the choir two or three times with his loud, precise trill. Foolish bird! His is a pretty song by itself, but set in contrast with music so full of imagination and poetry, it sounded painfully abrupt and prosaic.
I discovered the first signs of nest-building on the 13th, while investigating the question of a bird’s ambi-dexterity. It happened that I had just been watching a chickadee, as he picked chip after chip from a dead branch, and held them fast with one claw, while he broke them in pieces with his beak; and walking away, it occurred to me to ask whether or not he could probably use both feet equally well for such a purpose. Accordingly, seeing another go into an apple-tree, I drew near to take his testimony on that point. But when I came to look for him he was nowhere in sight, and pretty soon it appeared that he was at work in the end of an upright stub, which he had evidently but just begun to hollow out, as the tip of his tail still protruded over the edge. A bird-lover’s curiosity can always adapt itself to circumstances, and in this case it was no hardship to postpone the settlement of my newly raised inquiry, while I observed the pretty labors of my little architect. These proved to be by no means inconsiderable, lasting nearly or quite three weeks. The birds were still bringing away chips on the 30th, when their cavity was about eleven inches deep; but it is to be said that, as far as I could find out, they never worked in the afternoon or on rainy days.
Their demeanor toward each other all this time was beautiful to see; no effusive display of affection, but every appearance of a perfect mutual understanding and contentment. And their treatment of me was no less appropriate and delightful, — a happy combination of freedom and dignified reserve. I took it for an extremely neat compliment to myself, as well as incontestable evidence of unusual powers of discrimination on their part.
On my second visit the female sounded a call as I approached the tree, and I looked to see her mate take some notice of it; but he kept straight on with what he was doing. Not long after she spoke again, however; and now it was amusing to see the fellow all at once stand still on the top of the stub, looking up and around, as much as to say, What is it, my dear? I see nothing.” Apparently it was nothing, and he went head first into the hole again. Pretty soon, while he was inside, I stepped up against the trunk. His mate continued silent, and after what seemed a long time he came out, flew to an adjacent twig, dropped his load, and returned. This he did over and over (the end of the stub was perhaps ten feet above my head), and once he let fall a beakful of chips plump in my face. They were light, and I did not resent the liberty.
Two mornings later I found him at his task again, toiling in good earnest. In and out he went, taking care to bring away the shavings at every trip, as before, and generally sounding a note or two (keeping the tally, perhaps) before he dropped them. For the fifteen minutes or so that I remained, his mate was perched in another branch of the same tree, not once shifting her position, and doing nothing whatever except to preen her feathers a little. She paid no attention to her husband, nor did he to her. It was a revelation to me that a chickadee could possibly sit still so long.
Eight days after this they were both at work, spelling each other, and then going off in company for a brief turn at feeding.
So far they had never manifested the least annoyance at my espionage; but the next morning, as I stood against the tree, one of them seemed slightly disturbed, and flew from twig to twig about my head, looking at me from all directions with his shining black eyes. The reconnoissance was satisfactory, however; everything went on as before, and several times the chips rattled down upon my stiff Derby hat. The hole was getting deep, it was plain; I could hear the little carpenter hammering at the bottom, and then scrambling up the walls on his way out. One of the pair brought a black tidbit from a pine near by, and offered it to the other as he emerged into daylight. He took it from her bill, said chit, — chickadese for thank you, — and hastened back into the mine.
Finally, on the 27th, after watching their operations a while from the ground, I swung myself into the tree, and took a seat with them. To my delight, the work proceeded without interruption. Neither bird made any outcry, although one of them hopped round me, just out of reach, with evident curiosity. He must have thought me a queer specimen. When I drew my overcoat up after me and put it on, they flew away; but within a minute or two they were both back again, working as merrily as ever, and taking no pains not to litter me with their rubbish. Once the female (I took it to be she from her smaller size, not from this piece of shiftlessness) dropped her load without quitting the stub, a thing I had not seen either of them do before. Twice one brought the other something to eat. At last the male took another turn at investigating my character, and it began to look as if he would end with alighting on my hat. This time, too, I am proud to say, the verdict was favorable.
1 In the titmouse’s cosmological system trees occupy a highly important place, we may be sure; while the purpose of their tall, upright method of growth no doubt receives a very simple and logical (and correspondingly lucid) explanation.
2 While this book is passing through the press (April 30th, 1885) I am privileged with another sight and sound of the woodcock’s vespertine performance, and under peculiarly favorable conditions. In the account given above, sufficient distinction is not made between the clicking noise, heard while the bird is soaring, and the sounds which signalize his descent. The former is probably produced by the wings, although I have heretofore thought otherwise, while the latter are certainly vocal, and no doubt intended as a song, But they are little if at all louder than the click, click of the wings, and as far as I have ever been able to make out are nothing more than a series of quick, breathless whistles, with no attempt at either melody or rhythm.
In the present instance I could see only the start and the “finish,” when the bird several times passed directly by and over me, as I stood in a cluster of low birches, within two or three rods of his point of departure. His angle of flight was small; quite as if he had been going and coming from one field to another, in the ordinary course. once I timed him, and found that he was on the wing for a few seconds more than a minute.
3 Still further to corroborate my “pet theory,” I may say here in a foot-note, what I have said elsewhere with more detail, that before the end of the following month the hermit thrushes, the olive-backed thrushes, and the gray-cheeked thrushes all sang for me in my Melrose woods.
Let me explain, also, that when I call the brown creeper a silent migrant I am not unaware that others beside myself, and more than myself, have heard him sing while traveling. Mr. William Brewster, as quoted by Dr. Brewer in the History of North American Birds, has been exceptionally fortunate in this regard. But my expression is correct as far as the rule is concerned; and the latest word upon the subject which has come under my eye is this from Mr. E. P. Bicknell’s “Study of the Singing of our Birds,” in The Auk for April, 1884: “Some feeble notes, suggestive of those of Regulus satrapa, are this bird’s usual utterance during its visit. Its song I have never heard.”