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VI

IMPRESSIONS OF SOME ENGLISH BIRDS

THE foregoing chapter was written previous to my last visit to England, and when my knowledge of the British song-birds was mainly from report, and not from personal observation. I had heard the skylark, and briefly the robin, and snatches of a few other bird strains, while in that country in the autumn of 1871; but of the full spring and summer chorus, and the merits of the individual songsters, I knew little except through such writers as White, Broderip, and Barrington. Hence, when I found myself upon British soil once more, and the birds in the height of their May jubilee, I improved my opportunities, and had very soon traced every note home. It is not a long and difficult lesson; there is not a great variety of birds, and they do not hide in woods and remote corners. You find them nearly all wherever your walk leads you. And how they do sing! how loud and piercing their notes are! Not a little of the pleasure I felt arose from the fact that the birds sang much as I expected them to, much as they ought to have sung according to my previous views of their merits and qualities, when contrasted with our own songsters.

I shall not soon forget how my ears were beset that bright May morning, two days after my arrival at Glasgow, when I walked from Ayr to Alloway, a course of three miles in one of the most charming and fertile rural districts in Scotland.  It was as warm as mid-June, and the country had the most leafy and luxuriant June aspect.  Above a broad stretch of undulating meadow-land on my right the larks were in full song. These I knew; these I welcomed. What a sound up there, as if the sunshine were vocal! A little farther along in a clover field, I heard my first corn-crake.  "Crex, crex, crex," came the harsh note out of the grass, like the rasping sound of some large insect, and I knew the bird at once. But when I came to a beautiful grove or wood, jealously guarded by a wall twelve feet high (some fine house concealed back there, I saw by the entrance), what a throng of strange songs and calls beset my ears! The concert was at its height.  The wood fairly rang and reverberated with bird voices. How loud, how vivacious, almost clamorous, they sounded to me! I paused in delightful bewilderment.

Two or three species of birds, as I afterwards found, were probably making all the music I heard, and of these, one species was contributing at least two thirds of it.  At Alloway I tarried nearly a week, putting up at a neat little inn

  "Where Doon rins, wimplin', clear,"

and I was not long in analyzing this spirited bird choir, and tracing each note home to its proper source. It was, indeed, a burst of song, as the Duke of Argyll had said, but the principal singer his grace does not mention. Indeed, nothing I had read, or could find in the few popular treatises on British ornithology I carried about with me, had given me any inkling of which was the most abundant and vociferous English song-bird, any more than what I had read or heard had given me any idea of which was the most striking and conspicuous wild flower, or which the most universal weed. Now the most abundant song-bird in Britain is the chaffinch, the most conspicuous wild flower (at least in those parts of the country I saw) is the foxglove, and the most ubiquitous weed is the nettle. Throughout the month of May, and probably during all the spring months, the chaffinch makes two thirds of the music that ordinarily greets the ear as one walks or drives about the country. In both England and Scotland, in my walks up to the time of my departure, the last of July, I seemed to see three chaffinches to one of any other species of bird. It is a permanent resident in this island, and in winter appears in immense flocks. The male is the prettiest of British song-birds, with its soft blue-gray back, barred wings, and pink breast and sides.  The Scotch call it shilfa.  At Alloway there was a shilfa for every tree, and its hurried and incessant notes met and intersected each other from all directions every moment of the day, like wavelets on a summer pool. So many birds, and each one so persistent and vociferous, accounts for their part in the choir.  The song is as loud as that of our orchard starling, and is even more animated. It begins with a rapid, wren-like trill, which quickly becomes a sharp jingle, then slides into a warble, and ends with an abrupt flourish. I have never heard a song that began so liltingly end with such a quick, abrupt emphasis. The last note often sounds like "whittier," uttered with great sharpness; but one that used to sing in an apple-tree over my head, day after day there by the Doon, finished its strain each time with the sharp ejaculation, "Sister, right here."  Afterwards, whenever I met a shilfa, I could hear in its concluding note this pointed and almost impatient exclamation of "Sister, right here."  The song, on the whole, is a pleasing one, and very characteristic; so rapid, incessant, and loud. The bird seemed to be held in much less esteem in Britain than on the Continent, where it is much sought after as a caged bird. In Germany, in the forest of Thuringia, the bird is in such quest that scarcely one can be heard.  A common workman has been known to give his cow for a favorite songster. The chaffinch has far less melody and charm of song than some of our finches, notably our purple finch; but it is so abundant and so persistent in song that in quantity of music it far excels any singer we have.

Next to the chaffinch in the volume of its song, and perhaps in some localities surpassing it, is the song-thrush. I did not find this bird upon the Doon, and but rarely in other places in Scotland, but in the south of England it leads the choir. Its voice can be heard above all others.  But one would never suspect it to be a thrush. It has none of the flute-like melody and serene, devotional quality of our thrush strains. It is a shrill whistling polyglot. Its song is much after the manner of that of our brown thrasher, made up of vocal attitudes and poses. It is easy to translate its strain into various words or short ejaculatory sentences. It sings till the darkness begins to deepen, and I could fancy what the young couple walking in the gloaming would hear from the trees overhead.  "Kiss her, kiss her; do it, do it; be quick, be quick; stick her to it, stick her to it; that was neat, that was neat; that will do," with many other calls not so explicit, and that might sometimes be construed as approving nods or winks.  Sometimes it has a staccato whistle. Its performance is always animated, loud, and clear, but never, to my ear, melodious, as the poets so often have it. Even Burns says, —

"The mavis mild and mellow."

Drayton hits it when he says, —

"The throstle with shrill sharps," etc.

Ben Jonson's "lusty throstle" is still better. It is a song of great strength and unbounded good cheer; it proceeds from a sound heart and a merry throat. There is no touch of plaintiveness or melancholy in it; it is as expressive of health and good digestion as the crowing of the cock in the morning. When I was hunting for the nightingale, the thrush frequently made such a din just at dusk as to be a great annoyance. At Kew, where I passed a few weeks, its shrill pipe usually woke me in the morning.

A thrush of a much mellower strain is the blackbird, which is our robin cut in ebony. His golden bill gives a golden touch to his song. It was the most leisurely strain I heard. Amid the loud, vivacious, workaday chorus, it had an easeful, dolce far niente effect. I place the song before that of our robin, where it belongs in quality, but it falls short in some other respects. It constantly seemed to me as if the bird was a learner and had not yet mastered his art. The tone is fine, but the execution is labored; the musician does not handle his instrument with deftness and confidence. It seems as if the bird were trying to whistle some simple air, and never quite succeeding. Parts of the song are languid and feeble, and the whole strain is wanting in the decision and easy fulfillment of our robin's song. The bird is noisy and tuneful in the twilight like his American congener.

Such British writers on birds and bird life as I have been able to consult do not, it seems to me, properly discriminate and appreciate the qualities and merits of their own songsters. The most melodious strain I heard, and the only one that exhibited to the full the best qualities of the American songsters, proceeded from a bird quite unknown to fame, in the British Islands at least. I refer to the willow warbler, or willow wren, as it is also called, — a little brown bird, that builds a dome-shaped nest upon the ground and lines it with feathers.  White says it has a "sweet, plaintive note," which is but half the truth.  It has a long, tender, delicious warble, not wanting in strength and volume, but eminently pure and sweet, — the song of the chaffinch refined and idealized.  The famous blackcap, which I heard in the south of England and again in France, falls far short of it in these respects, and only surpasses it in strength and brilliancy. The song is, perhaps, in the minor key, feminine and not masculine, but it touches the heart.

"That strain again; it had a dying fall"

The song of the willow warbler has a dying fall; no other song-bird is so touching in this respect. It mounts up round and full, then runs down the scale, and expires upon the air in a gentle murmur. I heard the bird everywhere; next to the chaffinch, its voice greeted my ear oftenest; yet many country people of whom I inquired did not know the bird, or confounded it with some other. It is too fine a song for the ordinary English ear; there is not noise enough in it. The whitethroat is much more famous; it has a louder, coarser voice; it sings with great emphasis and assurance, and is a much better John Bull than the little willow warbler.

I could well understand, after being in England a few days, why, to English travelers, our songsters seem inferior to their own. They are much less loud and vociferous, less abundant and familiar; one needs to woo them more; they are less recently out of the wilderness; their songs have the delicacy and wildness of most woodsy forms, and are as plaintive as the whistle of the wind. They are not so happy a race as the English songsters, as if life had more trials for them, as doubtless it has in their enforced migrations and in the severer climate with which they have to contend.

When one hears the European cuckoo, he regrets that he has ever heard a cuckoo clock. The clock has stolen the bird's thunder; and when you hear the rightful owner, the note has a second-hand, artificial sound. It is only another cuckoo clock off there on the hill or in the grove. Yet it is a cheerful call, with none of the solitary and monkish character of our cuckoo's note; and, as it comes early in spring, I can see how much it must mean to native ears.

I found that the only British song-bird I had done injustice to in my previous estimate was the wren. It is far superior to our house wren. It approaches very nearly our winter wren, if it does not equal it. Without hearing the two birds together, it would be impossible to decide which is the better songster. Its strain has the same gushing, lyrical character, and the shape, color, and manner of the two birds are nearly identical. It is very common, sings everywhere, and therefore contributes much more to the general entertainment than does our bird. Barrington marks the wren far too low in his table of the comparative merit of British song-birds; he denies it mellowness and plaintiveness, and makes it high only in sprightliness, a fact that discredits his whole table. He makes the thrush and blackbird equal in the two qualities first named, which is equally wide of the mark.

The English robin is a better songster than I expected to find him. The poets and writers have not done him justice.  He is of the royal line of the nightingale, and inherits some of the qualities of that famous bird. His favorite hour for singing is the gloaming, and I used to hear him the last of all. His song is peculiar, jerky, and spasmodic, but abounds in the purest and most piercing tones to be heard, — piercing from their smoothness, intensity, and fullness of articulation; rapid and crowded at one moment, as if some barrier had suddenly given way, then as suddenly pausing, and scintillating at intervals, bright, tapering shafts of sound. It stops and hesitates, and blurts out its notes like a stammerer; but when they do come they are marvelously clear and pure. I have heard green hickory branches thrown into a fierce blaze jet out the same fine, intense, musical sounds on the escape of the imprisoned vapors in the hard wood as characterize the robin's song.

One misses along English fields and highways the tender music furnished at home by our sparrows, and in the woods and groves the plaintive cries of our pewees and the cheerful soliloquy of our red-eyed vireo. The English sparrows and buntings are harsh-voiced, and their songs, when they have songs, are crude. The yellow-hammer comes nearest to our typical sparrow; it is very common, and is a persistent songster, but the song is slight, like that of our savanna sparrow-scarcely more than the chirping of a grasshopper. In form and color it is much like our vesper sparrow, except that the head of the male has a light yellow tinge.

The greenfinch or green linnet is an abundant bird everywhere, but its song is less pleasing than that of several of our finches. The goldfinch is very rare, mainly, perhaps, because it is so persistently trapped by bird-fanciers; its song is a series of twitters and chirps, less musical to my ear- than that of our goldfinch, especially when a flock of the latter are congregated in  a tree and inflating their throats in rivalry. Their golden-crowned kinglet has a fine thread-like song, far less than that of our kinglet, less even than that of our black and white creeper. The nuthatch has not the soft, clear call of ours, and the various woodpeckers figure much less; there is less wood to peck, and they seem a more shy and silent race.  I saw but one in all my walks, and that was near Wolmer Forest. I looked in vain for the wood-lark; the country people confound it with the pipit.  The blackcap warbler I found to be a rare and much overpraised bird. The nightingale is very restricted in its range, and is nearly silent by the middle of June.  I made a desperate attempt to find it in full song after the seventeenth of the month, as I have described in a previous chapter, but failed. And the garden warbler is by no means found in every garden; probably I did not hear it more than twice. The common sandpiper, I should say, was more loquacious and musical than ours.  I heard it on the Highland lakes, when its happy notes did indeed almost run into a song, so continuous and bright and joyful were they.

One of the first birds I saw, and one of the most puzzling, was the lapwing or pewit. I observed it from the car window, on my way down to Ayr, a large, broad-winged, awkward sort of bird, like a cross between a hawk and an owl, swooping and gamboling in the air as the train darted past. It is very abundant in Scotland, especially on the moors and near the coast. In the Highlands I saw them from the top of the stage-coach, running about the fields with their young. The most graceful and pleasing of birds upon the ground, about the size of the pigeon, now running nimbly along, now pausing to regard you intently, crested, ringed, white-bellied, glossy green-backed, with every movement like visible music. But the moment it launches into the air its beauty is gone; the wings look round and clumsy, like a mittened hand, the tail very short, the head and neck drawn back, with nothing in the form or movement that suggests the plover kind. It gambols and disports itself like a great bat, which its outlines suggest. On the moors I also saw the curlew, and shall never forget its wild, musical call.

Nearly all the British bird voices have more of a burr in them than ours have.  Can it be that, like the people, they speak more from the throat? It is especially noticeable in the crow tribe, — in the rook, the jay, the jackdaw. The rook has a hoarse, thick caw, — not so clearly and roundly uttered as that of our crow. The swift has a wheezy, catarrhal squeak, in marked contrast to the cheery chipper of our swift. In Europe the chimney swallow builds in barns, and the barn swallow builds in chimneys. The bam swallow, as we would call it, — chimney swallow, as it is called there, — is much the same in voice, color, form, flight, etc., as our bird, while the swift is much larger than our chimney swallow and has a forked tail. The martlet, answering to our cliff swallow, is not so strong and ruddy looking a bird as our species, but it builds much the same, and has a similar note. It is more plentiful than our swallow. I was soon struck with the fact that in the main the British song-birds lead up to and culminate in two species, namely, in the lark and the nightingale. In these two birds all that is characteristic in the other songsters is gathered up and carried to perfection. They crown the series. Nearly all the finches and pipits seem like rude studies and sketches of the skylark, and nearly all the warblers and thrushes point to the nightingale; their powers have fully blossomed in her. There is nothing in the lark's song, in the quality or in the manner of it, that is not sketched or suggested in some voice lower in the choir, and the tone and compass of the warblers mount in regular gradation from the clinking note of the chiffchaff up to the nightingale. Several of the warblers sing at night, and several of the constituents of the lark sing on the wing. On the lark's side, the birds are remarkable for gladness and ecstasy, and are more creatures of the light and of the open spaces; on the side of the nightingale there is more pure melody, and more a love for the twilight and the privacy of arboreal life. Both the famous songsters are representative as to color, exhibiting the prevailing gray and dark tints. A large number of birds, I noticed, had the two white quills in the tail characteristic of the lark.

I found that I had overestimated the bird music to be heard in England in midsummer. It appeared to be much less than our own. The last two or three weeks of July were very silent: the only bird I was sure of hearing in my walks was the yellow-hammer; while, on returning home early in August, the birds made such music about my house that they woke me up in the morning. The song sparrow and bush sparrow were noticeable till in September, and the red-eyed vireo and warbling vireo were heard daily till in October.

On the whole, I may add that I did not anywhere in England hear so fine a burst of bird-song as I have heard at home, and I listened long for it and attentively. Not so fine in quality, though perhaps greater in quantity. It sometimes happens that several species of our best songsters pass the season in the same locality, some favorite spot in the woods, or at the head of a sheltered valley, that possesses attraction for many kinds. I found such a place one summer by a small mountain lake, in the southern Catskills, just over the farm borders, in the edge of the primitive forest. The lake was surrounded by an amphitheatre of wooded steeps, except a short space on one side where there was an old abandoned clearing, grown up to saplings and brush. Birds love to be near water, and I think they like a good auditorium, love an open space like that of a small lake in the woods, where their voices can have room and their songs reverberate. Certain it is they liked this place, and early in the morning especially, say from half past three to half past four, there was such a burst of melody as I had never before heard. The most prominent voices were those of the wood thrush, veery thrush, rose-breasted grosbeak, winter wren, and one of the vireos, and occasionally at evening that of the hermit, though far off in the dusky background, — birds all notable for their pure melody, except that of the vireo, which was cheery, rather than melodious. A singular song that of this particular vireo, — "Cheery, cheery, cheery drunk! Cheery drunk!" — all day long in the trees above our tent. The wood thrush was the most abundant, and the purity and eloquence of its strain, or of their mingled strains, heard in the cool dewy morning from across that translucent sheet of water, was indeed memorable. Its liquid and serene melody was in such perfect keeping with the scene. The eye and the ear both reported the same beauty and harmony. Then the clear, rich fife of the grosbeak from the tops of the tallest trees, the simple flute-like note of the veery, and the sweetly ringing, wildly lyrical outburst of the winter wren, sometimes from the roof of our butternut-colored tent — all joining with it — formed one of the most noteworthy bits of a bird symphony it has ever been my good luck to hear. Often at sundown, too, while we sat idly in our boat, watching the trout break the glassy surface here and there, the same soothing melody would be poured out all around us, and kept up till darkness filled the woods. The last note would be that of the wood thrush, calling out "quit," "quit." Across there in a particular point, I used at night to hear another thrush, the olive-backed, the song a slight variation of the veery's. I did hear in England in the twilight the robin, blackbird, and song-thrush unite their voices, producing a loud, pleasing chorus; add the nightingale and you have great volume and power but still the pure melody of my songsters by the lake is probably not reached.


Rose-breasted Grosbeak

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