Here to return to
THIS early May morning, as I walked through the fields, the west wind brought to me a sweet, fresh odor, like that of our little white sweet violet (Viola blanda). It came probably from sugar maples, just shaking out their fringelike blossoms, and from the blooming elms. For a few hours, when these trees first bloom, they shed a decided perfume. It was the first breath of May, and very welcome. April has her odors, too, very delicate and suggestive, but seldom is the wind perfumed with the breath of actual bloom before May. I said, It is warbler time; the first arrivals of the pretty little migrants should be noted now. Hardly had my thought defined itself, when before me, in a little hemlock, I caught the flash of a blue, white-barred wing; then glimpses of a yellow breast and a yellow crown. I approached cautiously, and in a moment more had a full view of one of our rarer warblers, the blue-winged yellow warbler. Very pretty he was, too, the yellow cap, the yellow breast, and the black streak through the eye being conspicuous features. He would not stand to be looked at long, but soon disappeared in a near-by tree.
The ruby-crowned kinglet was piping in an evergreen tree not far away, but him I had been hearing for several days. With me the kinglets come before the first warblers, and may be known to the attentive eye by their quick, nervous movements, and small, olive-gray forms, and to the discerning ear by their hurried, musical, piping strains. How soft, how rapid, how joyous and lyrical their songs are! Very few country people, I imagine, either see them or hear them. The powers of observation of country people are seldom fine enough and trained enough. They see and hear coarsely. An object must be big and a sound loud, to attract their attention. Have you seen and heard the kinglet? If not, the finer inner world of nature is a sealed book to you. When your senses take in the kinglet they will take in a thousand other objects that now escape you.
My first warbler in the spring is usually the yellow redpoll, which I see in April. It is not a bird of the trees and woods, but of low bushes in the open, often alighting upon the ground in quest of food. I sometimes see it on the lawn. The last one I saw was one April day, when I went over to the creek to see if the suckers were yet running up. The bird was flitting amid the low bushes, now and then dropping down to the gravelly bank of the stream. Its chestnut crown and yellow under parts were noticeable.
The past season I saw for the first time the golden-winged warbler a shy bird, that eluded me a long time in an old clearing that had grown up with low bushes. The song first attracted my attention, it is so like in form to that of the black-throated green-back, but in quality so inferior. The first distant glimpse of the bird, too, suggested the greenback, so for a time I deceived myself with the notion that it was the green-back with some defect in its vocal organs. A day or two later I heard two of them, and then concluded my inference was a hasty one. Following one of the birds up, I caught sight of its yellow crown, which is much more conspicuous than its yellow wing-bars. Its song is like this, 'n-'n de de de, with a peculiar reedy quality, but not at all musical, falling far short of the clear, sweet, lyrical song of the green-back. Nehrling sees in it a resemblance to that of the Maryland yellow-throat, but I fail to see any resemblance whatever.
One appreciates how bright and gay the plumage of many of our warblers is when he sees one of them alight upon the ground. While passing along a wood road in June, a male black-throated green came down out of the hemlocks and sat for a moment on the ground before me. How out of place he looked, like a bit of ribbon or millinery just dropped there! The throat of this warbler always suggests the finest black velvet. Not long after I saw the chestnut-sided warbler do the same thing. We were trying to make it out in a tree by the roadside, when it dropped down quickly to the ground in pursuit of an insect, and sat a moment upon the brown surface, giving us a vivid sense of its bright new plumage.
When the leaves of the trees are just unfolding, or, as Tennyson says,
"When all the woods stand in a mist of green.
And nothing perfect,"
the tide of migrating warblers is at its height. They come in the night, and in the morning the trees are alive with them. The apple-trees are just showing the pink, and how closely the birds inspect them in their eager quest for insect food! One cold, rainy day at this season Wilson's black-cap a bird that is said to go north nearly to the Arctic Circle explored an apple-tree in front of my window. It came down within two feet of my face, as I stood by the pane, and paused a moment in its hurry and peered in at me, giving me an admirable view of its form and markings. It was wet and hungry, and it had a long journey before it. What a small body to cover such a distance!
The black-poll warbler, which one may see about the same time, is a much larger bird and of slower movement, and is colored much like the black and white creeping warbler with a black cap on its head. The song of this bird is the finest in volume and most insect-like of that of any warbler known to me. It is the song of the black and white creeper reduced, high and swelling in the middle and low and faint at its beginning and ending. When one has learned to note and discriminate the warblers, he has made a good beginning in his ornithological studies.
One midsummer afternoon I went up to "Scotland" and prowled about amid the raspberry-bushes, finding a little fruit, black and red, here and there, and letting my eyes wander to the distant farms and mountains. The wild but familiar prospect dilated and rested me. As I lingered near the torn edge of the woods in a tangle of raspberry-bushes, I caught a glimpse of some large bird dropping suddenly to the ground from a tall basswood that stood in the edge of the open, where it was hidden from my view. Was it a crow or a hawk? A hawk, I guessed, from its manner of descent. I threw a stone after waiting some moments for it to reappear, but it made no sign. Then I moved slowly toward the spot, and presently up sprang a hen-hawk and, uttering its characteristic squeal, circled around near me and then alighted not far off. A young hawk, I saw it was, and quite unsophisticated. Presently, as I made my way along, just touching the edge of the woods, a covey of nearly full-grown partridges burst up out of the berry-bushes, ten or twelve of them, and went humming up into the denser woods, some of them alighting in the trees, whence they stretched their necks to watch me as I passed along. The dust flew from their plumage as they jumped up, as if they had been earthing their wings.
My next adventure was with a young but fully grown bluebird, which crawled and fluttered away from my feet as I came upon it in the open. It could not fly, and I easily picked it up. Its plumage showed the mingled blue and speckled brown of the immature bird. I looked it over, but could see no mark or sign of injury to wing or body. Its plumage was unruffled and its eye bright, but its movements were feeble. Was it ill or starved? I could not tell which, probably the latter. It may have got lost from the brood and was not yet able to forage for itself. I left it under the edge of a rock, where the fresh blue of the ends of its wings and tail held my eye a moment as I turned to go.
Farther along, under some shelving rocks, I came upon two empty phbes' nests a relic of bird-life that always gives a touch to the rocks that I delight in. I find none of these nests placed lower than three feet from the ground, and always in places that seem to be carefully chosen with reference to enemies that can reach and climb.
Two or three woodchucks, which I bagged with my eye, completed my afternoon's adventures.
In southern California the seasons all go hand in hand, and dance around one like a ring of girls, first one season, then another in front of you, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. Now in March I see January on Mt. San Antonio, with wraiths of snow blowing over his white summit against the blue sky. In the valley I see them harvesting oranges and planting their gardens. The camphor-trees are shedding their leaves, and the eucalyptus and other trees are blooming. The oak-trees are shaking out their catkins and resound with the hum of bees. I see calla lilies in bloom four feet high, and wild flowers an inch high just opening. Along the road the wild sunflowers and other tall plants are in bloom, as in August in the Atlantic States. June is in the knee-high grass and oats and blooming white clover, and April in the bursting apple-tree buds and pink peach- and almond-trees, yes, and in the new furrow and the early planting, autumn in the golden orange-orchards, and the red berries of the pepper-trees, and the black berries of the camphor-trees. The birds are nesting, the shad are running, and swallows are in the air, midsummer butterflies dance by, and house-flies tease you indoors. I see and hear the white-crowned sparrow that at home I see in May. Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, I say, all nudge you, and claim your attention at once.
During the last ten days of March there were heavy rains with four feet of snow in the near-by mountains. The air was like cold spring-water full of just melted frost.
Yesterday friends took us to Claremont, a ride of thirty miles, in their automobile. The day was all sun and sky above, and all fresh green earth below, with a line of snow-white peaks behind dark near-by mountain barriers on the horizon. After a week or more of cloud and rain, how we enjoyed the brightness and the sunshine! Especially did that line of white peaks cut off by that dark mountain wall in front of them draw and hold my eye. Over the top of the highest one, San Antonio, we could see the snow lifted by the west wind and carried high in the air over on the east side. It was like a thin, white flame, swaying, flickering, sinking and falling, but clinging tenaciously to the mountain-peak. Thus have I seen this frost flame stalk across my native hills in midwinter. All the time we were speeding through orange-groves yellow with fruit, along improved lands red with the new furrow, and past wild, unclaimed places spotted with the bloom of many flowers.
I think the bird I most want to take home with me, and establish in our towns and villages, is the blackbird, Brewer's blackbird, one of the best-mannered, best-dressed, best-groomed birds I ever saw. He is like a bit of polished ebony moving quietly over your lawn. His coat has the same rich iridescent hues as that of our crow blackbird, and he has the same yellow eye, but he is much less in size and much more graceful in form and movement, and much softer-voiced. Besides, he is a bird of the streets and dooryards, very noticeable everywhere, and, so far as I can learn, has no tastes or habits that incur the enmity of the farmer or the fruit-grower. I pass within a few feet of him and his duller-colored mate walking about the smooth lawns, picking some minute insects from the ends of the grass-blades. This seems to be his chief occupation. Like all blackbirds, these are social and gregarious, and at times, when in flocks, their musical instincts are stimulated. I have heard a band of them in the later afternoon discourse a wild, pleasing music much superior to the crude, harsh cackle and split whistles of the related species with us.
The birds here are abundant both in kinds and in numbers. The white-crowned sparrows are familiar about the houses and the gardens, and they sing most sweetly, but the song is not quite equal to the song they sing along the Hudson for a brief day or two in May. Here they sing for weeks.
The mockingbirds are as common as robins are at home all about the lawns and gardens and streets, flitting, flirting, attitudinizing, and singing on the housetops, on the telegraph and telephone wires, on the curbstones, on the lawn. In the face of this bird's great fame as a songster, I wonder why I am so indifferent to it. It pleases me less than do its cousins, the catbird and the brown thrasher. I detect little or no music sweet tones in it. It is a series of disjointed quirks and calls, quite surprising as vocal feats, but, to my ear, entirely destitute of real bird melody. It is a performance, the tricks of a vocal acrobat, and not in any sense a serious, unified song. The bird has much less music in its soul, less of the spirit of self-forgetting joy and praise, than has our little song sparrow. I would rather have one robin, or one song sparrow, about my place than any number of "mockers." Indeed, the more "mockers" there were, the less welcome they would be. It is a polyglot, but not a songster. The mockingbird is a theatrical creature, both in manners and delivery. I have heard it in Jamaica, in Florida, and now in southern California, and I have heard it by night and by day, and I have no good word to say for it. It is a Southern bird and has more the quality of the Southern races than our birds have. Northern birds are quieter, sweeter-tempered, softer-voiced, and more religious in tone.
One day my son killed a duck on the river that an old gunner told him was a mock duck. It looked like a duck, it acted and quacked like a duck, but when it came upon the table it mocked us. I now recall that it was a "coot," a species of duck not usually eaten.
The incident led me to thinking whether or not there were really any mock things any counterfeits in nature known to me. Some of our wild flowers are named "false" this and that, as false indigo, false Solomon's-seal, false mitrewort, and others; but in designating them thus we are simply slandering Nature and exposing our own ignorance. Other things come to mind that are not what they seem, or what they are popularly called; "cedar plums," for instance, those yellow fungous growths upon the branches of the red cedar which suddenly develop with the rain and warmth of May or June, and that look like ripe fruit upon the tree. In sun and dryness they soon shrink and wither; on the return of a wet day they are again clammy gelatinous masses. Later in the season they disappear entirely. They are not the work of an insect, but the result of some disease like black-knot on our plum- and cherry-trees. They can scarcely be called counterfeit fruit. The so-called oak-apple bears a somewhat closer resemblance to a genuine fruit. Its stringy texture might be taken for the skeleton of the pulp of the apple. It is a gall caused by the sting of an insect. The oak is made to grow the cell or house in which the young of the insect is hatched and developed. The May apples which children gather from the wild azalea and eat with much relish are also a sham fruit the work of an insect.
Can we call the infertile flowers of certain plants, like those of the fringed polygala, shams or counterfeits? They seem to exist for show merely, while the fertile flowers are small and upon the roots hidden beneath the surface. What purpose the showy infertile flowers serve in the economy of the plant I am unable to say.
In the Southern States the plough sometimes turns out of the soil a curious vegetable product called "Tuckahoe," or "Indian loaf," that suggests a counterfeit of some sort. It is a brown roundish mass, the size of a cocoanut or larger, whitish within, with a characteristic odor, and it is said to be useful and nutritious in diseases of the bowels. It is thought that the Indians used it as a kind of bread. Its origin is shrouded in mystery. What it springs from, what conditions favor its growth, are all unknown. It is not a fungus, like the truffle, nor a normal vegetable product. It has no cellular structure, as has the potato, for instance, and it contains no starch, but is composed mainly of pectin, which for the most part makes up the jellies of fruit. It is probably the result of degeneration in the roots of some plant.
Among animals shams and imitations are not uncommon. The marsh wren, for instance, often builds several sham, or cock, nests in the reeds surrounding the real nest. These nests seem like the mere bubbling over or surplusage of the breeding-instinct in the male. Many birds, especially ground-builders, feign lameness or paralysis to draw attention to themselves and lure the intruder away from their nests. They know to perfection the art of make-believe. The males of bumblebees and wasps when caught will imitate perfectly the action of a bee when it thrusts its stinger into your hand.
The look of frightfulness which certain caterpillars take on often, in the shape of two fierce counterfeit eyes, is only a mask to scare the unsophisticated birds. At least experiment seems to prove that this is the case. The caterpillars of some of the hawk-moths wear this frightful mask. These insects can so retract their heads and front segments as to give an increased look of fearfulness. Weismann found that certain small birds were afraid of them.
When one insect mimics another for the purpose of protection, as is now generally believed to be the case among a number of butterflies, such insect is sailing under false colors. There is perhaps more masquerading in nature than we wot of, and yet it is all natural.