Here to return to
A FULL MIGRATION
ONE of my friends, a bird lover like myself, used to complain that by the end of May he was worn out with much walking. His days were consumed at a desk, — “the cruel wood,” as Charles Lamb called it, — but so long as migrants were passing his door he could not help trying to see them. Morning and night, therefore, he was on foot, now in the woods, now in the fields, now in shaded by-roads, now in bogs and swamps. To see all kinds of birds, a man must go to all kinds of places. Sometimes he trudged miles to visit a particular spot, in which he hoped to find a particular species. Before the end of the month he must have one hundred and twenty or one hundred and twenty-five names in his “monthly list;” and to accomplish this, much leg-work was necessary.
I knew how to sympathize with him. Short as May is, — too short by half, — I have before now felt something like relief at its conclusion. Now, then, I have said, the birds that are here will stay for at least a month or two, and life may be lived a little more at leisure.
This year,1 by all the accounts that reach me, the migration has been of extraordinary fullness. Only last night a man took a seat by me in an electric car and said, what for substance I have heard from many others, that he and his family, who live in a desirably secluded, woody spot, had never before seen so many birds, especially so many warblers.
How wiser men than myself explain this unusual state of things I do not know. To me it seems likely that the unseasonable cold weather caught the first large influx of May birds in our latitude, and held them here while succeeding waves came falling in behind them. The current was dammed, so to speak, and of course the waters rose.
Some persons, I hear, had strange experiences. I am told of one man who picked a black-throated blue warbler from a bush, as he might have picked a berry. I myself noted in New Hampshire, what many noted hereabouts, the continual presence of warblers on the ground. 'T is an ill wind that blows nobody good, and our multitude of young bird students — for, thank Heaven, they are a multitude — had the opportunity of many years to make new acquaintances. A warbler in the grass is a comparatively easy subject.
After all, the beginners have the best of it. No knowledge is so interesting as new knowledge. It may be plentifully mixed with ignorance and error. Much of it may need to be unlearned. Young people living about me began to find scarlet tanagers early in April; one boy or girl has seen a scissor-tailed flycatcher, and orchard orioles seem to be fairly common; but at least new knowledge has the charm of freshness. And what a charm that is! — a morning rose, with the dew on it. The old hand may almost envy the raw recruit — the young woman or the boy, to whom the sight of a rose-breasted grosbeak, for instance, is like the sight of an angel from heaven, so strange, so new-created, so incredibly bright and handsome.
I love to come upon a group or a pair of such enthusiasts at work in the field, as I not seldom do; all eyes fastened upon a bush or a branch, one eager, low voice trying to make the rest of the company see some wonderful object of which the lucky speaker has caught sight. “There, it has moved to that lower limb! Right through there! Don't you see it? Oh, what a beauty!”
I was down by the river the other afternoon. Many canoes were out, and presently I came to an empty one drawn up against the bank. A few steps more and I saw, kneeling behind a clump of shrubbery, a young man and a young woman, each with an opera-glass, and the lady with an open notebook. “It’s a redstart, isn’t it?” I heard one of them say.
It was too bad to disturb them, but I hope they forgave a sympathetic elderly stranger, who, after starting toward them and then sidling off, finally approached near enough to suggest, with a word of apology, that perhaps they would like to see a pretty bunch of water thrushes just across the way, about the edges of the pool under yonder big willow. They seemed grateful, however they may have felt. “Water thrushes!” the young lady exclaimed, and with hasty “Thank you's,” very politely expressed, they started in the direction indicated. It is to be hoped that they found also the furtive swamp sparrow, of whose presence the bashful intruder, in the perturbation of his spirits, forgot to inform them. If they did find it, however, they were sharp-eyed, or were playing in good luck.
I went on down the river a little way, and soon met three Irish-American boys coming out of a thicket at the water's edge. One Of them lifted his cap. “Seen any good birds to-day?” he inquired. I answered in the affirmative, and turned the question upon its asker. Yes, he said, he had just seen a catbird and an oriole. I remarked that there were other people out on the same errand. “Yes,” said he, pointing toward the brier thicket, “there's a couple down there now looking at 'em.” Then I noticed a second empty canoe with its nose against the bank.
This was on a Saturday. Saturday afternoon and Sunday are busy people's days in the woods. For their sakes I am always glad to meet them there — bird students, flower pickers, or simple strollers; yet I have learned to look upon those times as my poorest, and to choose others so far as I can. One does not enjoy nature to great advantage at a picnic. There are woods and swamps of which on all ordinary occasions I almost feel myself the owner, but of which on Saturday and Sunday I have scarcely so much as a rambler's lease. This I have learned, however, — and I pass the secret on, — that the Sunday picnic does not usually begin till after nine o'clock in the forenoon.
When bird study becomes more general than it is now, as it ought to do, the community will perhaps find means — or, to speak more correctly, will use means, since there is no need of finding them — to restrain the present enormous overproduction of English sparrows, and so to give certain of our American beauties a chance to live.
Two days ago I was walking through a tract of woodland, following the highway, when I noticed, to my surprise, a white-breasted martin (tree swallow) just over my head. The next moment he fluttered before a hole in one of the big telegraph poles. His mate came out, and he alighted in the entrance, facing outward. And there he sat, while I in my turn took a seat upon the opposite bank and fell to watching him. The light struck him squarely, and it was good to see his blue-purple crown and his bright black eye shining in the sun. He had nothing to do inside, it appeared, but was simply on guard in his mate's absence. Once he yawned. “She’s gone a good while,” he seemed to say. But he kept his post till she returned. Then, with a chirrup, he was off, and she dropped into the cavity out of sight.
All this was nothing of itself. But why should a pair of white-breasted martins, farm-loving, village-loving, house-haunting birds, a delight to the eye, and as innocent as they are beautiful — why should such birds be driven to seek a home in a telegraph pole in the woods? The answer was ready. I walked on, and by and by came to a village, young and I dare say thriving, but overrun from end to end with English sparrows, whose incessant clatter —
Soul-desolating strains — alas! too many —
filled my ears. Not a bluebird, not a tree swallow, nor, to all appearance, any place for one.
And so it is generally. One of my fellow townsmen, however, has an estate which forms a bright exception. There one sees bluebirds and martins. Year after year, punctual as the spring itself, they are back in their old places. And why? Because the owner of the estate, by a little shooting, mercifully persistent and therefore seldom necessary, keeps the English sparrows out. My thanks to him. His is the only colony of martins anywhere in my neighborhood.__________________________