Here to return to
THERE are two birds in Newton, the present summer, that have perhaps attracted more attention than any pair of Massachusetts birds ever attracted before; more, by a good deal, I imagine, than was paid to a pair of crows that, for some inexplicable reason, built a nest and reared a brood of young a year ago in a back yard on Beacon Hill, in Boston. I refer to a pair of redheaded woodpeckers that have a nest (at this moment containing young birds nearly ready to fly) in a tall dead stump standing on the very edge of the sidewalk, like a lamp-post. The road, it should be said, is technically unfinished; one of those “private ways,” not yet “accepted” by the city and therefore legally “dangerous,” though in excellent condition and freely traveled. If the birds had intended to hold public receptions daily, — as they have done without intending it, — they could hardly have chosen a more convenient spot. The stump, which is about twenty-five feet in height, stands quite by itself in the middle of a small open space, with a wooded amphitheatrical knoll at its back, while on the other side it is overlooked by the windows of several houses, the nearest almost within stone's throw. So conspicuous is it, indeed, that whenever I go there, as I do once in two or three days, to see how matters are coming on, I am almost sure to see the birds far in advance of my arrival.
They are always there. I heard of them through the kindness of a stranger, on the 26th of June. His letter reached me (in Boston) at two o'clock in the afternoon, and at half past three I was admiring the birds. It cannot be said that they welcomed my attentions. From that day to this they have treated me as an intruder. “You have stayed long enough.” “We are not at home to-day.” “Come now, old inquisitive, go about your business.” Things like these they repeat to me by the half hour. Then, in audible asides, they confide to each other what they think of me. “Watch him,” says one at last. “I must be off now after a few grubs.” And away she goes, while her mate continues to inform me that I am a busybody, a meddler in other birds' matters, a common nuisance, a duffer, and everything else that is disreputable. All this is unpleasant. I feel as I imagine a baseball umpire feels when the players call him a “gump” and the crowd yells “robber;” but like the umpire, I bear it meekly and hold my ground. A good conscience is a strong support.
In sober truth I have been scrupulously careful of the birds' feelings; or, if not of their feelings, at least of their safety. I began, indeed, by being almost ludicrously careful. The nest was a precious secret, I thought. I must guard it as a miser guards his treasure. So, whenever a foot-passenger happened along the highway at my back, I made pretense of being concerned with anything in the world rather than with that lamp-post of a stump. What was Hecuba to me, or I to Hecuba? I pretty soon learned, however, that such precautions were unnecessary. The whole town, or at least the whole neighborhood, was aware of the birds' presence. Every school-teacher in the city, one man told me, had been there with his or her pupils to see them. So popular is ornithology in these modern days. He had seen thirty or forty persons about the place at once, he said, all on the same errand. “Look at the bank there,” he added. “They have worn it smooth by sitting on it.”
I have not been fortunate enough to assist at any such interesting “function,” but I have had plenty of evidence to prove the truth of what I said just now — that the birds and their nest have become matters of common knowledge. On my third visit, just as I was ready to come away, a boy turned the corner on a bicycle, holding his younger sister in front of him.
“Are they here?” he inquired as he dismounted.
“Who?” said I.
“The red-headed woodpeckers,” he answered.
He had known about the nest for some weeks. Oh, yes, everybody knew it. So-and-so found it (I forget the name), and pretty soon it was all over Newtonville. A certain boy, whose wretched name also I have forgotten, had talked about shooting one of the birds; he could get a dollar and a half for it, he professed; but policeman Blank had said that a dollar and a half wouldn’t do a boy much good if he got hold of him. He — my informant, a bright-faced, manly fellow of eleven or twelve — had brought his younger sister down to see the birds. He thought they were very handsome. “There!” said he, as one of them perched on a dead tree near by, “look!” and he knelt behind the little girl and pointed over her shoulder till she got the direction. After all, I thought, a boy is almost as pretty as a woodpecker. His father and mother were Canadians, and had told him that birds of this kind were common where they used to live. Then he lifted his sister upon the wheel, jumped up behind her, and away they trundled.
At another time an older boy came along, also on a bicycle, and stopped for a minute's chat. He, too, was in the secret, and had been for a good while. “Pretty nice birds,” his verdict was. And at a later visit a man with his dog suddenly appeared. “Handsome, aren’t they?” he began, by way of good-morning. He had seen one of them as long ago as when snow was on the ground, but he didn’t discover the nest. He was looking in the wrong place. Since then he had spent hours in watching the birds, and believed that he could tell the female's voice from the male's. “There!” said he; “that’s the mother's call.” He was acquainted with all the birds, and could name them all, he said, simply by their notes; and he told me many things about them. There were grosbeaks here. Did I know them? And tanagers, also. Did I know them? And another bird that he was especially fond of; a beautiful singer, though it never sang after the early part of the season; the indigo-bird, its name was. Did I know that?
As will readily be imagined, we had a good session (one doesn’t fall in with so congenial a spirit every day in the week), though it ran a little too exclusively to questions and answers, perhaps; for I, too, am a Yankee. He was the man who told me about the throngs of sightseers that came here. The very publicity of the thing had been the birds' salvation, he was inclined to believe. The entire community had taken them under its protection, and with so many windows overlooking the place, and the police on the alert (I had noticed a placard near by, signed by the chief, laying down the law and calling upon all good citizens to help him enforce it), it would have been hard for anybody to meddle with the nest without coming to grief. At all events, the birds had so far escaped molestation, and the young, as I have said, would soon be on the wing. One of them was thrusting its full-grown, wide-awake, eager-looking, mouse-colored head out of the aperture as we talked.
“But why so much excitement over a family of woodpeckers?” some reader may be asking. Rarity, my friend; rarity and brilliant feathers. So far as appears from the latest catalogue of Massachusetts birds, this Newton nest is one of a very small number ever found in the State, and the very first one ever recorded from the eastern half of it.1 Put that fact with the further one that the birds are among the showiest in North America, real marvels of beauty, — splendid colors, splendidly laid on, — and it is plain to see why a city full of nature lovers should have welcomed this pair with open arms and watched over their welfare as one watches over the most honored of guests. For my part, I should not think it inappropriate if the mayor were to order the firing of a salute and the ringing of bells on the happy morning when the young birds take wing. Tons of gunpowder have been burnt, before now, with less reason.___________________________
1 The formal record will be found in the Auk, vol. xviii. p. 394.