Here to return to
BIRDS AT THE WINDOW
THE winter has continued birdless, not only in eastern Massachusetts, but, as far as I can learn, throughout New England. Letters from eastern Maine, the White Mountain region, and western Massachusetts all bring the same story: no birds except the commonest — chickadees and the like. Cross-bills, redpolls, and pine grosbeaks have left us out in the cold.
The only break in the season's monotony with me has been a flock of six purple finches, seen on the 29th of January. I was nearing home, in a side street, thinking of nothing in particular, when I heard faint conversational notes close at hand, and stopping to look, saw first one and then another of the bright carmine birds; for five of the six were handsome adult males. All were eating savin berries, and conversing in their characteristic soft staccato. It was by all odds the brightest patch of feathers of the new century. The birds must be wintering not far away, I suppose; but though I have been up and down that road a dozen times since February came in, I have seen nothing more of them. Within a month they will be singing, taking the winds of March with music. No more staccato then, but the smoothest of fluency.
Much the birdiest spot known to me just now is under our own windows — under them and against them, as shall presently be explained. Indeed, we may be said to be running a birds' boarding-house, and we are certainly doing an excellent business. “Meals at all hours,” our signboard reads. We “set a good table,” as the trade expression is, and our guests, who, being experienced travelers, know a good thing when they see it, have spread the news. There is no advertisement so effective as a satisfied customer.
The earliest corners are the blue jays. They anticipate the first call for breakfast, appearing before sunrise. Jays are a shrewd set. They can put two and two together with the sharpest of us. Man, they have discovered, is a laggard in the morning. Then is their time. In very bad weather, indeed, they come at all hours; but they are always wary. If I raise the window an inch or two and set it down with a slam, away they go; though, likely as not, I look out again five minutes later to find them still there. In times of dearth one may reasonably risk something for a good piece of suet.
The jays take what they can, somewhat against our will. The table is spread for smaller people: for downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, and chickadees, with whom appears now and then, always welcome, a brown creeper. The table is set for them, I say; and they seem to know it. They come not as thieves, but as invited guests, or, better still, as members of the family. No opening and shutting of windows puts them to flight. Why should it? There are at least a dozen baiting-places about the house, and they know every one of them. Though the fare is everywhere the same, they seem to find a spice of variety in taking a bite at one table after another.
My own principal enjoyment of the business, at present, is connected with a new toy, if I may call it so: a small, loosely knit, or crocheted, bag — made of knitting-cotton, I think I was told — sent to me by a correspondent in Vermont. Into this, following the donor's instructions, I have put nutmeats and hung it out of a window of my working room, throwing a cord over the top of the upper sash, and allowing the bag to dangle against the pane.
At first I broke the nuts into small pieces, but I soon learned better than that. Now I divide the filbert once, and for the most part the birds (chickadees only, thus far) have to stay on the bag and eat, instead of pulling out the pieces whole and making off with them. The sight is a pretty one — as good as a play. I am careful not to fill the bag, and the feeder is compelled to hang bottom side up under it, and strike upward. The position is graceful and not in the least inconvenient, and possesses, moreover, a great economical advantage: the crumbs, some of which are of necessity spilled, drop on the eater's breast, instead of to the ground. I see him stop continually to pick them off. “Gather up the fragments,” he says, “that nothing be lost.”
When one of the pieces in the bag is so far nibbled away that a corner of it can be pulled through one of the interstices, matters become exciting. Then comes the tug of war. The eater, who knows that his time is limited, grows almost frantic. He braces himself and pulls, twitching upward and downward and sidewise (“Come out, there, will you?”), while the wind blows him to and fro across the pane, and one or two of his mates sit upon the nearest branch of the elm, eyeing him reproachfully. “You greedy thing!” they say. “Are you going to stay there forever?” Often their patience gives out (I do not wonder), and one after another they swoop down past the window, not to strike the offender, but to offer him a hint in the way of moral suasion. Sometimes one alights, with more or less difficulty, on the narrow middle sash just below, and talks to him; or one hovers near the bag, or even perches sidewise on the string, just above, as much as to say, “Look out!” Then I hear a burst of little, hurried, sweet-sounding, angry notes — always the same, or so nearly the same that my ear is unable to detect the difference.
Generally these manœuvres are successful; but now and then the feeder is so persistently greedy that I am tempted to assert a landlord's prerogative and tell him to begone. Only once have I ever seen two birds clinging to the bag together, although so far as I can make out, there is nothing to hinder their doing so; and even then they were not eating, but waiting to see which should give place to the other.
All in all, it is a very pleasing show. It is good to see the innocent creatures so happy. Nobody could look at them, their black eyes shining, their black bills striking into the meats, all their motions so expressive of eager enjoyment, without feeling glad on their account. And with all the rest, it may be said that an ease-loving man, with a meddlesome New England conscience, is not always sorry to have a decent, or better than decent, excuse for dropping work once in a while to look out of the window. Who says we are idle while we are taking a lesson in natural history? I do not know how many times I have broken off (seeing a bird's shadow in the room, or hearing a tap on the pane) while writing these few paragraphs.
Once, indeed, I saw something like actual belligerency. Two birds reached the bag at the same instant, and neither was inclined to withdraw. They came together, bill to bill, each with a volley of those fine, spitfire notes of which I spoke just now, and in the course of the set-to, which was over almost before it began, one of them struck beak-first against the window, as if he were coming through. Then both flew to the elm branches, fifteen feet away, and in a moment more one of them came back and took a turn at feeding. I am not going to take in the bag for fear of the immoral effects of excessive competition. Competition — among customers — is the life of trade. I am glad to see my table so popular.
The nuthatches, of which we have at least two, male and female, as I know by the different color of their crowns, have not yet discovered the nuts, but come regularly to the suet in the trees, and pretty often to a piece that is nailed upon one of my window-sills. I hear the fellow's pleasant, contented, guttural, grunting notes, and rise to look at him, liking especially to watch the tidbits as they travel one after another between his long mandibles. Even if he does not call out, I know that it is he, and not a chickadee, by the louder noise he makes in driving his bill into the fat.
I have fancied, all winter, that the birds — these two nuthatches, I mean — were mated, seeing them so often together; and perhaps they are; but the other day I witnessed a little performance that seemed to put another complexion upon the case. I was leaving the yard when I heard bird notes, repeated again and again, which I did not recognize. To the best of my recollection they were quite new. I looked up into a tree, and there were the two nuthatches, one chasing the other from branch to branch, with that peculiarly dainty, fluttering, mincing action of the wings, a sort of will-you-be-mine motion, which birds are given to using in the excitement of courtship. There could be no doubt of it, though it was only the 10th of February: Corydon was already “paying attentions” to Phyllis. Success to him! I notice, also, that chickadees are beginning to whistle “Phoebe” with considerable frequency, though there is nothing in the weather to encourage them. Birds have an almanac of their own. Spring is coming.