Here to return to
BIRD SONGS AND BIRD TALK
I MENTIONED a fortnight ago a flock of half a dozen purple finches (linnets) seen and heard conversing softly among themselves in some roadside savin trees on the 29th of January. They must be passing the winter somewhere not far away, I ventured to guess. “Within a month,” I added, “they will be singing, taking the winds of March with music.”
This forenoon (March 5) I had walked up the same pleasant by-road, meaning to follow it for a mile or two, but finding myself insufficiently shod for so deep a slush, I turned back after going only a little way. It was too bad I should have been so improvident, I said to myself; but accident is often better than the best-laid plan, and so it was now. As I neared the bunch of cedars — which I have looked into day after day as I have passed, hoping to find the linnets again there — I descried some smallish bird in one of the topmost branches of a tall old poplar across the field. My opera-glass brought him nearer, but still not near enough, till presently he turned and took an attitude. “Ah, yes,” said I; “a purple finch.” Attitude and gait, though there may be nothing definable about them, are often almost as good as color and feature for purposes of identification. I had barely named the bird before he commenced singing, and as he moved into a slightly better light (the sky being clouded) I saw that he was a red one. He seemed to be not yet in full voice; perhaps he was not in full spirits; but he ran through with his long, rapid, intricate, sweetly modulated warble with perfect fluency, and very much to my pleasure. It was the first song of spring. The linnet is of the true way of thinking; spring, with him, begins with the turn of the month.
Purple finches, by the bye, are among the birds of which it has been said — by Minot, and perhaps by others — that both sexes sing. I hope the statement is true; I could never see any reason in the nature of things why female birds should not have musical susceptibilities and musical accomplishments; but I am constrained to doubt. It is most likely, I think, that the opinion has arisen from the fact that adult males — a year or more old, and fathers of families — sometimes continue to wear the gray, sparrow-like costume of the gentler sex.
My bird of this morning dropped from his perch while I was trying to get nearer to him, and could not be found again. I still suppose that the flock is spending the season somewhere not far off. I have lived with myself too long to imagine that birds must be absent because I fail to discover them.
Half an hour before, in almost the same place, I had stopped to look at six birds perched in a bare treetop. They were so silent, so motionless, and so closely bunched, that I put up my opera-glass expecting to find them cedar waxwings. Instead, they were nothing but blue jays. While my glass was still on them, the whole flock seemed to be taken with a dancing fit. This lasted for a quarter of a second, more or less, and was so quickly over that I cannot say positively that it was anything more than an optical illusion. The next moment all hands took flight with loud screams. They did not go far, and presently crossed the road in front of me, still screaming lustily, for no reason that I could discover signs of. However, the blue jay is as far as possible from being a fool, and whenever he talks it is safe concluding that he has something to say.
It has long been an opinion of mine that the jay language is worthy of systematic study. Some man with a gift of patience and a genius for linguistics should undertake a jay dictionary; setting down not only all jay words and phrases, but giving us, as far as possible, their meaning and their English equivalents. It would make a sizable volume, and would be a real contribution to knowledge.
All bird language, I have no doubt, is full of significance. It has been evolved exactly as human language has been, and while it is presumably less copious and less nicely shaded than ours, it is probably less radically unlike it than we may have been accustomed to assume. That it has something answering to our “parts of speech” we may almost take for granted. It could scarcely be intelligible — as it assuredly is — if some words did not express action, others things, and still others quality. Verbs, substantives, adjectives, and adverbs, — these, at least, all real language must possess. The jay tongue has them, I would warrant, in rudimentary forms, but in good number and of clearly defined significance.
Jays are natural orators; for among birds, as among men, there are “diversities of operations.” “All species are not equally eloquent,” said Gilbert White. And the same capable naturalist made another shrewd remark, which I would commend to the man, whoever he may be, who shall undertake the jay-English dictionary that I have been desiderating. “The language of birds,” said White, “is very ancient, and, like other ancient modes of speech, very elliptical; little is said, but much is meant and understood.”
The blue jay, I am confident, though I do not profess to be a jay scholar, makes a large use of interjections. This will constitute one of the difficulties with which his lexicographer will have to contend; for interjections, as all students of foreign tongues know, are among the hardest words to render from one language to another. A literal translation is liable to convey almost no meaning. When a Spaniard grows red in the face and vociferates, “Jesús, Maria y José!” he is not thinking of the holy family, but in all likelihood of something very, very different; and when a devout New England deacon hears some surprising piece of news, and responds with “My conscience!” he is not thinking at all of the voice of God in the soul of man. Such phrases — and the jay language, I feel sure, is full of them — are not so much expressions of thought as vents for feeling. You may call them safety-valves. Emotion is like steam. If you stop the nose of the tea-kettle, off goes the cover. The hotter the blood, of course, the more need for such exclamatory outlets; and the jay, unless his behavior belies him, is Spaniard, Italian, and Frenchman all in one. I pity his lexicographer if he undertakes to render all his subject's emotions in prim literary English. But I hope he will do the best he can, and I promise to buy his book.
The linnet's was the first spring song, I said; but it was first by an inch only; for even while I was setting down the paragraph a white-breasted nuthatch broke into a whistle close by my window. I turned at once to look at him. There he stood, in the top of the elm, perched crosswise upon a small twig, just as a sparrow might have been, and every half a minute throwing forward his head and emitting that peculiar whistle, broken into eight or ten syllables. Between times he looked to right and left, as if he had been calling for some one and was expecting a response. No response came, and after a little he disappeared.
That was the second spring song, and a good one, though not to be compared with the linnet's for musical quality. Now, say I, who bids for the third place? Perhaps it will be a bluebird, perhaps a robin, perhaps a song sparrow.