Here to return to
CHIPMUNKS, BLUEBIRDS, AND ROBINS
THE season was opened, formally, on the 10th of March. I am speaking for myself. Friday, the 8th, brought genuine spring weather, sunny and warm, an ideal day for the first bluebird; but I was obliged to waste it in the city. The 9th was rainy and cold, and though I spent some hours out of doors, I saw no vernal signs. Birds of all sorts were never so few. The next morning — cloudy, with a raw northeasterly wind — I was fifteen minutes away from home when a squirrel came out of the woods on one side of the way and ran across the road before me. It was a chipmunk, my first one of the new year, wide-awake and quick on its legs; and it was hardly in the hazel bushes on the other side of the road before another joined it, and the two chased each other out of sight. Spring had come.
Chickarees and gray squirrels have been common enough throughout the cold weather, but the chipmunk, or striped squirrel, takes to its burrow in the late autumn, and sleeps away the winter. In other words, along with the woodchuck (the largest and the smallest of our New England squirrels being alike in this respect), it migrates — into the “land of Nod.” I imagine, however, that its sleep is not so sound but that it wakes up now and then to feed, though as to this point I know really nothing, my impression arising wholly from the fact that chipmunks store away food. They would hardly do this, I should think, unless they expected to find a use for it.
Late in September, five months ago, I went to visit friends in the White Mountains, and one of the first things I heard from them was that Betty had disappeared. She had not been seen for about two months. Betty was a chipmunk that had been in the habit of coming upon the piazza, and had grown tame under kind treatment till she would take food from her friends' fingers and even climb into their laps. Once, indeed, the lady of the house, having gone upstairs, noticed the presence of something heavy in her pocket (she is a naturalist, and for that reason, I suppose, still wears a pocket in her gown), and on putting her hand into it, found Betty inside.
But, as I say, Betty had suddenly discontinued her visits, and there was mourning at the cottage. Worse yet, there was wrath, and the stable cat had barely escaped with his life. But now, on a Sunday noon, when the cottagers appeared at the hotel dinner-table, they announced with beaming faces that there was great news: Betty had returned! I must come over and see her; for up to this time I knew her charms only by report.
As soon as dinner was finished, therefore, we repaired to the cottage veranda, and pretty soon, while we were talking of one thing and another, the lady said, “Ah, here she is! Here’s Betty!” Filberts had been provided, and she began at once to climb into our laps after them. She carried them away three at a time, — one in each cheek-pouch and one between her teeth, — going and coming in the most industrious and businesslike manner. She would pass the winter in a state of hibernation, without a doubt, but her conduct obviously implied that she expected to see a time now and then when a bite of something to eat would “come handy.”
My 10th of March chipmunks were a welcome sight. I wondered how long they had been awake. For several days, probably. And I tried to imagine what it must be like to open one's eyes after a five months' nap. Hibernation has the look of a miracle. And yet, what is it but a longer sleep? Well, perhaps sleep itself is a miracle — as truly so as life or thought. Probably, the world being all of a piece, if we understood one thing we should understand everything. Who knows? Anyhow, spring had come.
But there were no bluebirds. I kept on for two hours, past the likeliest of places, but saw and heard nothing. It was too bad, but there was no help for it. Bluebirds, blackbirds, song sparrows, fox sparrows, all were still to be looked for.
Then I sat indoors for an hour or two I would stay in till afternoon, I thought; books, also, are a world, as Wordsworth said; but pretty soon the sun shone out; things looked too inviting. “I will go over as far as Longfellow's Pond,” said I. “Perhaps there will be something in that quarter.” That was a happy thought. I was hardly in the old cattle pasture, feeling it good to have the grass under my feet once more, all bleached and sodden though it was, when I stopped. Wasn’t that a bluebird's note? No, it was probably nothing but my imagination. But the sound reached me again; faint, fugacious, just grazing the ear. I put up my hands to my ears' help, and stood still. Yes, I certainly heard it; and this time I got its direction. A glance that way and I saw the bird, pretty far off, at the tip of an elm sapling standing by itself down in a sheltered hollow. I leveled my field-glass upon him (it was well I had brought it), made sure of his color, a piece of pure loveliness, and hastened to get nearer. Before I could turn the corner of the intervening wire fence, however, he took flight, and another with him. I followed hastily, and was approaching some roadside maples when the voice was heard anew, and the two birds, both calling, mounted into the air and vanished beyond the wood northward.
What a sweet voice the bluebird's is! Calling or singing, it is the very soul of music. And the spring was really open. I went home in high spirits.
This happened on the 10th. Now it is the 13th. I have seen no more bluebirds, and song sparrows are still missing; but this morning an ecstatic purple finch warbled, and better still (for somehow, I do not know how or why, it gave me more pleasure), a flicker called again and again in his loud, peremptory, long-winded manner. He, or another like him, has been in the neighborhood all winter, but this was his first spring utterance. It was no uncertain sound.
The bluebird peeps in upon us, as it were. His air is timid. “Is winter really gone?” he seems to say; but the flicker is a breezier customer. His mood is positive. He pushes the door wide open, and slams it back against the wall. “Spring, spring!” he shouts, and all the world may hear him. Soon he and the downy will begin their amorous drumming on dry stubs and flakes of resonant bark.
This was early in the morning. Since then I have been over to the cattle pasture, and in it found a flock of ten or twelve robins. They were feeding in the grass, but at my approach flew into some savin trees and fell to eating berries. As seems to be always true at this time of the year, they were in splendid color, and apparently in the very pink of physical condition; their bills were never so golden, it seemed to me, nor their heads so velvety black, nor their eyelids so white. They would not sing, but it was like the best of music to hear them cackle softly as they flew from the grass into the cedars. Say what you will, the robin is a pretty fine bird, especially in March.