Here to return to
THE birds are having their innings. They have been away and have come back, and even the most stolid citizen is for the moment aware of their presence. I rejoice to see them so popular.
Two or three mornings ago I met a friend in the road, a farmer, one of the happy men, good to talk with, who glory in their work. A phoebe was calling from the top of an elm, and as we were near the farmer's house I asked, “How long has the phoebe been here?” He looked up, saw the bird, and answered with a smile, “He must have just come. I haven’t heard him before.” I made some remark about its being pleasant to have such creatures with us again, and he responded, as I knew he would, in the heartiest manner. “Oh, I do love to see them!” he said.
I was reminded of a lady of whom I had been told the day before. She had felt obliged, as I heard the story, to attend a meeting of the woman's club, but remarked to one of her assembled sisters that she had had half a mind to stay at home. The truth was, she explained, that two or three meadow larks were singing gloriously in the rear of her house, and she could hardly bear to come away and leave them. I hope her self-denial was rewarded.
On the same day I heard of a servant who hastened into the sitting-room to say to her mistress, “Oh, Mrs. —! there’s a little bird out in the hedge singing to beat the band.” The newcomer proved to be a song sparrow, and the lady of the house was fully as enthusiastic as the servant in her welcome of it, though I dare say she expressed herself in less picturesque language.
And I know another house, still nearer home, where a few days ago the dinner-table was actually deserted for a time, in the very midst of the meal. Three bluebirds, with snowbirds, goldfinches, and chickadees, had suddenly appeared under the windows. “There! there! In the maple! Will you look at him! Oh-h-h!” The dinner might “get cold,” as the prudent housewife suggested, but it did not matter. Such a color as those bluebirds displayed was better than anything that an eater could put into his mouth.
Yes, as I say, the birds are having their innings. In whichever direction I walk, in town or country, I am asked about them. A schoolgirl stopped me in the street the other day. “Can you tell me what that bird is?” she inquired. A white-breasted nuthatch was whistling over our heads in a shade tree. Possibly the study of live birds will be as fashionable a few years hence as the wearing of dead ones was a few years ago.
On the 22d of March, as I stood listening to a most uncommonly brilliant song sparrow (now is the time for such things, before the greater artists monopolize our attention) and the outgivings of a too chary fox sparrow, the first cowbird of the year announced himself. Polygamist, shirk, and, by all our human standards, general reprobate, I was still glad to hear him. He is what he was made. Few birds are more interesting, psychologically, if one wishes an object of study.
Saturday, the 23d, was cloudless, a rare event at this time of the year, and with an outdoor neighbor I made an excursion to Wayland, to see what might be visible and audible in those broad Sudbury River meadows.
We took a “round” familiar to us (to one of us, at least), down the road to the north bridge and causeway, thence through the woods on the opposite side of the river to a main thoroughfare, or turnpike, and back to the village again over the south causeway. Meadow larks were in full tune, now from a treetop, now from a fence-post. They were my first ones since the autumn, and their music was relished accordingly.
As we stopped on the bridge to look down the blue river and across the overflowed meadow lands to a gray, flat-topped hill far beyond toward Concord, we suddenly discovered a shining white object on the surface of the water. It proved to be a duck, one of two, jet black and snow white, and presumably a merganser, though it was too far away to be made out with positiveness. Thoreau, I remember, makes frequent mention of mergansers and golden-eyes in his March journals.
We were admiring this couple (a couple only in the looser sense of the word, for both birds were drakes), when all at once some small far-away object “swam into my ken.” “A swallow!” said I, and even as I spoke a second one came into the field of the glass. Yes, there they were, two white-breasted swallows, sailing about over the meadows on the 23d of March. How unspeakably beautiful they looked, their lustrous blue-green backs with the bright sun shining on them! The date must constitute a “record,” I assured my companion. Once before, at least, I had seen swallows in March, but that, I felt certain, was on one of the last days of the month. Strange that such creatures should have ventured so far northward thus early. If Gilbert White could see them, he would be more firmly convinced than ever that swallows “lay themselves up in holes and caverns, and do, insect-like and bat-like, come forth at mild times, and then retire again to their latebræ.” For my own part, not being able to accept this doctrine, I contented myself with Americanizing Shakespeare. “Swallows,” said I,
“Swallows that come before the daffodil dares,
And take the winds of March with beauty.”
I could hardly recover from my excitement, which was renewed an hour afterward when, on the southern causeway, a third bird (or one of the same two) passed near us. But now see how untrustworthy a clerk a man's memory is! On reaching home I turned at once to my book of dates, and behold, it was exactly four years ago to an hour, March 23, 1897, that I saw two white-breasted swallows about a pond here in Wellesley. We had broken no “record,” after all. But I imagine the Rev. Gilbert White saying, “Yes, yes; you will notice that in both cases the birds were seen in the immediate neighborhood of water.” And there is no doubt that such places are the ones in which to look most hopefully for the first swallows of the year.
All this time a herring gull, a great beauty in high plumage, was sailing up and down the meadows like a larger swallow. He, too, was one of Thoreau's river friends at this season; and since we are talking of dates, I note it as a coincidence that precisely forty-two years ago (March 23, 1859), he entered in his journal that he saw “come slowly flying from the southwest a great gull, of voracious form, which at length, by a sudden and steep descent, alighted in Fair Haven Pond [a wide place in the river], scaring up a crow which was seeking its food on the edge of the ice.” Our bird, also, made one “sudden and steep descent,” and picked from the ice some small, dark-colored object, which at our distance might have been a dead leaf. But if Thoreau saw ducks and gulls, he saw no March swallows. His earliest date for them, so far as the printed journals show, seems to have been April 5.
The woods brought us nothing, — beyond a chickadee or two, — but we were hardly out of them before we heard the blue-jay scream of a red-shouldered hawk, and presently saw first one bird and then another (rusty shoulder and all) sailing above us. A grand sight it is, a soaring and diving hawk. May it never become less frequent.
I must quote Thoreau once more, this time from memory, and for substance only. I am with him, heart and soul, when he prays for more hawks, though at the cost of fewer chickens. And I like the spirit of a friend of mine who girdled a tall pine tree in his woods, that it might serve as a perching station for such visitors.
As we approached the village again, we came upon two phœbes. Like the white-breasted swallow, the phœbe winters in Florida, and is by a long time the earliest member of its family to arrive in New England. Red-winged blackbirds were numerous, of course, every one a male, and in one place we passed a flock of crow blackbirds feeding on the ground.
Not the least interesting bird of the forenoon was a shrike, sitting motionless and dumb in an apple tree. The shrike has all the attractiveness of singularity. He is no lover of his kind, save as the lion loves the lamb and the hawk the chicken. Lonesome? No, I thank you. Except in breeding-time, he is sufficient unto himself. Even when he happens to feel like conversation, he goes not in search of company. He is like the amiable philosopher who was asked by some busybody why he so often talked to himself. “Well,” said he, “for two reasons: first, I like to talk to a sensible man, and secondly, I like to hear a sensible man talk.” In the present instance the shrike may very well have considered that there was little occasion for his talking, either to himself or to anybody else, since a bunch of twenty masculine redwings in some willow trees near by were chattering in chorus until, to use a good Old Colony phrase, a man could hardly hear himself think. Blackbird loquacity, each particular bird sputtering “to beat the band,” is one of the wonders of the world.