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VI

THE SCARLET TANAGER


SCARLET  TANAGER
1. Male       2. Female

WHEN I began to learn the birds, I was living in a large city. One of the first things I did, after buying a book, was to visit a cabinet of mounted specimens — “stuffed birds,” as we often call them. Such a wonderful and confusing variety as there was to my ignorant eyes! Among them I remarked especially a gorgeous scarlet creature with black wings and a black tail. It was labeled the scarlet tanager. So far as I was concerned, it could not have looked more foreign if it had come from Borneo. My book told me that it was common in Massachusetts. It might be, I thought, but I had never seen it there. And a bird so splendid as that! Bright enough to set the woods on fire! How could I have missed it?

Well, there came a Saturday, with its half-holiday for clerks, and I went into the country, where I betook myself to the woods of my native village, the woods wherein I had rambled all the years of my boyhood. And that afternoon, before I came out of them, I put my opera-glass on two of those wonderful scarlet and black birds. It was a day to be remembered.

Since that time, of course, I have seen many like them. In one sense, their beauty has become to me an old story; but I hope that I have set here and there a reader on a hunt that has been as happily rewarded as mine was on that bright summer afternoon. In one respect, the beginner has a great advantage over an old hand. He has the pleasure of more excitement and surprise.

The bird to be looked for is a little longer than a bluebird, of a superb scarlet color except for its wings and tail, which, as I have said, are jet-black. I speak of the male in full spring costume. His mate does not show so much as a red feather, but is greenish yellow, or yellowish green, with dark — not black — wings and tail.

You may see the tanager once in a while in the neighborhood of your house, if the grounds are set with shade-trees, but for the most part he lives in woods, especially in hard woods of a fairly old growth.

One of the first things for you to do, with him as with all birds, is to acquaint yourself with his call-notes and his song. The call is of two syllables, and sounds like chip-chirr. It is easily remembered after you have once seen the bird in the act of uttering it. The song is much in the manner of the robin’s, but less smooth and flow ing. I have often thought, and sometimes said, that it is just such a song as the robin might give us if he were afflicted with what people call a “hoarse cold.” The bird sings as if his whole heart were engaged, but at the same time in a noticeably broken and short-winded style.

The oftener you hear him, the easier you will find it to distinguish him from a robin, although at first you may find yourself badly at a loss. A boy that can tell any one of twenty playmates by the tones of his voice alone will need nothing but practice and attention to do the same for a great part of the sixty or seventy kinds of com mon birds living in the woods and fields about him.

The tanager’s nest is built in a tree, on the flat of a level branch, so to speak, generally toward the end. Sometimes, at any rate, it is a surprisingly loose, carelessly constructed thing, through the bottom of which one can see the blue or bluish eggs while standing on the ground underneath.

It must be plain to any one that the mother bird, in her dull greenish dress, is much less easily seen, and therefore much less in danger, as she sits brooding, than she would be if she wore the flaming scarlet feathers that render her mate so handsome.

Southern readers will know also another kind of tanager, not red and black, but red all over. He, too, is a great beauty, although if the question were left to me, I could not give him the palm over his more northern relative. The red of the southern bird is of a different shade — “rose-red” or “vermilion,” the books call it. He sings like the scarlet tanager, but in a smoother voice. Although he is a red bird, he is not to be confounded with the southern red-bird. The latter, better known as the cardinal grosbeak, is a thick-billed bird of the sparrow and finch family. He is frequently seen in cages, and is a royal whistler.

The scarlet tanager — the male in red and black plumage — is not to be mistaken for any thing else in the Eastern States. Once see him, and you will always know him. For that reason he is an excellent subject for the beginner. He passes the winter in Central or South America, and returns to New England in the second week of May. He makes his appearance in full dress, but later in the season changes it for one resembling pretty closely the duller plumage of his mate.


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