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XVIII

BIRDS FOR EVERYBODY

SOME birds belong exclusively to specialists. They are so rare, or their manner of life is so seclusive, that people in general can never be expected to know them except from books. The latest list of the birds of Massachusetts includes about three hundred and fifty species and sub species. Of these, seventy-five or more are so foreign to this part of the country as to have appeared here only by accident, while many others are so excessively rare that no individual observer can count upon seeing them, however close a lookout he may keep. Other species are present in goodly numbers, but only in certain portions of the State; and still others, though generally distributed and fairly numerous, live habitually in almost impenetrable swamps or in deep forests, and of necessity are seen only by those who make it their business to look for them.

It is something for which busy men and women may well be thankful, therefore, that so many of the most pleasing, or otherwise interesting, of all our birds are among those which may be called birds for everybody. Such are the robin, the bluebird, the Baltimore oriole,— or golden robin, — the blue jay, the crow, and the chickadee. Of all these we may say that they are common; they come in every one’s way, and, what is still more to the point, they cannot be mistaken for any thing else. Others are equally common, and are easily enough seen, but their identity is not so much a matter of course.

The song sparrow, for example, is abundant in Massachusetts from the middle of March to the end of October. Outside of the forest it is almost ubiquitous; it sings beautifully and with the utmost freedom; it ought, one would say, to be universally known. But it is a sparrow, not the sparrow. In other words, it is only one of many, and so, common as it is, and freely as it sings (it is to be heard in every garden and by every road side in the latter half of March, when few other birds are in tune), it passes unrecognized by the generality of people. They read in books of song sparrows, chipping sparrows, field sparrows, tree sparrows, swamp sparrows, vesper sparrows, white-throated sparrows, fox sparrows, yellow-winged sparrows, savanna sparrows, and the like, and when they see any little mottled brown bird, they say, “Oh, it’s a sparrow,” and seek to know nothing more.

The family of warblers — among the loveliest of all birds — are in a still worse case, and much the same may be said of swallows and blackbirds, thrushes and vireos. The number of species and their perplexing similarity, which are such an at traction to the student, prove an effectual bar to those who have time and money for newspapers and novels, but can spare neither for a manual of local ornithology.

I have named six birds which every one knows, or may know, but of course I do not mean that these are all. Why should not everybody know the goldfinch — a small, stout-billed, bright yellow, canary-like bird, with black wings and tail and a black cap? And the flicker — or golden-winged woodpecker — a little larger than the robin, with gold-lined wings, a black crescent on the breast, a red patch on the back of the head, and a white rump, conspicuous as the bird takes wing? The hummingbird, too — our only one; I should say that everybody ought to recognize it, only that I have found some who confuse it with sphinx moths, and will hardly believe me when I tell them of their mistake. The cedar-bird, likewise, known also as the cherry-bird and the waxwing, is a bird by itself; remarkably trim and sleek, its upper parts of a peculiarly warm cinnamon brown, its lower parts yellowish, its tail tipped handsomely with yellow, its head marked with black and adorned with a truly magnificent top-knot; as great a lover of cherries as any schoolboy, and one of the first birds upon which the youthful taxidermist tries his hand. Just now — in early March — the waxwings are hereabout in great flocks (I saw more than a hundred, surely, three days ago), stuffing themselves, literally, with savin berries. These large flocks will after a while disappear, and some time later, in May, smaller companies will arrive from the South and settle with us for the summer, helping themselves to our cherries in return for the swarms of insects of whose presence they have relieved us. If we see them thus engaged, we shall do well to remember the Scripture text, “The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

This enumeration of birds, so strongly marked that even a wayfaring man may easily name them, might be extended indefinitely. It would be a strange Massachusetts boy who did not know the ruffed grouse (though he would probably call him the partridge) and the Bob White; the king bird, with his black and white plumage, his aerial tumblings, and his dashing pursuit of the crow; the splendid scarlet tanager, fiery red, with black tail and wings; the bobolink; the red-winged blackbird, whose watery conkaree is so welcome a sound about the meadows in March; the slate-colored snowbird; the indigo-bird, small, deep blue throughout, and with a thick bill; the butcher-bird, a constant though not numerous winter visitor, sometimes flying against windows in which canaries are hung, as one did at our house only this winter — these surely may be known by any who will take even slight pains to form their acquaintance. And, beside these, there are two birds whom everybody does know, but whom I forgot to include with the six first mentioned, the catbird and the brown thrasher, two over grown, long-tailed wrens, near relatives of the mockingbird, both of them great singers in their way, and one of them — the catbird — decidedly familiar and a fairly good mimic.


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