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THE LITTLE SONGSTERS —
THE YELLOWBIRD, SPARROWS, AND PHŒBE BIRD.
THE attempt to convey by note to any one an idea of musical sound different from what is generally accepted as music I realize is a questionably useful task; but in my estimation it is the only practical way of recording those familiar sounds of Nature which all of us should school ourselves to know and trace to their proper source. I would suggest, therefore, to those who unfortunately can not read music, to refer the bird songs to some musical member of the family, who, with the aid of the piano, will solve the enigmatical characters and thus produce a close imitation of bird melody.
The best thing to know about a bird is his song; and this can undoubtedly be recorded with perfect accuracy by musical signs; but tone it is not possible to record, especially if it is broken into quarter-tones and eighth-tones. This is exactly what the bird does, and consequently it is extremely difficult to know whether he means to sing A or A sharp, or whether, on account of a facile change in the quality of his note, he means to sing A at all! But, on the other hand, there is no denying it, the bird sings distinctly a minor or a major third, and also fifths and octaves, and not infrequently a good bit of the chromatic scale. This simply means that the bird sings conventional music, and we are justified in recording it with conventional musical signs.
bird song in Siegfried is nothing more musical than an American
thrush can perform; the thirds are true to the thrush’s idea of
music. I place the notes here for comparison with the song of the
Compare this with the notes which I have recorded farther on (in Chapter X), belonging to the hermit, and estimate which would be the more difficult bit for the mocking bird to learn! But the imitative music of a bird is artificial and only interesting because it is remarkable and curious. The natural song of any bird is sweeter and more lovely by far than the bald whistle notes it can be taught to imitate. A bullfinch, once a great pet in our family, had been trained to sing this:
true to the bird instinct of melody, he rendered the last note B
instead of A and slurred it to G. The little yellowbird in his double
chirp “slurs” with even greater distinctness, as follows:
But the happy little creature that says “chee-ep” exactly like the canary also sings on the wing, and repeats the slur with still greater emphasis. He dips along in graceful undulations, high up in the air — up and down, up and down — and on each recovery sings joyfully thus:
The yellowbird, it is safe to say, does the same thing the world over at sundown; and when we see him in company with the night hawk (only several hundred feet below him), skimming the blue sky which arches the Pemigewasset Valley in New Hampshire, we may be sure he will very soon be performing the same antics four hundred miles away among the hills of Pennsylvania.
I never see or hear the little fellow without thinking of that line in the old familiar hymn which runs:
Or if on joyful wing cleaving the skies.
It is almost impossible to pass along the highway at about seven o’clock in the evening of a fine midsummer’s day without seeing or hearing the yellowbird as he flits chirping along overhead.
But I must also introduce another rendering of the yellowbird’s song, as it is given by Mr. Simeon Pease Cheney. Here it is:1
Mr. Cheney also says that a very similar description of this bird’s song he had seen from the pen of Mr. Burroughs. What I wish particularly to emphasize in this matter of bird singing is the fact that it is perfectly possible by means of musical signs to identify the bird’s song beyond a shadow of doubt.2
It is somewhat disappointing not to find in Wilson’s American Ornithology any adequate or thoroughly reliable description of the songs of birds. The great ornithologist did not know that both the hermit and the tawny thrush are great vocalists. Even Elliot Coues has very little to say about their songs.
Wilson speaks of the yellowbird’s song as weakly resembling that of the English goldfinch; he also says that at sunrise, when great numbers of yellowbirds assemble on the same tree to bask and dress themselves, “the confused mingling of their notes forms a kind of harmony not at all unpleasant.” This is exactly the character of bird music which, as I have pointed out, is inadequately expressed by notes. But if I should attempt to write out this morning song it would run somewhat thus:
The first four notes are simply two introductory “cheeps,” and the rest are very canarylike.
Every one ought to know the yellowbird, or goldfinch (Spinus tristis), by sight. The top of its head, its wings, and tail are black; all the rest of the body is canary-yellow except beneath, where it is whitish; the bill and legs are cinnamon-brown. This is the costume of the male bird during the summer; in winter the yellow assumes an olive tinge, more nearly like the dull hues of the female. These birds build a nest pretty well up among the twigs of the gray birch, the red cherry, or the wild apple; in it are laid four or five dull-white eggs, daintily speckled brown. If one wishes to hear the yellow-bird’s song at its best he must rise at about half past four on a clear June morning; at this hour the sparrows, finches, robins, and meadow larks are all singing at once — a regular medley of musical tones with never a pause between! I will not attempt the impossible task of writing out this matutinal symphony, but a good title of it in plain English has been given to us by Robert Louis Stevenson in his Child’s Garden of Verses:
Ain’t you ‘shamed, you sleepy-head!
greatest singers, by far (at least of New England), are the sparrows.
But there are so many different species that I can only describe two
or three which seem to be the commonest. Chief among these is the
song sparrow (Melospiza fasciata). He is mainly responsible
for the great disturbance of public peace at sunrise. Wilson calls
him the earliest, sweetest, and most lasting songster of all, and he
is quite correct in this estimate if only the silvery voiced thrushes
are not included. He is a little longer or slimmer than the English
sparrow, but browner in color, and pretty well flecked over the
breast and sides with pointed spots of dark brown. The ashen color
about eye and chin are not nearly so pronounced in this species as it
is on the chipping sparrow and the tree sparrow. He is also a larger
and a browner bird than the field sparrow, and as the neck and whole
breast of the swamp sparrow are ash-color he bears only slight
resemblance to this bird.
He sings all summer long and well on into the fall, and we may see him at almost any hour of the day or evening perched on the topmost twig of a tree pouring forth his music with all the variety and execution of a canary. He also has a happy fashion of singing to himself — sotto voce — as he flits among the shrubbery near the ground searching for seeds. His music is spontaneous and variable, and he is entitled to be called the musician par excellence of the meadow. Many of his notes, though, are similar to those of the yellowbird and the indigo bird, but the scope of his voice is greater than either of these two sweet singers; the following is a characteristic example:
It will be noticed that his song generally ends with a trill, but not always, for I have heard him in the morning sing thus:
Another song which I heard while wandering through the Arnold arboretum, on March 22d last, ran in this wise:
song sparrows build their nests on the ground or near it in a low
dense bush. In the nest there are usually four or five little white
eggs, some times of a blue-gray tone, plentifully freckled with
rusty-red spots; the birds often raise more than one brood in a
season. The plumage of the female is scarcely different from that of
As for the pert, little chipping sparrow (Spizella socialis), I believe he commonly lives on the high way, and not very far, either, from some habitation. He is, in truth, a sociable little creature who will thankfully pick up as many crumbs as are spread for him. I gave a little fellow his choice one morning of some fat young cut worms and bits of dry bread. He chose the latter and spurned the former, much to my surprise, although from my own point of view the worms were repulsive; but between worms and crumbs one would naturally think the bird’s choice would fall on the former.
The chipping sparrow, I think, has no musical voice; the best he can do in the way of singing is to utter a monotonous “chip,” and a continuous, crescendo ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-chip. But he is a familiar character, often seen flitting along the roadside among the stalks of goldenrod in summer time, and, later on in the season, helping himself to the seeds of the hardhack (Spiræa tomentosa). He is strongly marked about the head and wings with chestnut-brown and a blackish brown; above and beneath his eye are long lines of ashen-gray, and his breast is also this color. The female is similarly but less darkly colored; she lays four or five light-blue eggs. The nest is usually built in the bushes beside some brook that passes beneath the road.
The yellow-winged sparrow has been described in the foregoing chapter on Meadow Singers.
The field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) is another small character with a red-brown head, a bit gray over the eye, brown back, streaked at black, edged with gray, and an ocher-colored breast; the bill is reddish light brown. He has a good loud voice of his own, and I am by no means sure that he ever subsides to the cricket restricted to perhaps three tones, but these are distinctly musical:
The first three notes are given with deliberation, then he hurries on and finishes with a loud canary-like, chirruping trill. Mr. Minot speaks of his “exquisitely modulated whistles,” but this is not a strictly accurate description, for the first three notes are alike, and are given with unmistakable accent and without the slightest modulation.3 It is amusing to watch the little bird as he stands on the low, projecting bough of a yellow birch and repeats his simple song over and over again at intervals of about twelve seeonds (it only occupies five). Each time he sings he tips his head backward and a trifle sideways, and throws his voice out with all his might, ending in an almost imperceptible, high grace note on which he shuts his bill very unceremoniously; then, perhaps, he shifts his position a trifle, serapes his bill on the branchlet, which, I presume, is equivalent to clearing his throat, and proceeds as before. In another instant he is two hundred yards away, down in the meadow border, singing the same song again.4
The field sparrow’s nest is usually on the ground; it is built of coarse grasses, rootlets, and bits of weed stalks. The eggs (from three to four) are white marked with red-brown specks.
A really tame bird, and one whieh is a trifle troublesome about a cottage in the woods, is the Phoebe, sometimes called pewit or pewee (Sayornis Phœbe). This little ereature sometimes prefers to build her nest under the eaves of my piazza or woodshed, and there is much ado to protect the young from the enemy, a pet Manx cat. But one fine morning Mr. Manx succeeded in passing an extemporized barricade and devoured the whole family — not a small matter, as Mrs. Phoebe usually raises five little ones.
The Phoebe generally builds her nest under the span of some bridge, using mud, sticks, hairs, bits of rag, or, in fact, anything convenient, no matter what its nature; in the nest we will probably find five white eggs sparingly dotted on the larger ends with rusty-red. I have drawn with the phoebe that picturesque bridge crossing the Clinton River, Pontiac, Mich.
I can not say that the bird is a pretty one, but it is at least softly colored. The head, which is somewhat crested, is black; the back is rusty-black, and the breast is sooty-white — almost gray. The two colors meet on a line at the eye, giving the bird a fine-appearing, characteristic head. As the male bird sits on a branch of the apple tree near the nest he sings his one song of only two notes, thus:
Sometimes he hiccoughs in the finale, thus: “Phœ-hick-be.” But the song is quite monotonous and sounds remarkably like some thin, piping voice calling for “Phœbe.” In size the bird is a trifle larger than the song sparrow. He holds a nearly upright position as he sits on a twig, and now and then suddenly darts after some passing insect, but returns immediately to resume his song. He cocks his head this way and that as he sits and sings, evidently keeping a sharp lookout for stray millers, flies, and bees.____________________
1 It is from one of a number of perfectly delightful articles on bird music, by Mr. Simeon Pease Cheney. I advise every one who loves birds to read them. See the Century Magazine for June, 1889.
2 My own experience eight years ago will prove this. Upon glancing over the articles on bird music, by Mr. Cheney, in the Century, I instantly recognized among his musical interpretations the songs of the hermit thrush, Wilson’s thrush, scarlet tanager, and yellowbird.
3 I hardly agree with Mr. Cheney, however, that this sparrow’s song is confined to a minor third; but most likely all field sparrows do not sing alike.
4 His song is not invariably like that whieh I have given; sometimes he indulges in a simple short trill. I chose the particular song recorded, because it coincided to a remarkable degree with one written by Mr. Cheney; which fact is conclusive evidence that Spizella pusilla was the bird undoubtedly heard in both instances.