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YELLOW–BILLED MAGPIES

MY two unsuccessful jaunts at Paso Robles in search of yellow-billed magpies only put a keener edge upon my appetite. By this time, indeed, to use an expressive colloquialism, common when I was younger, I had magpies on the brain. If such birds were to be seen, at any reasonable price, I wished to see them. I had heard, before leaving Massachusetts, that this might possibly be accomplished in the vicinity of Monterey; but a famous California ornithologist, to whom I am indebted for many favors, had done his best to make an end of all such expectations. There were no magpies about Monterey, he said, in a tone of positiveness. He had been there, and he knew. Happily, however, there is always the possibility of error in assertions of this kind, no matter who makes them, and I still cherished an unspoken hope that my original information, which likewise had seemed to come from excellent authority, might turn out to be correct. It is no very serious offense, no sacrilege, surely, to question even a scientific man’s knowledge, so long as it is of a negative sort, and so long, especially, as he is not admitted into the secret of our skepticism.

When I had been at Pacific Grove — on the Monterey peninsula — about a week, I walked a few miles over the hill for a look down into Carmel Valley, of the beauty and birdiness of which I had received alluring reports; and on my way back, after a forenoon of exceeding pleasure, a young man driving into Monterey with a load of apples (Carmel apples are in high repute hereabout, it appears, though my difficult Yankee mouth was always hankering for a tart New England russet), offered me a lift. Half reluctantly I accepted the invitation, and it was well I did.

We fell into talk, of course, and presently it became known, some things being difficult of concealment, that I was in search of birds, and wanted of all things to see a few yellow-billed magpies. “Magpies?” the young man responded, looking up with something of surprise in his face. Yes, I said; I had heard that there were some on a certain ranch somewhere out this way, So-and-So’s ranch. Did he know where it was?

Oh, yes, he knew the place. But it was a hard one to get at, especially just now, since the recent heavy rains had swollen the river. But why didn’t I go down to such-and-such a creek, he asked. For that I shouldn’t have to cross the river; and there were magpies there, he was sure. He had often seen them. “Black and white,” he added, “with yellow bills; very noisy.”

“Good for you!” I thought. “You’re the very man I’ve been looking for.” Indeed, I not only thought so, but said so; and he proceeded to give me as definite instructions as might be concerning the road, though they sounded none too clear, I must confess.

I was to drive about twenty miles from Monterey, keeping to such-and-such a course, till I came to a certain man’s ranch. There, or near there, I should find a creek. At the creek, the name of which I do not print because — for one reason — I have found nobody who can tell me how to spell it, I was to take to my legs, turning to the left and following the cañon. There I should find the magpies. I couldn’t miss them. At least, my informant had never been there without seeing some.

Several days passed. I made inquiries at a livery-stable, but received no great encouragement. The place was a long way off, much farther than my young man had put it. (Livery-keepers’ miles are apt to be many.) They would send me out, if I said so; but it would be a hard day’s trip, and they appeared to have no driver who knew anything in particular about the route. Meanwhile, I was having royal luck with a set of migratory shore-birds, and even the yellow-billed magpies must wait. They would wait, while migrants, like Folly, must be taken as they fly.

Then came a lull, and at another stable I found the very driver I was seeking. He knew nothing about magpies, he confessed, but he knew the road, and by half past seven the next morning, it was agreed, we would be on the way.

The weather was most propitious; the sky cloudless, with exactly enough of a light breeze blowing; and when we had mounted the long hill, through the Monterey pines, and come out upon a grassy slope sprinkled with strangely picturesque, wind-swept, one-sided evergreen oaks, not far from the Carmel Mission and the mouth of the Carmel River, the valley lay before us, a scene of enchanting beauty.

The driver proved to be conversable (a good listener, too, which is half the battle); the horses promised to be equal to all we should ask of them; birds were numerous; flocks of white seagulls dotted the brown, cultivated lands, where they follow the plough like so many blackbirds; the fields and roadsides were bright with sun-cups (a kind of dwarf evening primrose), saucy-faced, long-stemmed yellow violets, and other blossoms; and it was impossible not to feel that this time my hunt was fated to prosper.

Once in five miles, or some such matter, we passed a house (the driver knew every one by its owner’s name); two or three times a roadrunner was seen skulking amid the chaparral, his long, expressive tail rising and falling; and by and by we came to clumps of trees that pleased me as much, perhaps, as any of the lesser things that I have seen in California: California buckeyes; not yet in bloom, but covered with such a canopy of new leaves, and so matchless in shape — low, round-topped, widespreading, a perfect dome of greenery — well, there is no saying how I appreciated their loveliness. If they are not cultivated, as I have never heard that they are, it must be, I should think, because gardeners do not quite know their business. About the same time, perhaps before it, we passed my first fuchsia-flowered gooseberry-bushes, their downward-curving branches hung so thickly with long, odd-shaped scarlet blooms that I felt at first as if I were looking at good Yankee-land barberry-bushes loaded with dead-ripe fruit.

We had been on the road about four hours when we met a man, a German, it seemed, in an open wagon. “We’ll ask him about it,” said the driver; and he pulled up the horses.

Such a creek? Yes, the German knew it. It was about four miles ahead. Was there water in it? Well, there might be — a little. How should we know when we got to it? There was a gate close by.

Then I explained, in a word, what I was after, a certain kind of bird, a magpie. Oh, yes, the stranger answered, with no sign of surprise, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a man to drive fifty miles, without a gun, to look at magpies! — Oh, yes, I should find them. “Go in at the gate,” he said. And then he added, “You may have to go up as far as the house; but you’ll find ‘em.” Heaven bless the man, say I, who has the wit and the will to deal in particulars when information is wanted.

My spirits ran high. The game was as good as won. And shortly, before I had noticed anything of the kind myself, while I supposed, indeed, that we had still a mile or two to travel, the driver said, “This must be the creek.” Sure enough there was a dribble of water, at which, with patience, a man might fill a quart cup. Yes, and there was the gate. “All right,” said I, as my feet struck the ground; “I’ll find you here when I come back.”

I proceeded cautiously up the path beside the brook. Birds of various sorts were in the bushes, but I would not stay to notice them. A strange warbler, even, could not detain me. Perhaps it would be there when I returned. If not, no matter. It was probably a lutescent warbler, I knew afterward, when I could spare my wits to consider the matter. For the minute I could think of only one thing; there was only one thing that I wanted to see, a black-and-white bird with a long tail and a yellow bill.

Up the ravine I went, and still no sign. Hope was growing less, my spirits less exuberant. Then I came within sight of a distant shanty in a clearing, and recalled our German friend’s caution. Even yet there was a chance. Across the wide grassy field I hastened, and up to the house, which turned out to be inhabited, a thing I should have deemed impossible. Nobody was in sight, but I could hear a Mexican or Spanish woman crooning to her baby as she rocked it to sleep.

I took my station near the corner of the house, in the shade of a cypress tree, and waited. Minutes passed, — five minutes, ten minutes, — and no magpie, nor any sound of one. And then, before I knew it, my eye was on the bird. She (I suppose it was she) was coming up from the bottom of the valley, a few rods off, bringing her tail behind her; and in her yellow bill she held a stick. She was building a nest! True enough, she flew to the top of the nearest oak, a solitary tree, standing a hundred feet away, lit on the rim of the already large nest (as large as a half-bushel basket, I said half an hour later, when I went under the tree to inspect it), and carefully worked the twig into its place in the wall.

For the three quarters of an hour that I remained she and her mate were in sight the greater part of the time. Twice, at least, another stick was added to the nest; but in general both birds did nothing in particular, and to my disappointment had practically nothing to say. Perhaps it was because of a stranger’s presence; but I doubt it; they showed no concern, nor even curiosity, about him, as he stood, glass in hand, under the cypress. More likely (at high noon, the sky cloudless) it was their quiet hour.

Greedily my eyes fed upon them. Not that they were handsomer, or better, or intrinsically more interesting than forty other birds; but they were what I had been seeking; they were rare, or so I thought; they had cost me labor; the sight of them had been more than once almost despaired of.

A hummingbird was every minute or two buzzing in the branches directly over my head, but at first I could not look up. (She, too, was building a nest. I saw it half an hour later.) The woman sang to her baby; I could hear all the while the rhythmical creak of the cradle or the hammock-rope; a pair of red-tailed hawks came and went persistently, as if the place belonged to them; a flock of grackles chattered in the cow-yard; quail were calling from the hillside; a bluebird perched near me, the very hue of heaven on his wings. Indeed, it was a peaceful, heavenly hour in that little cup of a valley, full of California sunshine — an hour I am likely to remember.

I came away, leaving the two magpies standing in the freshly green grass. A pretty picture. The strange warbler still flitted among the willow branches, singing a bit of a ditty as I passed. And the driver waited at the gate. “I found ‘em,” said I; and he seemed to share my happiness.

And what a pleasant drive it was homeward, with ten thousand things to look at, and all the way the beauty of the valley, the river, and the hills! I recall with special delight a field brightly purple with wild portulacas. Tiny flowers they are, of the nature of weeds, I suppose; but in the mass, and in the sun, and by the acre, they make a natural garden such as not even the more famous California poppy can surpass. And hour after hour, whenever there was no compelling cause to look at anything else, I was looking at those two yellow-billed magpies. May no plague come nigh their dwelling.


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