Here to return to
WAITING FOR THE MUSIC
I AM impatient for the concert to begin. It is the 7th of February. For three weeks I have been in Miami; birds are plentiful; the country, one may almost say, is full of them; the weather, mostly a few shades too warm for a pedestrian’s comfort, seems to be all that birds could wish; but thus far there has been scarcely a sign of the grand vernal awakening. Warm or cold, for the birds it is still winter. Phoebes, to be sure, have sung ever since my arrival, I cannot help wondering why; and the same is true of white-eyed vireos. It is impossible to walk through the hammock woods without getting somewhat more than one’s fill of their saucily emphatic deliverances. For aught I can see, they are quite as loquacious now as they will be two or three months hence. Once in a while, hardly oftener than once a week, I should say, I have heard a mockingbird letting himself loose, and rather more frequently, especially during the last few days, cardinal grosbeaks have sweetened the air with their whistle; but for much the greater part the birds are dumb. On the morning of February 1, as I stepped out upon the piazza, a house wren sang from a live-oak by the kitchen door. I remembered the date. “Good!” said I to myself, “the time of the singing of birds is come.” But I was too much in haste. Since then I have heard plenty of wren chattering, but not another note of wren music.
Still the opening of the annual concert cannot be much longer delayed. When I was in Florida nine years ago, mockingbirds were in free song at St. Augustine, before the middle of February; and at this point, three hundred miles and more farther south, the season must be earlier rather than later.
Some of the more distinctively Southern of the birds about me I am especially desirous of hearing — the Florida yellow-throats, for example, a local race of the Maryland yellow-throat, so called. They are everywhere in sight (the dark brown of the flanks distinguishing them readily), and as their music is said to be very unlike that of their familiar Northern relative, I am naturally desirous of adding it to my (memorized) collection. It will be nothing great, presumably, but it will be something new.
Still more interesting will be the song of the painted bunting, or nonpareil, a beauty of beauties that I had never seen (a wild one, I mean) until this winter. About Miami it is decidedly common, though the green females show themselves ten times as often as the red, blue, and yellow-green males. What a superbly dressed creature the masculine nonpareil is! And he carries himself as if he knew it. “Dear me,” he seems always to be saying; “this Joseph’s coat of mine makes me so conspicuous! Some day it will be my undoing.” My readers will most likely have seen the gorgeous little creature in cages (I found one many years ago in the Boston Public Garden, I remember), though the chances are that they have never seen him in anything like his brightest and liveliest feather. A bird, like a butterfly, was born to be looked at out of doors with the sunlight on him. So far I have heard no note from the nonpareil except his rather soft chip. The birds frequent weedy tangles in open grounds, showing special fondness for patches of the white bur-marigold, and seem to be well scattered over the country.
Day after day I walk down through the hammock (I have spoken of it before, and most likely shall do so again) between Miami and Cocoanut Grove. Indeed, so constant are my peregrinations thither that I begin to find my innocent self treated as a kind of mysterious personage — one of the “features” of the place, so to speak, an “object of interest,” like the gumbo-limbos, the air-plants, and the blossoming lime trees. Three times, at least, I have overheard a driver describing me to his fares as “the man who comes down through this hammock every day” — with strong emphasis on the last two words. One passenger was good enough to surmise, quite audibly, that I might be a botanist, while another loudly proclaimed his belief that I must be “a sort of a bird fiend.” So much for being useful in one’s day and generation. The tourist mind— like the tourist stomach — abhors a vacuum. It must have something to browse upon. And the drivers know it. It is a bad day for the cow when she loses her cud.
In sober truth the hammock is well worth a daily visit; and almost as often as I am here it comes over me what a glorious concert hall it will be when all these thousands of birds find their voices, if they ever do; for it may be, I know, that the great majority will start on their journey northward before that happy day arrives. Here — to name only some of the more common species — here are mockingbirds, catbirds, cardinals, house wrens, Carolina wrens, ruby-crowned kinglets, palm warblers, myrtle warblers, parula warblers, prairie warblers, black-and-white warblers, Florida yellow-throats, oven-birds, blue‑gray gnatcatchers (a host), white-eyed vireos (another host), solitary vireos, chewinks, painted buntings, phoebes, crested flycatchers, and blue jays. What a chorus there would be if the spring should get into all their throats at once! Might I be here to listen! Then, indeed, I could make a list, with the hearing to help the eyesight. Now I follow the road, and find only such birds as happen to be near it at the moment when I pass. Then it would be another story. I should need a stenographer. The names would crowd upon the pencil.
It is really an astonishing, unnatural-seeming thing — this multitude of birds, in this cloudless summer weather, with mating-time so close at hand, and no impulse to sing. Yet that expression is a trifle too strong, or at least too sweeping. This forenoon I heard a gnatcatcher warbling softly, as if to himself, tuning his instrument, it may be, or, more likely, dreaming. The cardinals, too, are certainly growing amorous. I see the bright males quarreling among themselves here and there (they are constantly in the road), and not infrequently, as I have said, they whistle with all sweetness. At that work there is no bird to excel them. How any female heart can resist such appeals is more than any bachelor’s heart can imagine. I rejoice in their numbers.
I should love to walk through the hammock and hear them all whistling together, a chorus a good mile in length and no rod without a bird.
Loggerhead shrikes are paired or pairing. The other day I saw one fly up from the ground and feed another perched on a telegraph wire. He was doing no more than was meet, her cool-appearing, unresponsive manner seemed to say. Mockingbirds, also, though singing little, are beginning to manifest symptoms of jealousy. If all the mockers and all the cardinals should break into voice at once, the air itself would hardly contain the music.
Two pileated woodpeckers that I see every few days at a particular spot in the hammock have already come to an understanding, or so I fancy from certain bits of conduct that I have been privileged to witness. This morning I stood watching the female as she hammered to pieces a decayed branch close by me, when all at once her mate called in the distance. Instantly she held up her head, as much as to say, “Hark! Was that he?” and the next moment she was gone. Then I heard low conversational notes, followed presently by loud drumming on a resonant stub or branch. I thought of what I have heard preachers say, that Heaven is a state, not a place.
Pileated woodpeckers are birds good to look at, and, wild as they look, it is pleasant to find them so approachable. But in fact, this is most productive woodpecker country. Here are flickers in abundance, red-bellies almost as many, and along with them the red-headed, the red-cockaded (in the pine lands), the yellow-bellied (least common of all), the downy, and the hairy; all, in short, that could be expected, with the exception of the ivory-billed; and (such is human nature) I would give more to see him than all the rest together.
Well, I will not wish time away, as the saying is. I begin to perceive that I have none to spare. But I shall rejoice when some morning I go out and find the conductor’s arm lifted, and the chorus minding the beat.