Here to return to
A BIRD–GAZER’S PUZZLES
THE days of my youth have come back to me. I am again at the foot of the ladder, a boy in the primary school, a speller of a-b-abs. The experience is pleasant, but not unmixedly so; it is sweet, with a suggestion of bitter. I am finding out daily that one is never too old to be mistaken. I knew it before, of course; but I am still finding it out; for the two things are not incompatible. One may know a thing, and still have need to learn it. It is possible that the most erudite scholar has never more than begun to apprehend his own ignorance; nay, that he would never make more than a beginning in that salutary study were he to burn the midnight oil for a thousand years. In that time he might square the circle and discover the philosopher’s stone, but he would not discover how little he knew. In that respect, in respect to what we do not know, human capacity is unlimited. Finite creatures that we are, we are endowed with a kind of negative infinity. And, for one, I wish to make the most of my greatest gift. It shall not be “lodged with me useless,” if I can help it.
I saw a strange warbler the other day. That is to say, I thought I saw one. I had been wandering for a whole forenoon amid the chaparral just outside the city of San Antonio, and had enjoyed a good number of novel sensations, when suddenly (such things always come suddenly, but it seems necessary to repeat the word) a tiny bird moved in a low bush directly before me. “A gray warbler with no wing-marks,” I said; and the next instant I saw that its crown was light yellow. It moved again, and the forward parts came into view. Its throat also was yellow. At that moment it was eating a yellow berry. Its ground color was near the shade worn by a juvenile chestnut-sided warbler, and the yellow of the crown and throat was very lightly laid on over the gray, so to express it, just as it is in the chestnut-side’s case.
Now what kind of warbler can this be? I asked myself: a gray warbler with a yellow crown and a yellow throat, and no other adornments. And with the question there came into my mind, as by the effect of immediate inspiration, the word Calaveras. Whether it was Calaveras or something else, there could be no doubt of my being able to clear up the question, once I should have a book in my hand.
I resumed my peregrinations, therefore, the bird having moved on, as birds do, being provided with wings for that very purpose, and by and by, walking at a venture round one clump of bushes after another, I came again upon the stranger, who, it should be said, was of a peculiarly unsuspicious disposition, and this time was swallowing piecemeal what seemed to my New England mind a very unseasonable caterpillar. And now I made a further discovery: the shoulder of the bird’s wing was edged with a line of pretty bright red, of a shade between chestnut and carmine! Surely, it was only a matter of surviving to reach the hotel and the mystery would be solved. Calaveras or what not, it was impossible that there should be two warblers marked in this singular manner.
Well, I got back to my room, and sure enough, not only were there not two warblers thus marked, there was not even one. Calaveras was nothing to the purpose. My inspiration must have come from the wrong place. At any rate, it was unprofitable for instruction. It wasn’t far to go, you may say, but I was at my wits’ end.
That evening I had occasion to answer a letter from an eminent ornithologist, who has herself worked much in the Southwest, and besides has at her elbow the best of American bird collections. She would be able to help me out of my difficulty. In all innocence, therefore, I stated my case. It was possible, I admitted (thrice lucky admission — it is always politic to seem modest, however one may feel), that the bird was not a warbler, after all, though, if it were not, I had no idea what it could be.
Well, the next day I was out in the country again, this time in a pecan grove, with tall seed-bearing weeds standing by the acre under the tall, leafless trees (a paradise for sparrows), when I heard a chickadee whistling his four notes in the distance. “How closely his music resembles that of his relative as we hear it in Florida,” I said to myself. And this reflection set me asking, “Where is that odd little titmouse, the verdin, that was said to be common about San Antonio at all seasons? “And then, like a flash, came the answer: “Why, man, that was a verdin you saw yesterday, out in the chaparral, and mistook for a warbler.” And so it turned out. Red shoulder-strap and all, everything suited. The verdin, by the by, is a distinctively Southwestern species, not Parus, but Auriparus. My bird had been a female, I suppose, showing less yellow than her mate would have done. Perhaps if I had seen him instead of her, I should not have been so befooled.
No sooner was the puzzle thus satisfactorily solved, than I began to meditate, with something less of satisfaction, upon the letter I had written the evening before. I thought, too, of the many more or less foolish letters that I had myself received (and sometimes smiled at, I fear) in the past twenty years, letters in which eager searchers after ornithological knowledge had confided to me marvelous accounts of the wonders they had seen afield, and by an unhappy fate could find no description of when they returned to the study. Not many of these correspondents, as well as I could now remember, had ever mistaken a titmouse for a warbler! I must dispatch a postscript to my letter by the earliest mail. And so I did, ostensibly, of course, to save my friend the trouble of a reply, but really to prove to her that, though I was capable of blundering, I was also capable of a second thought.
And now, having made my confession, I am bound to add that some who may laugh at me would possibly have been little wiser than I, had they stood in my shoes; for the verdin does not look the least in the world like anything that goes by the name of titmouse or chickadee up in our Northern country. I hope to see more of it, and especially to hear its song, which is said to be of surprising volume.
Really (and this is why I have told this not very exciting tale at such length), it is the chief delight of bird-gazing in a strange country that one has to begin, as it were, all one’s studies over again; as I have seen a professor of botany in similar circumstances fingering the leaves of the manual like the veriest schoolboy, as for the time being he was. It is not the proudest way of renewing one’s youth, but it will answer. And conditions being as they are, nothing else will answer.
Such is my present case here in Texas. Even now, in the dead of winter, with the number of species greatly reduced, the novelties seen in one walk are so many that the man who uses no gun, and so can take no specimens home with him for inspection, is often put to his trumps when he comes to run over his day’s notes. Though he may have done his best, he is certain to have overlooked or forgotten some detail which, with the book before him, turns out to be all important. What a pity he did not note with more exactness the proportion of white on the tail feathers, or the position of a certain black spot on the side of the head! He must go out again, and — if he is fortunate enough to find the bird — secure a stricter and more intelligent observation. It is plaguing fun, but it is fun, nevertheless, and good practice, besides; and withal, it leaves work for to-morrow.
It must be admitted, moreover, if the truth is to be told, — and it is sometimes better to tell it, — that no amount of observation in the field will be likely, in a month or two, at any rate, to settle all the nice questions that confront the student in a new region in these latter days; especially if the region happens to be, like this about San Antonio, one in which Eastern and Western forms of the same species are to be found overlapping each other. It was very well for Emerson to speak, poetically, of naming all the birds without a gun. He lived before the day of trinomials; or if that be not quite true, before our younger brood of ambitious closet ornithologists had set themselves so zealously at the work of dividing and subdividing. Time was when a song sparrow was a song sparrow, and there was an end of it. Now to call a bird by that name is only the beginning of sorrows. What kind of song sparrow is it? My Western handbook enumerates about fifteen sub-species, and the differences, I suspect, are many of them almost too fine for opera-glass determination. For what I know, a microscope might be more to the purpose.
The man who refuses a gun must accept the limitations that go with that refusal. Time and repeated observation will do much; a good ear will help — in some cases it will do the larger half of the work; but he must not expect to accomplish with a glass and patience exactly what another man accomplishes with powder and shot and a pair of dividers. In the study of ornithology, as elsewhere, there are diversities of operations, and possibly not the same spirit.
If I cannot be certain whether the vesper sparrows I saw to-day were light-colored enough to pass for Poœcetes gramineus confinis, or were probably nothing but plain Poœcetes gramineus, I must put up with my ignorance, distressing as it is. Possibly, if I were to see species and subspecies side by side, even in the field, I could tell them apart; possibly I could not. Whether their songs differ, is a point concerning which my book, after the manner of books, has nothing to offer; and as the birds are now dumb, there is nothing for me to do but to call them vesper sparrows, and await developments.
And some things can be settled, even in Texas, with no weapon but a field-glass. I know, for example, that I have to-day seen Mexican goldfinches, and Arctic towhees, and red-shafted flickers. That is more than half a loaf, by a good deal, and several times better than no bread.