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THE RESTING TIME OF THE BIRDS
THIS morning I heard the bluebirds again for the first time for weeks. They came up from the pasture to the apple trees and sang their modest little snatches of song in that shyly sweet, reserved yet fond, manner which makes the bluebird the best loved of all our pasture birds. There have been no bluebirds about my garden since the yegg raid of late May and its resulting tragedy. Now they are back, but there is in their call a note of sadness which indeed comes into the voice of every bluebird as autumn approaches, though I think it is accentuated in mine this year.
When I say yegg I mean English sparrow, and if I could think of a worse name, equally descriptive of him, I would give it. This is the story of the foul deed, only one of many, no doubt, perpetrated by this cowardly crew. In late March I put out in my garden three bird boxes such as bluebirds love to inhabit. These were immediately inspected by the neighborhood flock of English sparrows, just beginning to pair off, and finally decided upon as undesirable, perhaps because I had intentionally placed no perch before the door.
The English sparrow will build his nest in any impossible place to which he takes a fancy, but he greatly prefers, in choosing a new site, one that has a convenient perch close by the entrance. So these undesirable citizens decided that they did not care for my bird boxes and let them alone, much to my delight. Then came the bluebirds, bringing to our cold, raw spring their flashes of blue like bits of a heaven that is fairer than ours, a blue that is hope and dreams of happiness and all things noble yet gentle. There is no color like it as it glints across pale April skies and blooms on trees that have been bare and gray so long. So, too, no bird song is so dear as theirs. It is but a wee, melodious phrase which says again and again, “Cheerily; cheerily.” Yet it voices hope and contentment, and is so purely the expression of the joy of gentle, kindly lives that it touches all that is fond and kindly in the listener.
Bluebirds will nest in the hollow of the pasture apple tree or in a last year's flicker's abandoned hole in a decayed stump, but of all places they most love a bird box near a dwelling, and, as I had hoped, a pair came early in April to inspect mine. They looked them all over appreciatively, seeming with delightful courtesy to the builder to find it hard to choose, but finally settled upon one in the pear tree, and began to build.
Meanwhile the yeggs had been watching with jealous eyes, lurking in the shrubbery, sneaking about the eaves and making sallies in small numbers from around the barn. The English sparrow has been called pugnacious. He is nothing of the kind. He does not love a fight. Bird to bird, there is nothing too small to whip him. I have seen a chipping sparrow, which is the least among the pasture sparrows, send the poltroon scurrying to shelter with all his feathers standing on end. A cock bluebird, fighting like a gentleman, and like a gentleman fighting only when he must, will drive a half-dozen of them. The English sparrow has the true instincts of the brow-beating coward, and loves to fight only when in overwhelming numbers he may attack a lone pasture bird without danger to himself.
So trouble began with the building, and for a week or so the warfare raged from box to box, the cock bluebird boldly defeating superior numbers again and again, only to have his gentle wife annoyed by other villains while he drove the first away, and his nesting material stolen in spite of him. Finally he resorted to what looked to me like well-planned and carefully executed strategy, though it may have been merely that fortune which favors the brave and persistent. The pair abandoned the box in the pear tree and started building in the one nailed against the side of the barn. The sparrows followed, of course. Then the bluebirds went back to the pear-tree box. The sparrows followed. The bluebirds then started building in the third box and daily brought material to each of the three, though ostensibly, I thought, to the second and third. At any rate the sparrows seemed to concentrate their attention more on these boxes. Meanwhile the bluebirds quietly completed the nest in the pear tree and later laid their eggs there, in comparative peace.
The sparrows did not build in either of the other boxes. They did not want to. Neither did they care particularly about the material which they stole, for they did not continue to take it after the bluebirds had finished the pear-tree nest and were in a position to defend it. Their action was simply hoodlumism of the lowest and most despicable kind.
This was bad enough, yet it was merely petty annoyance compared to the deed without a name of which they were later to be guilty. The two young birds in the bluebird box were more than half grown. The blue was beginning to show in their wings along with the white of the conspicuous, growing quills, and the fuscous margin was already touching the breast feathers. The old birds, working with tremendous energy to feed these hearty youngsters, were both busy and often away from the nest together.
At one such time the English sparrows descended upon this nest, entered, drove the young birds out to die upon the ground, unnoticed in the long grass, and started to take full possession: The bluebirds, returning too late, drove them away with more than usual despatch. This first called the affair to my attention. But I was too late.
The young birds were dead and the sparrows were chattering in raucous jubilation over it, now and then giving a squeak of fright or pain as the male bluebird singled out an individual and attacked him with a fury of which I had not believed him capable. Soon, however, he ceased, and the two twittered mournfully about the tree for hours, again and again poising in fluttering flight before the door of their despoiled home and looking eagerly in, as if they could not believe that the young were indeed gone. Later they went silently away. No doubt they found another home in some hollow tree of the remote pasture and raised another brood. But my boxes have stood tenantless ever since.
The worst of it is there is little I could do either in the way of prevention or revenge. I did get out my big old ten-bore duck gun, which I have not had the heart to use on a bird, even a coot, for a dozen years, and began cannonading the miscreants, but this was more disturbing to the neighbors than to the sparrows.
One of the gentlest nature lovers I ever knew, wise in bird ways and very fond of all birds, used to say that he wished all the English sparrows in the world had but one neck, and that he might have that neck in his hands. I wish he might, too.
So, after weeks of absence, the bluebirds have come back. Their speckle-breasted young, which they would have brought up among my apple trees and in the cloistered seclusion of the lilac bushes, have grown up in the pasture instead, and very likely their plans for next year will include the pasture wild-apple tree rather than my bird box, and they are far shyer and less responsive to my advances than they would have been. Their song has in it a plaint of autumnal regret. In the spring they sang, “Cheerily; cheerily.” Now they say, “Going away; going away.” It has in it something of the quality of “Lochaber no more.”
But it is not merely the bluebirds which have been silent for some weeks and are now beginning to sing again. The time between early July and mid-August is a period of retirement for all birddom. The mating season, with its soul-stirring ecstasies, the labor of nest building, the anxieties of brooding, have been followed by the tremendous exertion of caring for that nestful of young birds. A healthy fledgling will eat almost his own weight of food in a day, and by the time he is able to fly and chase the old birds around for more the father and mother are worn to a frazzle. I really believe the youngsters are weaned only when their demand for food becomes so enormous with their completed growth that the parents cease to supply it through sheer physical exhaustion.
I once reared a pair of young crows by hand, taking them from the home nest in a big pine, leaving three others -- quite enough I afterward thought -- for the parent birds. They were negroid, naked, pod-bodied creatures at the time, with long clutchy claws, ridiculous stubs of wings, and, ye gods, what mouths!
When I fed them I used to clutch something with one hand lest I fall in. And I was incessantly feeding them. Anxious to treat them kindly and finding that frogs were a most acceptable diet to them I depopulated the township of Rana virescens and allied species. Then I found that fish would do about as well, and I fished until there began to be a shortage of angle-worms in the community. Yet still the creatures grew apace and demanded more food.
By and by they got big enough to use their wings and, recognizing me as their undoubted parent, came flapping and clawing after me wherever I went, yelling, “Caw, caw, ca-aw-aw,” in most heartrending crescendo. Then did I realize to the full the responsibility of being a father bird. Stuff those clamorous creatures as I might, they still pleaded in agonizing tones for more, and no one not cognizant of the facts would have believed that they were ever fed. The lamb that loved Mary so, and followed her also, was not a circumstance to the clamorous devotion of those two young crows toward me, their foster parent.
My one fear for weeks was that the resident agent for the S. P. C. A., who was a vigilant and tender-hearted lady of undoubted indiscretion, would hear their evidently unanswered appeals and proceed against me. She could have convicted me on the evidence in any district court in Norfolk County; and yet those young birds were eating everything there was in the place outside of cold storage.
Such is the appetite of the growing bird. Yet there comes a time in the passing of the summer when the youngsters are taught, or learn through necessity, to forage for themselves and cease their fritinancy. Then the thickets are strangely silent. The youngsters no longer yearn noisily and they have not yet learned to sing. The old birds have ceased singing. Indeed, there is nothing left of them but their bones and feathers, and that atmosphere of conscious rectitude which comes with successful completion of a noble and herculean task. And then even their feathers begin to go, for the moulting season is at hand.
No longer does the male scarlet tanager sit like a lambent flame in the top of a tree and warble, “Look-up, way-up, look-at-me, tree-top.” His scarlet suit begins to fade, grow dingy, show signs of wear, and finally go all to pieces while he sits mute and dumpy in the shadow. By and by the scarlet will have changed completely to a dull olive-green, like that of his inconspicuous mate, and though he still retains the black of his wings and tail you would not know him.
So the bobolink who swung so conspicuously on the meadow grass in June in his black and white suit comes through the moulting season brown as a sparrow. The vivid blue of the indigo bunting falls from him in patches and is replaced by grayish brown in a large measure.
No wonder that, utterly tired out and their brilliant plumage scattered and changed to dull and rusty colors, the birds are silent for a time, waiting for strength to recuperate. Some of them seem to retain enough courage and vitality to sing mornings through the moulting season, notably the robins. I suspect, though, that these faithful few -- for the robin singers of the morning of the first day of August will be as one to twenty to those of the first day of June -are gay young sports who did not care to marry, or who, disappointed in love, still sing to keep their courage up. It is the best singers who are most strangely silent now, as they have been for weeks; nor will most of them be heard until next spring, hereabouts.
My catbird was so sorrowfully unseen and unheard that I began to think the cat had got him, till I hunted him up, down the hill among the scrub oaks. He was as dilapidated and passe -- looking as his nest in the lilacs; as if, like it, the young birds had kicked him pretty nearly to pieces before they got through with him. But he perked up a bit when he saw me, flipped an apology for a tail, and miaued in a manner that was humorously unlike him, it was so deprecatory.
But that was a week or ten days ago. Yesterday I heard some bird cooing a little song to himself out in the arborvitae trees at the foot of the garden, and slipping quietly up found that it was the catbird again. He was quite sleek in his new coat, and he was practising his song in a delightful undertone, as if to be sure that he should not forget it altogether.
In four or five weeks more he will begin to flip saucily across the miles of country that separate him from his winter home in Southern Florida, or perhaps farther yet in some stretch of primeval forest that I myself have seen and loved in the heart of Santo Domingo. He will not sing his song there, high on some ceiba or swinging on the plume of some royal palm. He may not sing it again here on the tip of the tallest white lilac bush, but I know that, there or here, he will practise it now and then in that soft, sweet undertone which you would not believe of a catbird, and be ready to send it forth in jubilant peals when his strong wings bring him back again next May. My bluebirds may winter with him; and if they do I have hopes that he may persuade them to try my pear-tree box once more next spring.