Here to return to
Bob and Some Other Birds
BIRDS are plentiful on the Rockies, and the accumulating information concerning them may, in a few years, accredit Colorado with having more kinds of birds than any other State. The mountains and plains of Colorado carry a wide range of geographic conditions, — a variety of life-zones, — and in many places there is an abundance of bird-food of many kinds. These conditions naturally produce a large variety of birds throughout the State.
Notwithstanding this array of feathered in habitants, most tourists who visit the West com plain of a scarcity of birds. But birds the Rockies have, and any bird-student could tell why more of them are not seen by tourists. The loud manners of most tourists who invade the Rockies simply put the birds to flight. When I hear the approach of tourists in the wilds, I feel instinctively that I should fly for safety myself. “Our little brothers of the air” the world over dislike the crowd, and will linger only for those who come with deliberation and quiet.
This entire mountain-section, from foothills to mountain-summits, is enlivened in nesting-time with scores of species of birds. Low down on the foothills one will find Bullock’s oriole, the red-headed woodpecker, the Arkansas kingbird, and one will often see, and more often hear, the clear, strong notes of the Western meadowlark ringing over the hills and meadows. The wise, and rather murderous, magpie goes chattering about. Here and there the quiet bluebird is seen. The kingfisher is in his appointed place. Long-crested jays, Clarke’s crows, and pigmy nut hatches are plentiful, and the wild note of the chickadee is heard on every hand. Above the altitude of eight thousand feet you may hear, in June, the marvelous melody of Audubon’s her mit thrush.
Along the brooks and streams lives the water-ouzel. This is one of the most interesting and self-reliant of Rocky Mountain birds. It loves the swift, cool mountain-streams. It feeds in them, nests within reach of the splash of their spray, closely follows their bent and sinuous course in flight, and from an islanded boulder mingles its liquid song with the music of the moving waters. There is much in the life of the ouzel that is refreshing and inspiring. I wish it were better known.
Around timber-line in summer one may hear the happy song of the white-throated sparrow. Here and above lives the leucosticte. Far above the vanguard of the brave pines, where the brilliant flowers fringe the soiled remnants of winter’s drifted snow, where sometimes the bees hum and the painted butterflies sail on easy wings, the broad-tailed hummingbird may occasionally be seen, while still higher the eagles soar in the quiet bending blue. On the heights, sometimes nesting at an altitude of thirteen thousand feet, is found the ptarmigan, which, like the Eskimo, seems supremely contented in the land of crags and snows.
Of all the birds on the Rockies, the one most marvelously eloquent is the solitaire. I have often felt that everything stood still and that every beast and bird listened while the matchless solitaire sang. The hermit thrush seems to suppress one, to give one a touch of reflective loneliness; but the solitaire stirs one to be up and doing, gives one the spirit of youth. In the solitaire’s song one feels all the freshness and the promise of spring. The song seems to be born of ages of freedom beneath peaceful skies, of the rhythm of the universe, of a mingling of the melody of winds and waters and of all rhythmic sounds that murmur and echo out of doors and of every song that Nature sings in the wild gar dens of the world. I am sure I have never been more thoroughly wide awake and hopeful than when listening to the solitaire’s song. The world is flushed with a diviner atmosphere, every object carries a fresher significance, there are new thoughts and clear, calm hopes sure to be realized on the enchanted fields of the future. I was camping alone one evening in the deep solitude of the Rockies. The slanting sun-rays were glowing on St. Vrain’s crag-crowned hills and everything was at peace, when, from a near-by treetop came the triumphant, hopeful song of a solitaire, and I forgot all except that the world was young. One believes in fairies when the solitaire sings. Some of my friends have predicted that I shall some time meet with an accident and perish in the solitudes alone. If their prediction should come true, I shall hope it will be in the summer-time, while the flowers are at their best, and that during my last conscious moments I shall hear the melody of the solitaire singing as I die with the dying day.
I sat for hours in the woods one day, watching a pair of chickadees feeding their young ones. There were nine of these hungry midgets, and, like nine small boys, they not only were always hungry, but were capable of digesting everything. They ate spiders and flies, green worms, ants, millers, dirty brown worms, insect-eggs by the dozen, devil’s-darning-needles, woodlice, bits of lichen, grasshoppers, and I know not how many other things. I could not help thinking that when one family of birds destroyed such numbers of injurious insects, if all the birds were to stop eating, the insects would soon destroy every green tree and plant on earth. One of the places where I used to camp to enjoy the flowers, the trees, and the birds was on the shore of a glacier lake. Near the lake were eternal snows, rugged gorges, and forests prime val. To its shore, especially in autumn, came many bird callers. I often screened myself in a dense clump of fir trees on the north shore to study the manners of birds which came near. To help attract and detain them, I scattered feed on the shore, and I spent interesting hours and days in my hiding-place enjoying the etiquette of birds at feast and frolic.
I was lying in the sun, one afternoon, just out side my fir clump, gazing out across the lake, when a large black bird alighted on the shore some distance around the lake. “Surely,” I said to myself, “that is a crow.” A crow I had not seen or heard of in that part of the country. I wanted to call to him that he was welcome to eat at my free-lunch counter, when it occurred to me that I was in plain sight. Before I could move, the bird rose in the air and started flying leisurely toward me. I hoped he would see, or smell, the feed and tarry for a time; but he rose as he advanced, and as he appeared to be looking ahead, I had begun to fear he would go by with out stopping, when he suddenly wheeled and at the same instant said “Hurrah,” as distinctly as I have ever heard it spoken, and dropped to the feed. The clearness, energy, and unexpectedness of his “Hurrah” startled me. He alighted and began to eat, evidently without suspecting my presence, notwithstanding the fact that I lay only a few feet away. Some days before, a mountain lion had killed a mountain sheep; a part of this carcass I had dragged to my bird table. Upon this the crow, for such he was, alighted and fed ravenously for some time. Then he paused, straightened up, and took a look about. His eye fell on me, and instantly he squatted as if to hurl himself in hurried flight, but he hesitated, then appeared as if starting to burst out with “Caw” or some such exclamation, but changed his mind and repressed it. Finally he straightened and fixed himself for another good look at me. I did not move, and my clothes must have been a good shade of protective coloring, for he seemed to conclude that I was not worth considering. He looked straight at me for a few seconds, uttered another “Hurrah,” which he emphasized with a defiant gesture, and went on energetically eating. In the midst of this, some thing alarmed him, and he flew swiftly away and did not come back. Was this crow a pet that had concluded to strike out for himself? Or had his mimicry or his habit of laying hold of whatever pleased him caused him to appropriate this word from bigger folk?
Go where you will over the Rockies and the birds will be with you. One day I spent several hours on the summit of Long’s Peak, and while there twelve species of birds alighted or passed near enough for me to identify them. One of these birds was an eagle, another a humming bird.
On a June day, while the heights were more than half covered with winter’s snow, I came across the nest of a ptarmigan near a drift and at an altitude of thirteen thousand feet above sea-level. The ptarmigan, with their home above tree-line, amid eternal snows, are wonderfully self-reliant and self-contained. The ouzel, too, is self-poised, indifferent to all the world but his brook, and showing an appreciation for water greater, I think, than that of any other landsman. These birds, the ptarmigan and the ouzel, along with the willow thrush, who sings out his melody amid the shadows of the pines, who puts his woods into song, — these birds of the mountains are with me when memory takes me back a solitary visitor to the lonely places of the Rockies.
The birds of the Rockies, as well as the bigger folk who live there, have ways of their own which distinguish them from their kind in the East. They sing with more enthusiasm, but with the same subtle tone that everywhere tells that all is right with the world, and makes all to the manner born glad to be alive.
Nothing delights me more than to come across a person who is interested in trees; and I have long thought that any one who appreciates trees or birds is one who is either good or great, or both. I consider it an honor to converse with one who knows the birds and the trees, and have more than once gone out of my way to meet one of those favored mortals. I remember one cold morning I came down off the mountains and went into a house to get warm. Rather I went in to scrape an acquaintance with whomsoever could be living there who remembered the birds while snow and cold prevailed, — when Nature forgot. To get warm was a palpable excuse. I was not cold; I had no need to stop; I simply wanted to meet the people who had, on this day at least, put out food and warm water for the birds; but I have ever since been glad that I went in, for the house shielded from the cold a family whom it is good to know, and, besides making their acquaintance, I met “Bob” and heard her story.
Every one in the house was fond of pets. Rex, a huge St. Bernard, greeted me at the door, and with a show of satisfaction accompanied me to a chair near the stove. In going to the chair some forlorn snowbirds, “that Sarah had found nearly frozen while out feeding the birds this morning,” hopped out of my way. As I sat down, I noticed an old sack on the floor against the wall before me. All at once this sack came to life, had an idea, or was bewitched, I thought. Anyway it be came so active that it held my attention for several seconds, and gave me a little alarm. I was relieved when out of it tumbled an aggressive rooster, which advanced a few steps, flapped, and crowed lustily. “He was brought in to get thawed out; I suppose you will next be wondering where we keep the pig,” said my hostess as she advanced to stir the fire, after which she examined “two little cripples,” birds in a box behind the stove.
I moved to a cooler seat, by a door which led into an adjoining room. After I had sat down, “Bob,” a pet quail, came from somewhere, and advanced with the most serene and dignified air to greet me. After pausing to eye me for a moment, with a look of mingled curiosity and satisfaction, she went under my chair and squatted confidingly on the floor. Bob was the first pet quail I had ever seen, and my questions concerning her brought from my hostess the following story: —
“One day last fall a flock of quail became frightened, and in their excited flight one struck against a neighbor’s window and was badly stunned. My husband, who chanced to be near at the time, picked up the injured one and brought it home. My three daughters, who at times had had pet horses, snakes, turtles, and rats, welcomed this shy little stranger and at once set about caring for her injuries. Just before “Bob” had fully recovered, there came a heavy fall of snow, which was followed by such a succession of storms that we concluded to keep her with us, provided she was willing to stay. We gave her the freedom of the house. For some time she was wild and shy; under a chair or the lounge she would scurry if any one approached her. Plainly, she did not feel welcome or safe in our house, and I gave up the idea of taming her. One day, however, we had lettuce for dinner, and while we were at the table Sarah, my eldest daughter, who has a gift for taming and handling wild creatures, declared that Bob should eat out of her hand before night. All that afternoon she tempted her with bits of lettuce, and when evening came, had succeeded so well that never after was Bob afraid of us. When ever we sat down for a meal, Bob would come running and quietly go in turn to each with coaxing sounds and pleading looks, wanting to be fed. It was against the rules to feed her at meals, but first one, then another, would slip something to her under the table, trying at the same time to appear innocent. The girls have always maintained that their mother, who made the rule, was the first one to break it. No one could resist Bob’s pretty, dainty, coaxing ways.
“She is particularly fond of pie-crust, and many a time I have found the edge picked off the pie I had intended for dinner. Bob never fails to find a pie, if one is left uncovered. I think it is the shortening in the pie-crust that gives it the delicious flavor, for lard she prefers above all of her many foods. She cares least of all for grain. My daughters say that Bob’s fondness for graham gems accounts for the frequency of their recent appearances on our table.
“After trying many places, Bob at last found a roosting-place that suited her. This was in a leather collar-box on the bureau, where she could nestle up close to her own image in the mirror. Since discovering this place she has never failed to occupy it at night. She is intelligent, and in so many ways pleasing that we are greatly attached to her.”
Here I had to leave Bob and her good friends behind; but some months afterward my hostess of that winter day told me the concluding chapters of Bob’s life.
“Bob disliked to be handled; though pleasing and irresistibly winsome, she was not in the least affectionate, and always maintained a dignified, ladylike reserve. But with the appearance of spring she showed signs of lonesomeness. With none of her kind to love, she turned to Rex and on him lavished all of her affection. When Rex was admitted to the house of a morning, she ran to meet him with a joyful cackle, — an utterance she did not use on any other occasion, — and with soft cooing sounds she followed him about the house. If Rex appeared bored with her attentions and walked away, she followed after, and persisted in tones that were surely scolding until he would lie down. Whenever he lay with his huge head between his paws, she would nestle down close to his face and remain content so long as he was quiet. Sometimes when he was lying down she would climb slowly over him; at each step she would put her foot down daintily, and as each foot touched him there was a slight movement of her head and a look of satisfaction. These climbs usually ended by her scratching in the long hair of his tail, and then nestling down into it.
“One day I was surprised to see her kiss Rex. When I told my family of this, they laughed heartily and were unable to believe me. Later, we all witnessed this pretty sight many times. She seemed to prefer to kiss him when he was lying down, with his head raised a little above the floor. Finding him in this position, she would walk beside him, reach up and kiss his face again and again, all the time cooing softly to him.
“Toward spring Bob’s feathers became dull and somewhat ragged, and with the warm days came our decision to let her go outside. She was delighted to scratch in the loose earth around the rosebushes, and eagerly fed on the insects she found there. Her plumage soon took on its natural trimness and freshness. She did not show any inclination to leave, and with Rex by her or near her, we felt that she was safe from cats, so we soon allowed her to remain out all day long.
“Passers-by often stopped to watch Bob and Rex playing together. Sometimes he would go lumbering across the yard while she, plainly dis pleased at the fast pace, hurried after with an incessant scolding chatter as much as to say: ‘Don’t go so fast, old fellow. How do you expect me to keep up?’ Sometimes, when Rex was lying down eating a bone, she would stand on one of his fore legs and quietly pick away at the bone.
“The girls frequently went out to call her, and did so by whistling ‘Bob White.’ She never failed to answer promptly, and her response sounded like chee ckos, chee ckos, which she uttered before hurrying to them.
“One summer morning I found her at the kitchen door waiting to be let out. I opened the door and watched her go tripping down the steps. When she started across the yard I cautioned her to ‘be a little lady, and don’t get too far away.’ Rex was away that morning, and soon one of the girls went out to call her. Repeated calls brought no answer. We all started searching. We wondered if the cat had caught her, or if she had been lured away by the winning calls of her kind. Beneath a cherry tree near the kitchen door, just as Rex came home, we found her, bloody and dead. Rex, after pushing her body tenderly about with his nose, as if trying to help her to rise, looked up and appealed piteously to us. We buried her beneath the rosebush near which she and Rex had played.”