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With the Birds in Maine
ON an outlying island on the lonely — but lovely — coast of Maine so faithfully pictured by Miss Jewett on the preceding page, some of the happiest summers of my life have been passed, hours slipping into days, and days running on into weeks, almost unheeded, while
"Dreaming sweet idle dreams of having strayed
To Arcady with all its golden lore"; —
not, however, in studying the human life of its storm-beaten cottages, interesting as that may be, but in watching life's tragedies and comedies among our little neighbors of the fields and woods — the dramas of the treetops.
abiding-place at the
time my story begins differed materially from the picturesque "small
house facing the morning light," being a modern structure which offered
the rare combination of a comfortable home in the edge of an
forest, completely secluded from roads and their traffic, yet within
minutes' reach of the common way to the village. The outlook from my
into the tops of tall spruces and firs, relieved here and there by a
birch, or a maple. Through a vista, and over the tops of more distant
could be seen the broad Atlantic Ocean, and above all
"The blue arch of sky
Where clouds go sailing by."
The feathered neighbors had evidently accepted the house as a part of the woods, for they came freely about, delighting especially in a worn and battered old spruce within fifteen feet of the window. On this tree, — which doubtless furnished a choice assortment of bird dainties, — first or last, appeared all the birds of the vicinity.
As usual, the bird-life possessed a character of its own, and it impressed me as a particularly refined neighborhood. No vulgar, squawking English sparrow disturbed its peace, no chippies squabbled in the grass, no tireless red-eyed vireo fretted the air with its endless iteration, and — what was not half so pleasing — no catbirds, orioles, bluebirds, goldfinches, or flycatchers could be numbered among the residents.
Juncoes and chickadees scrambled and frolicked over the old spruce, white-throated sparrows — the aristocrats of the family — chanted their solemn hymn from the underbrush one side; thrushes sang and called from the tall trees at the back, and it was above all the resort of warblers, the chosen home of these dainty small birds.
I had spent one summer in this retreat, and on arriving there the next time I anticipated no more than renewed acquaintance with my old neighbors. But a rare surprise awaited me. Others of the feathered tribes had discovered the charms of the spot, and were in possession when I reached it.
At dawn the first morning, listening as usual for the familiar songs of the morning, the recitative of the olive-back, the far-off hymn of the hermit, and the hearty little strains of the miscalled warblers, suddenly the air seemed filled with strange sounds. They appeared to come from all points at once, most of them sharp "pip! pip's!" like the cry of a lost chicken, with others, indescribable and most confusing, and all loud, emphatic, and utterly strange to me.
Here was an extraordinary visitation! I sprang up and rushed to the window. There they were, the whole jolly crowd, on a tall balsam-fir close by, a dozen or more, scrambling about the branches with a thousand antics and shouts of glee.
Such a merry party I never saw. The greater number wore dresses of olive-green, but some in dull red gave me a hint of their identity, and the crossed bills of all confirmed it. They were crossbills, whose strange utterances Longfellow felicitously characterizes as
The opinions of man did not, however, dampen the boisterous spirits of my new neighbors, to whom I gave my days and almost my nights from that moment. They were the most joyous of feathered creatures, noisy and talkative, clambering over the trees like a party of parrots, all chattering at once, voluble as a flock of chimney swifts, or a squad of school-children just released, and then suddenly — on a loud call from one of their number — starting off, bounding over the tree-tops in a sort of mad frenzy, all shouting at the top of their voices, leaving the baffled student to guess what it all meant.
A mysterious performance of these birds was a sort of medley. It was executed by a small flock settled together in one tree, all uttering the call which I have called the "lost-chicken" note, with utmost apparent agitation, and each individual in a different key, thus producing a strange, weird effect.
The crossbills were the most restless, as well as the most noisy of birds, appearing before my window a dozen times a day, sometimes staying but a few minutes, sometimes perhaps half an hour, biting off the cones, holding them under one foot, and extracting the seeds in eager haste as if they had but a minute to stay, and something terrible or important was about to take place.
The morning song to which they treated me about four o'clock was most droll. As nearly as it can be represented by syllables it was like this: —
"Pip! pip! pip! [many times] pap! pap! pap! [many times] kid-dr-r-r! kid-dr-r-r! [with rolling r] qu! qu! pt! pt! pt — e!" and so on in various combinations, all in labored manner, as if it were hard work.
This party were in all stages of plumage, for it appears that in spite of their vagaries, they are obliged to conform to the ordinary bird-habit in moulting. The young still calling for food — and getting it as I saw once or twice — in their peculiar youthful dress, the mothers of the flock in their usual olive-green, and the singers in all shades of red, from one mottled-all-over red and olive, to the full-dressed and brilliant personage of clear red with dark trimmings.
The most charming exhibition of crossbill eccentricities that I heard was a whisper-song. The bird came alone to the old spruce before my windows, and settled himself on a dead branch in the middle of the tree, where he was hidden from everybody except the spectator behind the blind, of whom he had no suspicion. In a moment he began a genuine whisper-song so low that I could scarcely hear it, near as I was and perfectly silent. He poured forth the whole crossbill repertoire, — all the various utterances I had heard during the weeks I had been studying them, — and all under his breath, with beak nearly closed. Thus softly rendered it was really charming. This enchanting exhibition of crossbill possibilities lasted fully fifteen minutes.
A favorite walk that summer was down to the shore, through a rustic road and a beautiful grove of very tall trees, which differed from every other bit of woods in the vicinity in having no undergrowth whatever. Sundry outcropping rocks and roadside banks made convenient seats for resting-places, and down this road I passed nearly every day.
One evening while lingering upon one of the rocky seats, as was my habit, I was startled by a new song, a wonderful, trilling strain, entirely unfamiliar to me, though I thought I knew all the birds of the vicinity. I started up, eager to see the singer, but the most careful search was fruitless. By the sound I knew that the bird moved about, but I could not get a glimpse of him, and I went home greatly disturbed.
Although the voice of the unknown was of a different quality, the song resembled that of a canary in being long-continued, not in short clauses like a robin song. There were long bewitching tremolos varied by a rapturous "sweet! sweet!" and now and then a slurred couplet of thrilling effect, or a long-drawn single note of rich musical quality, or again a rapid succession of sharp staccato notes. Altogether it was enchanting, and it put me into a frenzy of excitement. What marvelous singer was this who had escaped the notoriety of the books! for I could find not the smallest record of this song.
After a night of puzzling and consulting of books I started again down the shore-road immediately after breakfast. I could not wait till the usual hour. The mysterious singer was still there; but after trying in vain to see him in the top branches of the tall old trees, which grew together and formed a close roof over the whole grove, I was forced to give it up and go home in despair.
I tried to comfort myself with the wise man's prophecy of the advantage of waiting, and at last his wisdom was proved. Sitting disconsolate on the piazza where I had paused a few minutes before going to my room, suddenly the song burst out close by. It was as if the long-sought singer had followed me home. Almost holding my breath, not to startle him, I crept softly to the end where I could see into the woods, and behold, at the top of the tall pointed fir, beloved of all the birds for a singing-stand — a crossbill, reeling off the trills and quavers with the greatest ease and enthusiasm. While he sang, a second came and the first one flew, trilling as he went. I saw both of them clearly, and the white on the wings proclaimed them white-winged crossbills, closely related to the American crossbills I had been studying.
The song was so ecstatic it seemed it must belong to courtship days, yet it was then near the end of July, another eccentricity of the family. It could not be doubted that it was an overflowing flood of joy, a joy — which overwhelmed the listener, spell-bound as long as it lasted. Yet the most the books say of this remarkable performance is "the white- winged is said to be a fine singer" (or words to that effect).
After that morning the white-wings came about frequently, mixing freely with the others, and I learned to know them well. Not only did they differ from their American cousins in song, but in every note they uttered, even in the tone of voice. The call-note was a plaintive "peet! peet!" resembling that of the sandpiper, —
"Calling clear and sweet from cove to cove"; —
The habits of the white-wings were in general the same as those of the American, but they indulged in one eccentricity I could never explain. They paid mysterious visits to the shore, going down in little parties far out of my sight among the rocks, and staying a half hour at a time. There was no beach on which food might be found, and they did not select low tide for the excursions. Neither did it seem to be bathing which attracted them, for there was never any appearance of dressing plumage, and when I started them up in my efforts to see what they were doing they were always ready to fly, and never one was in the water or appeared to have been bathing.
Another favorite retreat of that July was a nook near the house, yet apparently undiscovered by people, and as secluded as if it had been miles away. It was merely a hollow like a little valley among the rocks, perhaps ten feet in extent, inclosed and sheltered by close-growing spruce and maple trees, and exquisitely carpeted with thick light-green moss mixed with several varieties of dark moss. On this as a foundation were beautiful growing things, bunchberry, now gorgeous in clustered scarlet berries sitting on their four green leaves like queens on a throne; blueberry bushes which had attained only four or five inches in height, but bravely held aloft their tiny blossoms, promise of rich blue fruit; wintergreens with tender green leaves; in one corner a patch of partridge-berry vines loaded with lovely, fragrant bloom, and not the least attractive, some fine grasses, graceful, airy things, beautiful as flowers, holding their minute seed-cups like purple gems shining in the morning sun.
Other growths there were of different shapes and colors to me unknown, but all looked so peaceful, so happy, each little plant coming up out of the ground where Nature had placed it, doing its little best in the spot, making itself as lovely as possible, putting out its perfect blossoms and never dreaming of being discontented with its lot. It was a bit of fairyland. One could easily imagine the "little people" at home in such a nook, and it held a salutary lesson, too, for restless and dissatisfied mortals, if one had eyes to see.
In this nook were passed many perfect morning hours, when, though not a breath stirred the leaves, it was delightfully cool and fresh, as if the whole earth were newly created. Not a soul was in sight, the whole green world was mine alone. I felt myself "akin to everything that grows," — akin to the dear birds shouting their morning hymns, to the dear "man-bodied trees," to the contented little plants, — I realized how truly we are all one, down to the grass under our heedless feet.
One morning I was passing through an unfrequented path in the Woods, when, hearing crossbill song quite near> I looked about for the singers. There on one side, in a little pool left by a recent rain, were two of the family at their bath, singing as usual. For these birds are so full of joy they sing when they eat, when they play, when they watch me, and as I now saw, when they bathe. They were plainly the young of the year, and, since they did not notice me, I had a close look at them. They were streaked all over on back and breast with fine streaks of dark brown on a yellowish-drab ground, the broad white bands on the wings proclaiming their identity.
Crossbills continued to sing till August was nearly over.
Into these halcyon days on that Island on the Coast of Maine burst August, and the "summer crowd." The two or three hotels, empty heretofore and unobtrusive, blossomed out with human life; fancy "turnouts" raised clouds of dust on my evening walk; baby-carriages with attendant white-capped genii desecrated my favorite wood; bicycle-bells haunted the solitary foot-path; boys swarmed on the sandpiper shore; lonely byways became common thoroughfares; flowers were ruthlessly destroyed; bird-voices were lost amid the din with which we surround ourselves. The woods seemed to shrink into themselves. The birds retired to fastnesses where human feet could not follow. Solitude was banished, and everywhere were curious, staring eyes. Man, the destroyer, had taken possession, and it was time for the solitude-loving bird-student to take her departure, for this intrusion of the bustling world effectually
"Put her sweet summer dreams to rout."