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FAR more perplexing than the oven-bird's eccentricities was the conduct of a bird in another part of the island. One day, with a fellow bird-lover, I was walking down a shady road that led to the sea. I was in search of a rare warbler, but not because it was rare. Rarity has no special charms for me. The cleverest monstrosity of the florist's forte is not so welcome to me as a daisy — even if it is called "whiteweed"; no deformed, double, forced rose affords me so much pleasure as the fragrant wilding beside the road; no old musty black-letter tome gives half the joy I receive from a brand-new edition of a writer I love, with leaves nicely cut and smooth to my fingers, — in all of which tastes I know I am hopelessly out of fashion. So it was not because he was rare that I sought him, but because I had been attracted by his mysterious ways, his wariness in escaping the eyes and guns of collectors.
Part of the way the path ran through a bit of woods, wholly old spruces, gloomy and high-arched, with softest carpet of fallen needles and green mosses, — a grim and sombre, yet somehow a noble way, with its peacefulness and its unobscured views on every side. We had emerged from the woods and were passing along the deserted road, listening as usual to various bird-notes, — prominent among them, as it invariably is wherever it is heard, that of New England's bird, the white-throated sparrow. Suddenly, on one side, a rather harsh voice "broke out into three or four loud, ringing triplets, — a rough imitation, as it seemed, of part of the white-throat's song, though differing from the genuine both in manner and in quality.
"Some boy's poor attempt," I said. "I could do better myself"; and we went on, a little annoyed at this intrusion upon our quiet.
In a moment we passed beyond the close border of greenery beside the road, and came into view of some very tall old trees farther back. Again the loud, incisive notes rang out, sounding even less birdlike than before; and casting my eyes toward the quarter whence they came, I was astounded to see that they were produced by a bird perched on the top twig of the tallest spruce. In an instant our glasses were up, but so far away, and against a white cloudy sky, he was unrecognizable. Whoever he might be, he was evidently proud of his achievement, for he stood there in plain sight, and repeated his mockery, till he had every white-throat in the neighborhood wild, singing at the top of his voice, though not one of them could compete with him in power.
But who could this wonderful mimic be? Hopeless of identifying him that evening, we went home completely mystified, resolved to return in the morning to hunt him down. Long after I reached the house I heard his loud, penetrating notes, though not another bird-voice reached me from that distance. Moreover, I found a white-throat near home so excited that he could not sleep, for three or four times during the night, which was very dark, I heard him utter his song.
At the first opportunity we went again down the shady road, and placed ourselves beside a clump of trees, near where the mysterious bird had sung. Before long we heard him afar, and he gradually approached, singing as he came, till at last he obligingly flew to the top of a small tree, perhaps fifteen feet high and twenty feet from us, and, with eccentric flourishes of body, shouted out his extraordinary solo. But again we could not see him well, for the sun was behind him. We carefully studied his unique performance, however, and while in arrangement it greatly resembled part of the song of the white-throat, being three sets of triplets rapidly repeated, it differed in every other way.
The song of the white-throat is dignified, calm, and tranquil in tone and manner, while his clumsy mocker threw his head far back and flung his notes into the air with the utmost vehemence and abandon, and with great apparent effort. He was restless, constantly fidgeting, throwing up his tail, and jerking himself about in the pauses of his song. In the genuine melody the triplets sound like one note "shaken," but the imitator gave the three as distinct and staccato as if each one were a word. Again, the white-throat is a modest singer, but this stranger allowed us to level our glasses at him, move about, and talk, and he was as unconcerned through all as a robin. Everything indicated that he was a mere mocker, and not a good one at that.
We noted all these points carefully, discussing them freely and comparing our impressions, before the bird flew. This time he alighted farther off, on a taller tree, but the light was in our favor and my glass was good. I saw at once that his throat was white, and when, in one of his pauses, he put his head down to arrange the plumage of his breast, conspicuous stripes over the crown came into view, and I was startled. In a moment he confirmed my sudden suspicion by turning his back to us, thereby showing his sparrow colors.
He was a white-throat himself!
I was more surprised than if I had found him anything else. If he were one of the family, whence this astonishing eccentricity? Why did he not sing in a white-throat voice, and the proper white-throat song? Why should he so far depart from the ways of his kindred as to shout from the top of the tallest tree in that bold way, and what object could he have in setting the whole tribe frantic? Had he secured a white-throat mate with that intolerable voice, and had he a family coming up to imitate his unnatural performance? Or was he a disappointed bachelor, aiming to stir up his domestic brethren?
All these questions pressed to our lips, but there was no reply; and as long as we stayed he continued to render his triplets, sometimes prefacing them with the two or three long notes that belong to them, but all on the same key, utterly unlike his fellows, and loud enough to be heard a mile away.
The solo of the white-throated sparrow differs from nearly all other bird-songs that I know, being a clear, distinct whistle that may easily be reduced to our musical scale, and perfectly imitated by the human voice; in this latter quality it is almost unique. The notes are very few, usually two, never, I think, more than three; and the little ditty consists of, first, a single long, deliberate note, then two short repetitions of one a third higher, followed by three triplets at the same pitch. It is so distinct, indeed, that the Chippewa Indians of northern Minnesota — as a traveler in that country kindly wrote me — have put it into words, namely, "Pu'orn chiman, chig-a-big, chig-a-big, chig-a-big," which being translated means, "The Sioux canoes are close to shore, close to shore, close to shore," and the friendly bird is held in much esteem by the grateful Chippewas.
There seems small chance for changes in such a limited register, but I found the song capable of very different arrangements, and on recording those I had heard I was surprised to see that I had noted seventeen distinct ones. How many variations were made by one bird I was not able to determine, from the difficulty of keeping one under observation, now that the young were able to go about and nobody was confined to any special locality. But one I was able to watch certainly sang three songs, and I know no reason why he may not have sung a dozen. I am obliged to confess that although it is delightful to hear one of these sparrows, or two together, a chorus of a dozen or more must be considered a failure, as music. Each bird has a decided musical pitch of his own, and unless the several singers happen to harmonize they produce an unpleasant discord.
One study my neighboring white-throat gave me, which interested me very much, — a young bird at his music-lessons. I heard him as I sat on the piazza resting, for he was very near. He began by attempting one note alone, or sometimes two, and his trouble was to get the pitch. After his feeble efforts, the full, clear notes of the elder would ring out as if to afford a copy. Then the youngster tried again, and so they would go on for some time. I knew it was two birds and not one alone, because the notes would sometimes clash. He practiced faithfully till he mastered the first three notes at proper intervals, but the pitch seemed to be his despair, and I never heard him attempt the triplets.
After the disappointing solution to the mystery which had so interested me, and while there still remained ten days of the second summer month, that lovely corner of the world was wrapped in a smothering fog, which came in the afternoon and remained all night, with rain. The next morning was clear and bright, but a strange hush had fallen upon us. Not a bird-note was to be heard save —
"The gossip of
swallows all through the sky."
I made many excursions to see if the birds had really gone so early. Now and then in my rambles I came upon a black-throated green warbler, whose song had heretofore made the woods resound, going about shyly and without a peep; and a glimpse or two I had of others, preserving the same unaccountable quiet. Even the stony pathway, rallying-place for nearly all the bird population, was now silent as a desert way, and melancholy as a tomb to the bird-lover, and I was forced to conclude that if not absolutely departed, these tiny fellow creatures were engaged in putting on their traveling-suits for the long journey.