Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE COMICAL CHEBEC
I HAD taken a long journey and penetrated into one of the obscure corners of New England, a little away from the coast, a corner not at that time "discovered." I had taken possession of a pleasant large room, looking from one window into the woods, from the other down the road, our only tie to the common every-day world. I had spent the usual hour "getting settled." That means more than hanging dresses in a clothes-press, and placing other things in bureau drawers. For I had been many years a summer sojourner in farmhouses and out-of-the-way places, and although I had learned to "put up with" and to "do without," in fact, to adapt my demands to whatever crude style of living I encountered, still there were several ways in which I could mitigate my lot, and my trunk held a curious conglomeration of these "mitigators."
Since conditions differ in every new place, I have long kept a list of "must-have's," and before leaving home have provided against them, so as to be prepared for whatever might confront me in the new place. There were wedges to put a check upon rattling windows, and light sticks to hold up the sash; mosquito-bar to protect against the singing hosts, with tacks and hammer to fasten the same; towels to supplement the gauzy product of the country; soap that one dares to use; vases of different sizes to hold the indispensable wild flowers; of course all conveniences for writing, including the most important — a really good ink.
These are the only indispensables, for, happily, it is a firm article of my creed to have no "notions" as to diet; to satisfy myself at the table that satisfies my hosts, mindful of the saying of some wise man, that "a little philosophy and a good digestion make all living endurable." With a solitary exception, I have always been able to do so.
Having settled these all-important matters and propped the lower window-sash — probably for the first time in its history — squarely against the upper one, by means of a stick out of my trunk, I drew the one comfortable chair up by the window, and seated myself to see who might be my neighbors.
A well-placed window looking into some quiet corner of the outside world, furnished with blinds without and easy-chair within, has always been attractive to me. Indeed, I dislike ever to shut my windows, for I love to hear the cheerful bird-voices. Not even a fog, an old-fashioned sea-fog on the coast of Maine, will silence the cheery notes of robin, Maryland yellow-throat, swallows, sandpipers, and others. No rain is wet enough to dampen the musical ardor of the song-sparrow. So I wrap myself up and sit by an open window, whatever the weather.
The great charm of window-study is, of course, the becoming acquainted with the natural manners of our little brothers when they do not suspect an observer; and to one who has enjoyed that pleasure it is far more satisfactory than the longest list of birds merely seen and identified.
From such a point of vantage one summer I took note of the bewitching boys in blue — the bluejays; and from another on the southern shore of Long Island I learned, by the daily study of weeks, something of the true character of that reserved personage, the kingbird.
From a third window I got insight into the ways of a still more reserved neighbor — the cuckoo, the "often heard when unseen": his graceful, loitering flight, though he can go like an arrow, and his quiet way, when disturbed, of slipping through a tree, instead of going around or over, and taking wing from the other side, in perfect silence.
Some exceedingly interesting observations were made from a window looking simply into a neglected corner of a fence, — a bit of common yard grown up to grass and daisies, and carefully protected from the all-destroying scythe. A fence overgrown with raspberry-bushes separated it from a pasture on one side, a clump of trees sheltered a spring at the bottom, and the woods came up to the back.
Here, unsuspected behind my closed blinds, I surprised charming secrets of bird-life which have been described elsewhere: the tactics of a crow nursery; the red-headed woodpecker's family training; odd ways of the solemn phoebe; and, best of all, some of the personal idiosyncrasies of that coy fellow mortal, the veery. This bird, indeed, with his quaint and interesting manners when he supposes himself unobserved, I should never have known but for the friendly screen of the window-blinds.
In the same place I saw a purple finch wooing: the little sparrow-clad damsel sitting demurely on a branch with a wooer on each side about a foot from her. It was a contest of song. With wings and tail expanded to their fullest limit, and snowy breast-feathers fluffed out, each one turned toward her and poured out his choicest song, swaying the head and body from side to side with a tremulous, vibratory movement of wings.
The ideal window is, of course, in the country, looking into an orchard, or a neglected spot with a tree or two, where the hand of man never meddles, and wildings of all sorts have possession; a pasture well grown up to bushes; an unfrequented lane rich in shrubs and vines; even a common roadside, if it is bordered by an old-fashioned fence or wall, or, still better, a rail fence which Nature has concealed, as she always will, if allowed, under beautiful wild growths of her own.
Before my window, one June, the ground descended a steep hill, rested a little at the foot in a pleasant, meadowy valley, and then rose sharply in a mountain clothed with woods to the top, the upper branches brushing the sky, and the lower border of greenery skirting the road which ran below. To me that beautiful wall of verdure reaching to heaven was not a mere collection of trees, not so many pines and beeches and maples, — it was a vast dwelling, in whose shaded aisles the wonders and the mysteries of life were being enacted.
At that window I loved to sit and think of the thousands of rustic cradles rocked by the sweet June breezes, cunningly hidden in clumps of leaves, safely chiseled out in tree-trunks, or packed away in a thousand and one nooks and corners under the ample green roof. And it was my delight to fancy the busy and happy inhabitants going about in their work of home-making, or later, rearing their little families, bathing in the brooks that came down the slopes, taking their daily food from an ever-spread table and filling the air with loud, joyous shouts, and cries and calls of infinite variety.
As "the twilight gathered" one after another blessed voice was hushed. Then came the picture of the beautiful birds retiring to their innocent sleep, any twig in their fair leafy world a comfortable bed, every feathery shoulder a sweet pillow, with no roofs to shield from the weather, no bolts or bars to protect, happy and peaceful and fearless, as I earnestly believe, till something of the restfulness and trust of these little lives passed into the soul of their lover.
Then, as darkness came on, the place of these woodlanders was taken by others, who love the "high fastidious night." The whippoorwill sent his hearty greeting to the world; the slanderously named screech-owl sounded his quavering song, and his larger brother made the woods ring with his happy "hoot," melancholy only because we so interpret it, reading our own mood into it. And I could not resist the conviction, that night, so far from being the terror it is to some of us, with our possessions to guard, is a time of rest and peace to our brothers of the woods; that if death comes to some of them, as it must to all of us, it is sudden and unexpected, and doubtless generally unconscious — surely a more "happy dispatch" than the lingering exit we crave.
The question of the preying of animals upon one another is of great interest, and considering the example in the way of taking life that we set them, it is amusing to see the horror and virtuous indignation we lavish upon birds and beasts who simply follow our lead, though in a much more humane manner.
Moreover, if the late Maurice Thompson's theory is true, that birds in a state of nature never die of old age, that they are immortal unless killed, it would appear that they were created to be the prey of one another. It is to be regretted that Mr. Thompson did not live to produce the proofs he promised in support of this extraordinary theory.
Having these pleasant experiences with the possibilities of a window, I looked with interest, on this occasion, — as I said, — to see who might be my neighbor.
I found myself immediately an object of interest to a small personage dressed in sober brown and standing on a half-dead tree near the house. He greeted me with a quick, emphatic "phit!" jerked his tail, and plainly resented the opening of a window into his domain. I saw at once, with regret, that I had pitched my tent beside the smallest of the flycatchers, the least flycatcher, or chebec.
I say with regret, for two reasons. First, the presence of one of these birds seriously interferes with the morning service of song, — one of the most cherished pleasures of bird-study, — for he takes it upon himself to regulate the singers of his own vicinity, and though in fair fight almost any one of the sweet songsters could conquer his place, chebec would make it extremely disagreeable for him.
Since the world is wide and there are plenty of nice places, why should a bird rush into a disputed corner? No bird feeling the spirit of song upon him, can be supposed to fight for his right to a place; he would naturally prefer to take his stand out of the range of this "fiery particle" with such blustering manners.
Birds who confine themselves to the ground chebec seems to tolerate — or possibly looks down upon — the monotonous trill of the chipping-sparrow rouses not his antagonism; robin and hermit-thrush song may reach me from beyond his circle; but not a warbler, — neither summer yellow-bird nor Maryland yellow-throat, — not a purple finch, goldfinch, or vireo, not even a grosbeak is allowed to add his sweet notes to the chorus.
I admit that chebec does his little best to supply the lacking voices. He sings most vigorously all the magic hours between daylight and full sunshine; but an everlasting, jerky "chebec!" is not in the least inspiring — hence my regret.
The second reason for my never having felt inclination to make this bird's acquaintance was that I had taken the verdict of the books as final. He was simply the least flycatcher, and nothing more to be said about him, but I found, on closer acquaintance, that, as usual, the books do not tell everything.
My small neighbor proved to be a character, a person of ideas, with individuality as pronounced as if his measure had been in feet instead of inches. It was evident that in his estimation the epithet "least" did not apply to anything about him, not even his size, for are there not kinglets and hummingbirds? Moreover, does not our Concord philosopher distinctly say "no virtue goes with size"?
My study of this plucky little fellow was most entertaining. Many hours daily I spent listening to his various calls and cries, for the "chebec!" is merely his public performance, "his official utterance. He is by no means confined to it. Indeed, no bird I know is limited to one expression, any more than are we of the human race. His squealing cries as he flung himself with fury upon an intruder, and his low muttering to himself on his return, were most comical, while his gentle conversation with his mate as they sat together on the tree was totally unlike either.
As days passed and I learned to know him better, and appreciate his untiring vigilance, I wondered that my little friend allowed me to sit at my window so near him; and if he had really resented it, he had it in his power to make it so uncomfortable for me that I should have been forced to abandon my seat. He did feel some misgivings about it, I am sure, for he kept a stern eye upon my slightest movement, and often expressed his sentiments with florid eloquence that unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for my peace of mind, I could not understand.
Sometimes my very wide-awake neighbor took no notice of me, dismissed my case, if I became too obvious, with a contemptuous "phit!" but again he would sit on the fence ten feet from my window, crest raised, looking fierce enough, and address a good many remarks to me, which his manner forbade me to consider complimentary. Once or twice he came much nearer than usual, hovered before my window, poised gracefully on beating wing, taking observation, and expressing sentiments which I much fear were not altogether flattering, though I felt that I deserved well of him, for if I did spy upon him, I never intruded beyond my bounds. The window-sill was my limit, and how much farther my glass took me it is not to be supposed he knew. He was always as full of talk as if he had not opened his mouth before I came to furnish an audience.
The least flycatcher is the most "bumptious" bird I know. Not only does he demand a whole tree, sometimes more than one, to himself, — a claim absurd for such a little fellow, — but he will scarcely allow another bird in his neighborhood. My small friend in brown was a fair representative of his family. If a bluebird came with his sweet call to the maple, instantly chebec precipitated himself upon him with savage cries, crest erect, as fierce as if the lovely blue visitor were a hawk. He was far more self-assertive than any of his relations whom I know. No kingbird, notwithstanding his belligerent reputation, can compare in this quality with the insignificant midget no bigger than my thumb called the least flycatcher.
While sitting at my window I would sometimes hear a strange bird- voice on the maple-tree. Very carefully would I peep out to see. Lo! chebec was there before me on the lowest limb, turning his head this way and that. I knew his eyes were quicker than mine and his position more favorable, so I would look at him to see where to turn my eyes. In one instant he would dart off toward the top of the tree, and somebody would vanish in a hurry.
There was once an amusing scene between chebec and a robin. The robin alighted on a fence, nearer the old tree than was agreeable to its fiery resident, who consequently flung himself upon the larger bird with his harshest cry. The robin departed, — as who would not before such an onslaught? — but in an instant he returned with loud cries of rage and defiance going through his whole vocabulary of insulting, mocking, and taunting notes, flirting his tail and jerking his wings, daring the small foe to try it again. He could not get over it. He was evidently furious that he had been surprised into flight, and wished to wipe out the fact by his vehement denial. Long after chebec returned to his own business the robin continued to remonstrate and explain from the fence. To all these demonstrations, though they continued for half an hour, chebec, calm in his own tree, was perfectly indifferent. What he wanted was to make the robin leave his premises, and that he had done, and what the robin said about it afterward did not concern him in the least.
The only bird who refused to leave at the bidding of this peremptory personage was — curiously enough — one of nearly his own size, and one with no reputation for belligerency, a white-breasted nuthatch, a mother at that, with one little one following her about. When chebec descended upon this pair like a small tornado, Mamma Nuthatch met him with defiance, actually running at him, driving him back to his own tree, and then going on her way quietly, calmly uttering her droll "quank! quank!" and stuffing innumerable morsels into the mouth of her charge.
Madam Chebec is fully as "bumptious" as her mate. In one place of study she laid claim to a row of five trees, because she had a nest in one of them. She drove away chickadees, purple finches, and indeed any one whom she could intimidate, by hurling herself upon them. I judged that it was Madam because she did not sing, and I am sure chebec himself is not capable of long silence.
At another time I caught her (again I suppose it was the female, because she was building) helping herself to her neighbor's goods. At that time I was watching with interest the making of a home by a Baltimore oriole. She had hung her hammock from the top branch of an elm-tree, and was putting in the finishing touches, closely attended by her mate.
This gorgeously clad personage seemed to consider it his duty to guard and protect only, although this suspicion may do him an injustice, for I have seen one of his kind, ready and anxious to do his share of the work, not allowed by his capable spouse to touch a thread of the precious structure. Whatever may have been the reason, the bird I was watching was merely a protector, following his busy partner afield for material, and alighting on the next tree to watch her while she added it to the mass.
Instead of guarding the nest-maker, the event proved that he should have guarded the nest, for alas! others who wanted nesting material were about. Attracted one morning by the flutter of wings, I glanced over to the elm branch, and saw to my astonishment a small bird hovering before the unfinished cradle. While I looked he — or was it she? — snatched at it, once, twice, three times, and at the third time brought out a small bunch of fibres, with which he — or she — flew away. I snatched up my glass, but the small thief was too nimble for me. She was out of sight before I could catch her.
I watched, however, for the return of the pilferer, and in due time I had her. She waited quietly on a neighboring apple-tree till the builder had woven another load of material into her hammock and gone, and then approaching cautiously, she repeated her sly theft. It was a chebec. Afterwards I traced her home and found a nearly finished nest in an apple-tree near the barn, far away from the oriole's neighborhood. Three or four times an hour this little bit of thievery took place, but whether one or both of the pair took part I could not discover.
There is a good deal of what we call common sense packed away in that tiny head. I have told elsewhere of a chebec being induced, by the convenience of supplies, to use human-provided material for building her nest, but when it proved inadequate, being totally destroyed by rain, she rejected further advice and assistance, even leaving the vicinity of the would-be friend whose ill-considered help had made her so much trouble.
The flycatchers are an interesting family. If not particularly beautiful (though some of them are even that), they are certainly most useful and exemplary in their lives. We have dubbed them tyrants, which name not all of them deserve, and we have classed them among the songless birds, though the best known of them — the kingbird, wood-pewee, and phoebe at least — have each a sweet, though not very loud song.
As a family, flycatchers are not nervous. Any one of the tribe that I know will let one stare at pleasure at the home life. Apparently they are sure the nest is safe and they have sublime confidence in their ability to defend their own.
What should above all commend these birds to our friendship, not one of them, so far as I know, ever disturbs the fruits of the earth, which we claim for our own. Their food is, without exception, I believe, the insect life that is a pest to us. Even the kingbird, who is accused of eating bees, has been proved many times to take only the drones. For once, a name has been well bestowed; they are, in fact, as in name, flycatchers.