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EARLY MORNING STUDIES
MY bedroom, when I woke this morning, was full of bird-songs, which is the greatest pleasure in life, says Robert Louis Stevenson in one of his letters, thus expressing in his own felicitous way the sentiments of bird-lovers the world over. Few things in this matter-of-fact existence are more delightful than to be called out of dreamland by the sweet voices of birds, and to lie half awake, yet wholly conscious, to enjoy them, before plunging into the storm and stress of our daily lives. The morning-song is the most cherished pleasure of the bird-lover's day.
These early concerts are always interesting, and nearly all of them are charming, but it is not generally recognized that there is great diversity among them.
The study of our little brothers is made peculiarly fascinating by the fact that they show character and individuality in every act of life, not only in song and manners, but even in their grouping. One shall scarcely twice find exactly the same species living together hi the neighborhood. And since they sing about their homes, the songs of the morning in any given locality are determined by the species resident there. In a good many years of close observation I have never found much resemblance between the morning chorus of any two places.
The exceptional charm of the song of the morning first came into my consciousness a good many years ago in North Carolina where the bird of the South — the mocking-bird (who deserves a better name) — took the lead, and indeed usually furnished the entire programme of the morning performance, —
"Trying to be ten birds in one"; —
sometimes, too, after having entranced me by a glorious midnight rhapsody.
Since that awakening, the first bird-note, be it mocking-bird or English sparrow, arouses me, and I lie and listen to the music that comes through my wide-open windows, so long as the overture lasts. For it is curious and suggestive that this opening song, in which all the birds of the neighborhood seem to take part, abruptly ceases after a certain length of time, and the efforts of the remainder of the day are scattering and sporadic, unlike in every way.
A very different service of song greeted me in the Rocky Mountains, at the foot of Cheyenne the Beautiful, with its tender and sad memories. The journey thither had prepared me for changes, for I went through Nebraska.
When a traveler from the Atlantic coast enters that state, he is impressed with its wonderful adaptation to farming. Not a hill, not a rock, not a stump to be seen. He remembers dear New England's stony heart, and Michigan's miles of stumps, and wonders that any one wishing to till the ground can stay where are roots to be grubbed up, rocks to be blasted, stones to be removed, and trees to be cut, and why all the world does not rush to this fertile plain. But as the hours go by he begins to think fondly about variety in scenery, and to yearn for a few trees, and to long for a rock or two, and this feeling continues and grows till, from simple irritation, he becomes fairly exasperated with the endless flatness: the whole state pressed down and rolled out like a pie-crust. Through acres and acres of wheat, and miles and miles of corn, as if it had rained seed-corn, he goes, and before his train reaches the boundary he wonders that every soul in it does n't go raving mad from pure monotony.
When he reaches the Mountain State — Colorado — he wants to open wide the windows to get Nebraska out of his lungs, and to take in the mountains — pure air, blue sky, deserts, prairie-dogs, owls, and all; to get Nebraska cinders out of his eyes and her sameness out of his soul.
Around my camp in Colorado were Western meadow-larks, chewinks, and Western wood-pewees, but the songs of the morning were almost exclusively the dismal wails of the latter bird. Our own pewee has a sweet and plaintive little song, but his Western brother exaggerates it into a dirge, pessimistic in the last degree, and depressing to the spirits, while it is so loud one cannot ignore it.
Somewhat later in the day the chewink, or towhee bunting, would ring his silver bell-like peal, and when at its best this is one of our most exquisite bird-songs. A chewink who came about the camp daily, added to the usual strain — which is two staccato notes followed by a tremolo considerably higher — two more tremolos on different and lower keys, uttered so softly one could hardly hear them, but of a liquid, rapturous quality which defies description.
A little away from our grove the meadowlark was glorious. Sometimes I was happy enough to hear his bewitching whisper-song in a sweet, low, trilling undertone, interpolated between the strains of the ordinary loud performance. That is another charm of the morning, — the frequency with which the birds indulge in these peculiar undertone efforts, — singing to themselves, as it were, and evidently not intending the public to hear. The diversity of sentiment about the song of the Western meadow-lark, which we often see expressed in print, is easily explained by the simple fact that the birds differ in quality of voice and execution.
A quiet retreat in New Hampshire, in sight of Chocorua, made famous by our lamented Frank Bolles, offered me a peculiar and more musical morning attraction, — nothing less than the song of the barn-swallow. Not the low, sweet utterance we are familiar with from our bird of the hayloft, but strangely loud and clear, and poured out with all the freedom and abandon of a bobolink. It was such an exhibition of this bird's musical ability as I have seldom heard. The reason seemed to be that in that neighborhood he had to sustain almost the entire burden of song, the only other bird common about the place being the cedar-waxwing, who rarely speaks above a whisper. This being the case, the barn-swallow rose to the occasion and assumed his role with spirit, not only showing himself social and lively about the house, but blossoming out as a really brilliant singer, capable of furnishing a morning song to enchant the most critical audience. Perching himself on the peak of the roof over a dormer window, and standing up very straight on his tiny black legs, — contrary to the family custom of sitting, — one would sing his quaint and charming song for half an hour at a time without pause, in so loud a tone that I hardly recognized it at first.
One morning before I was well awake, I heard a great chattering of swallows, so near it seemed they must be in the room. Rousing myself I looked to the window, where appeared a little black head against the screen, constantly turning from side to side, with bright black eyes peering into the room. He was keeping sharp watch over me, while some sort of a conference was in progress on the roof of the piazza before the window. There was no singing, but excited conversational notes in many voices. As long as I made no movement the talk went on, but on my first involuntary stirring the watchman on the sill uttered a cry, and the meeting adjourned without ceremony. What kill-joys we have made ourselves to the birds.
May mornings on the shore of Lake Michigan were opened by the songs of a wren, — a house-wren, in wooing time, and, —
"Sweet and clear
His cheerful call came to the ear,
While light was slowly growing."
The way through which I reached the scene of this interesting window-study was far from charming. There were miles and miles of stumps; whole townships of dead trees, some barked and ghastly white in the sunshine, some blackened by fire, and acres of them lying in piled-up confusion, as the burning of their roots had made them fall. Everywhere was smoke and smouldering fire; everywhere among the stumps were glaring piles of raw new lumber into which the vanished trees had been transformed; everywhere were carloads of logs, saw-mills, and little new-board towns, looking as if put up overnight. It was pitiful.
Beyond the smoke and depression of these scenes I found a quiet nook near the shore of the lake, and a room with windows looking into a retired yard with trees and shrubs.
The first morning in the new quarters I was awakened by the cheerful song of the wren, and greeted my charming neighbor with enthusiasm, for no bird shows more character and individuality than the dull-clad midget we call a wren. He may always be depended upon for originality, for unexpectedness, and idiosyncrasies of many sorts. He never fails to make an interesting study.
Never did a personage of his inches pour out such floods of rapture. It was luxury to lie and listen to the gushing, liquid melody that floated into the window at my head.
I knew it was courtship-time, and wren love-making is not of the common hackneyed sort. It is the unique custom of that family to select and furnish a home, and then win a bride by song, calling her out of the universe by his charm of voice. Surely no more winsome strains could be demanded by the most exacting of little brown wren-maidens.
Knowing this custom, I was always on hand with his first note, sharing his watch, and eager to welcome the unknown — unknown to me — who was to respond to his eloquent appeals.
Sometimes I slipped quietly out of the sleep-bound house to enjoy the mystic charm of those hours when all the world is in dreamland. It is a strange, almost a weird feeling to have the whole green world to oneself, with only birds for neighbors. But by experience only can one understand the rapture of those hours when one can say with Whittier, —
I found that my little lover had taken a house in the top of a gate-post a few feet from my window, and was extremely busy putting in the furnishings for the expected bride. Never was eager bridegroom so blithe and so busy, and never, I’m sure, was one so bewitching.
Hours every day I watched him. In the intervals of his labors at nest-making, he sang from the top of the post, — the roof of his house, — often with mouth loaded with building material, so full of rapture it fairly bubbled over. Then, his strain finished, he whisked over the edge with his load.
For three days he never tired, singing an hour or more at a time, ever looking eagerly about overhead, turning this way and that, as if fearing she might pass and he not see her. After that he began to seem exhausted, and his voice not quite so clear and ringing as at first, while he stood with tail drooped to the post, and looking somewhat anxious. I feared the sweet little drama would end in disappointment and tragedy, and I became as anxious as he for a settlement of his matrimonial affairs.
At last! at last! My bonny bridegroom appeared one morning, fluttering and frisking and singing to split his throat, while conducting a stranger to the gate-post domicile.
At first she alighted on the fence not far off, and he proceeded to coax her, uttering a low "chur-r-r-r," with a soft, coaxing note now and then, keeping his eye on her, apparently begging her to try the home he had provided. In a moment she flew, and he followed, singing almost incessantly. Plainly matters were not settled — she did not quite know her own mind.
The coy damsel flitted about, on a tree, on the fence, on the ground, and he never intermitted his attentions nor his song. Twice he coaxed her almost to the door, but at the last moment she would not. Evidently entering the offered quarters constitutes acceptance in Bird-land.
Many times that day these scenes were enacted, and I became as absorbed in his courtship as I ever do in the varying fortunes of similar character in human life, or in a novel. Nor is the difference so great as one might imagine — birds are wonderfully human in their ways.
It was noon of the next day before the bride was won and concluded to enter the apartment offered her. Then my little hero went wild with joy, singing like mad, fluttering his wings, flying up in the air. He seemed hardly able to contain himself. Then, too, he instantly began vigorously dressing his plumage, for birds are careful or indifferent , to their personal appearance according to their emotions, exactly as are their human brothers.
After this came a difference in the wren's behavior. He was now the sedate head of a family. He still sang, but not so loud or so urgently as before, — his audience was near at hand; wooing was ended and home-life had begun.
And now I made the acquaintance of the bride, who soon began to appear on the gatepost in the role of mistress. Though their dress was the same, I had no difficulty in distinguishing the pair. She was all airs and flirty ways, posturing, flitting about with tail held up at an angle (though never, as usually pictured, pointing, to ward the head).
The bridegroom appeared somewhat subdued, and I began to fear that life was not all roses to the poor little fellow. She was, it must be admitted, a little coquettish, and made my gentleman keep his distance, greeting him with a sharp note if he came too near, and sometimes pretending to fly at him, upon which he quietly retired a few inches, still evidently regarding her with admiration and devotion.
Once I saw her bathe. There had been a quiet rain without wind, and every leaf was loaded with water. She flew from her nest to a fruit-tree, rubbed against a bunch of leaves, and then fluttered and shook herself violently. This she repeated until wet as she desired, when she gave herself up to an elaborate dressing and arranging of her draperies.
I could not stay to see this charming pair through their honeymoon, — nor what was more important — to protect the little home so dangerously exposed to every one that passed, but I confided them to a sympathetic household, and left them with the fervent hope that all went well, and that wren-song will make joyous many more mornings beside the blue waters.