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Fuertes, Louis Agassiz / Bird Stories from Burroughs Sketches of Bird Life Taken from the Works of John Burroughs
Produced by Peter Vachuska, Chuck Greif, Stephen Blundell
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at










[Illustration: GOLDFINCH (page 125)]




BIRD STORIES
FROM BURROUGHS

SKETCHES OF BIRD LIFE
TAKEN FROM THE WORKS OF

JOHN BURROUGHS


_WITH ILLUSTRATIONS
BY LOUIS AGASSIZ FUERTES_


[Device]


BOSTON NEW YORK CHICAGO
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
The Riverside Press Cambridge




COPYRIGHT, 1871, 1875, 1876, 1877, 1879, 1881, 1886, 1894, 1899, 1903,
1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, BY JOHN BURROUGHS

COPYRIGHT, 1911, BY HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY


Transcriber's Note:

Hyphenation has been standardised. Minor typographical errors have
been corrected without note.




PUBLISHERS' NOTE


John Burroughs's first book, "Wake-Robin," contained a chapter entitled
"The Invitation." It was an invitation to the study of birds. He has
reiterated it, implicitly if not explicitly, in most of the books he has
published since then, and many of his readers have joyfully accepted it.
Indeed, such an invitation from Mr. Burroughs is the best possible
introduction to the birds of our Northeastern States, and it is likewise
an introduction to some very good reading. To convey this invitation to
a wider circle of young readers the most interesting bird stories in Mr.
Burroughs's books have been gathered into a single volume. A chapter is
given to each species of bird, and the chapters are arranged in a sort
of chronological order, according to the time of the bird's arrival in
the spring, the nesting time, or the season when for some other reason
the species is particularly conspicuous. In taking the stories out of
their original setting a few slight verbal alterations have been
necessary here and there, but these have been made either by Mr.
Burroughs himself or with his approval.




CONTENTS


THE BLUEBIRD 1

THE BLUEBIRD (_poem_) 13

THE ROBIN 15

THE FLICKER 21

THE PHŒBE 28

THE COMING OF PHŒBE (_poem_) 31

THE COWBIRD 33

THE CHIPPING SPARROW 36

THE CHEWINK 39

THE BROWN THRASHER 42

THE HOUSE WREN 47

THE SONG SPARROW 53

THE CHIMNEY SWIFT 61

THE OVEN-BIRD 69

THE CATBIRD 72

THE BOBOLINK 77

THE BOBOLINK (_poem_) 82

THE WOOD THRUSH 83

THE BALTIMORE ORIOLE 91

THE WHIP-POOR-WILL 95

THE BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER: A SEARCH FOR
A RARE NEST 100

THE MARSH HAWK: A MARSH HAWK'S NEST, A YOUNG
HAWK, AND A VISIT TO A QUAIL ON HER NEST 106

THE WINTER WREN 119

THE CEDAR-BIRD 122

THE GOLDFINCH 125

THE HEN-HAWK 130

THE RUFFED GROUSE, OR PARTRIDGE 133

THE PARTRIDGE (_poem_) 137

THE CROW 138

THE CROW (_poem_) 144

THE NORTHERN SHRIKE 147

THE SCREECH OWL 151

THE CHICKADEE 157

THE DOWNY WOODPECKER 161

THE DOWNY WOODPECKER (_poem_) 169

INDEX 173




ILLUSTRATIONS


GOLDFINCH (_in color_). (page 125) _Frontispiece_

A PAIR OF BLUEBIRDS 8

FLICKER (_in color_) 22

CHEWINK, MALE AND FEMALE (_in color_) 40

WOOD THRUSH 84

BALTIMORE ORIOLE, MALE AND FEMALE 92

WHIP-POOR-WILL 96

DOWNY WOODPECKER (_in color_) 162




BIRD STORIES FROM BURROUGHS




THE BLUEBIRD


It is sure to be a bright March morning when you first hear the
bluebird's note; and it is as if the milder influences up above had
found a voice and let a word fall upon your ear, so tender is it and so
prophetic, a hope tinged with a regret.

There never was a happier or more devoted husband than the male
bluebird. He is the gay champion and escort of the female at all times,
and while she is sitting he feeds her regularly. It is very pretty to
watch them building their nest. The male is very active in hunting out a
place and exploring the boxes and cavities, but seems to have no choice
in the matter and is anxious only to please and encourage his mate, who
has the practical turn and knows what will do and what will not. After
she has suited herself he applauds her immensely, and away the two go in
quest of material for the nest, the male acting as guard and flying
above and in advance of the female. She brings all the material and
does all the work of building, he looking on and encouraging her with
gesture and song. He acts also as inspector of her work, but I fear is a
very partial one. She enters the nest with her bit of dry grass or
straw, and, having adjusted it to her notion, withdraws and waits near
by while he goes in and looks it over. On coming out he exclaims very
plainly, "Excellent! excellent!" and away the two go again for more
material.

I was much amused one summer day in seeing a bluebird feeding her young
one in the shaded street of a large town. She had captured a cicada or
harvest-fly, and, after bruising it awhile on the ground, flew with it
to a tree and placed it in the beak of the young bird. It was a large
morsel, and the mother seemed to have doubts of her chick's ability to
dispose of it, for she stood near and watched its efforts with great
solicitude. The young bird struggled valiantly with the cicada, but made
no headway in swallowing it, when the mother took it from him and flew
to the sidewalk, and proceeded to break and bruise it more thoroughly.
Then she again placed it in his beak, and seemed to say, "There, try it
now," and sympathized so thoroughly with his efforts that she repeated
many of his motions and contortions. But the great fly was unyielding,
and, indeed, seemed ridiculously disproportioned to the beak that held
it. The young bird fluttered and fluttered, and screamed, "I'm stuck,
I'm stuck!" till the anxious parent again seized the morsel and carried
it to an iron railing, where she came down upon it for the space of a
minute with all the force and momentum her beak could command. Then she
offered it to her young a third time, but with the same result as
before, except that this time the bird dropped it; but she reached the
ground as soon as the cicada did, and taking it in her beak flew a
little distance to a high board fence, where she sat motionless for some
moments. While pondering the problem how that fly should be broken, the
male bluebird approached her, and said very plainly, and I thought
rather curtly, "Give me that bug," but she quickly resented his
interference and flew farther away, where she sat apparently quite
discouraged when I last saw her.

* * * * *

One day in early May, Ted and I made an expedition to the Shattega, a
still, dark, deep stream that loiters silently through the woods not far
from my cabin. As we paddled along, we were on the alert for any bit of
wild life of bird or beast that might turn up.

There were so many abandoned woodpecker chambers in the small dead
trees as we went along that I determined to secure the section of a tree
containing a good one to take home and put up for the bluebirds. "Why
don't the bluebirds occupy them here?" inquired Ted. "Oh," I replied,
"bluebirds do not come so far into the woods as this. They prefer
nesting-places in the open, and near human habitations." After carefully
scrutinizing several of the trees, we at last saw one that seemed to
fill the bill. It was a small dead tree-trunk seven or eight inches in
diameter, that leaned out over the water, and from which the top had
been broken. The hole, round and firm, was ten or twelve feet above us.
After considerable effort I succeeded in breaking the stub off near the
ground, and brought it down into the boat. "Just the thing," I said;
"surely the bluebirds will prefer this to an artificial box." But, lo
and behold, it already had bluebirds in it! We had not heard a sound or
seen a feather till the trunk was in our hands, when, on peering into
the cavity, we discovered two young bluebirds about half grown. This was
a predicament indeed!

Well, the only thing we could do was to stand the tree-trunk up again as
well as we could, and as near as we could to where it had stood before.
This was no easy thing. But after a time we had it fairly well
replaced, one end standing in the mud of the shallow water and the other
resting against a tree. This left the hole to the nest about ten feet
below and to one side of its former position. Just then we heard the
voice of one of the parent birds, and we quickly paddled to the other
side of the stream, fifty feet away, to watch her proceedings, saying to
each other, "Too bad! too bad!" The mother bird had a large beetle in
her beak. She alighted upon a limb a few feet above the former site of
her nest, looked down upon us, uttered a note or two, and then dropped
down confidently to the point in the vacant air where the entrance to
her nest had been but a few moments before. Here she hovered on the wing
a second or two, looking for something that was not there, and then
returned to the perch she had just left, apparently not a little
disturbed. She hammered the beetle rather excitedly upon the limb a few
times, as if it were in some way at fault, then dropped down to try for
her nest again. Only vacant air there! She hovers and hovers, her blue
wings flickering in the checkered light; surely that precious hole
_must_ be there; but no, again she is baffled, and again she returns to
her perch, and mauls the poor beetle till it must be reduced to a pulp.
Then she makes a third attempt, then a fourth, and a fifth, and a
sixth, till she becomes very much excited. "What could have happened? am
I dreaming? has that beetle hoodooed me?" she seems to say, and in her
dismay she lets the bug drop, and looks bewilderedly about her. Then she
flies away through the woods, calling. "Going for her mate," I said to
Ted. "She is in deep trouble, and she wants sympathy and help."

In a few minutes we heard her mate answer, and presently the two birds
came hurrying to the spot, both with loaded beaks. They perched upon the
familiar limb above the site of the nest, and the mate seemed to say,
"My dear, what has happened to you? I can find that nest." And he dived
down, and brought up in the empty air just as the mother had done. How
he winnowed it with his eager wings! how he seemed to bear on to that
blank space! His mate sat regarding him intently, confident, I think,
that he would find the clew. But he did not. Baffled and excited, he
returned to the perch beside her. Then she tried again, then he rushed
down once more, then they both assaulted the place, but it would not
give up its secret. They talked, they encouraged each other, and they
kept up the search, now one, now the other, now both together. Sometimes
they dropped down to within a few feet of the entrance to the nest, and
we thought they would surely find it. No, their minds and eyes were
intent only upon that square foot of space where the nest had been. Soon
they withdrew to a large limb many feet higher up, and seemed to say to
themselves, "Well, it is not there, but it must be here somewhere; let
us look about." A few minutes elapsed, when we saw the mother bird
spring from her perch and go straight as an arrow to the nest. Her
maternal eye had proved the quicker. She had found her young. Something
like reason and common sense had come to her rescue; she had taken time
to look about, and behold! there was that precious doorway. She thrust
her head into it, then sent back a call to her mate, then went farther
in, then withdrew. "Yes, it is true, they are here, they are here!" Then
she went in again, gave them the food in her beak, and then gave place
to her mate, who, after similar demonstrations of joy, also gave them
his morsel.

Ted and I breathed freer. A burden had been taken from our minds and
hearts, and we went cheerfully on our way. We had learned something,
too; we had learned that when in the deep woods you think of bluebirds,
bluebirds may be nearer you than you think.

* * * * *

One mid-April morning two pairs of bluebirds were in very active and at
times violent courtship about my grounds. I could not quite understand
the meaning of all the fuss and flutter. Both birds of each pair were
very demonstrative, but the female in each case the more so. She
followed the male everywhere, lifting and twinkling her wings, and
apparently seeking to win him by both word and gesture. If she was not
telling him by that cheery, animated, confiding, softly endearing speech
of hers, which she poured out incessantly, how much she loved him, what
was she saying? She was constantly filled with a desire to perch upon
the precise spot where he was sitting, and if he had not moved away I
think she would have alighted upon his back. Now and then, when she
flitted away from him, he followed her with like gestures and tones and
demonstrations of affection, but never with quite the same ardor. The
two pairs kept near each other, about the house, the bird-boxes, the
trees, the posts and vines in the vineyard, filling the ear with their
soft, insistent warbles, and the eye with their twinkling azure wings.

[Illustration: BLUEBIRD
Upper, male; lower, female]

Was it this constant presence of rivals on both sides that so stimulated
them and kept them up to such a pitch of courtship? Finally, after I had
watched them over an hour, the birds began to come into collision. As
they met in the vineyard, the two males clinched and fell to the
ground, lying there for a moment with wings sprawled out, like birds
brought down by a gun. Then they separated, and each returned to his
mate, warbling and twinkling his wings. Very soon the females clinched
and fell to the ground and fought savagely, rolling over and over each
other, clawing and tweaking and locking beaks and hanging on like bull
terriers. They did this repeatedly; once one of the males dashed in and
separated them, by giving one of the females a sharp tweak and blow.
Then the males were at it again, their blue plumage mixing with the
green grass and ruffled by the ruddy soil. What a soft, feathery,
ineffectual battle it seemed in both cases!--no sound, no blood, no
flying feathers, just a sudden mixing up and general disarray of blue
wings and tails and ruddy breasts, there on the ground; assault but no
visible wounds; thrust of beak and grip of claw, but no feather loosened
and but little ruffling; long holding of one down by the other, but no
cry of pain or fury. It was the kind of battle that one likes to
witness. The birds usually locked beaks, and held their grip half a
minute at a time. One of the females would always alight by the
struggling males and lift her wings and utter her soft notes, but what
she said--whether she was encouraging one of the blue coats or berating
the other, or imploring them both to desist, or egging them on--I could
not tell. So far as I could understand her speech, it was the same that
she had been uttering to her mate all the time.

When my bluebirds dashed at each other with beak and claw, their
preliminary utterances had to my ears anything but a hostile sound.
Indeed, for the bluebird to make a harsh, discordant sound seems out of
the question. Once, when the two males lay upon the ground with
outspread wings and locked beaks, a robin flew down by them and for a
moment gazed intently at the blue splash upon the grass, and then went
his way.

As the birds drifted about the grounds, first the males, then the
females rolling on the grass or in the dust in fierce combat, and
between times the members of each pair assuring each other of undying
interest and attachment, I followed them, apparently quite unnoticed by
them. Sometimes they would lie more than a minute upon the ground, each
trying to keep his own or to break the other's hold. They seemed so
oblivious of everything about them that I wondered if they might not at
such times fall an easy prey to cats and hawks. Let me put their
watchfulness to the test, I said. So, as the two males clinched again
and fell to the ground, I cautiously approached them, hat in hand. When
ten feet away and unregarded, I made a sudden dash and covered them with
my hat. The struggle continued for a few seconds under there, then all
was still. Sudden darkness had fallen upon the field of battle. What did
they think had happened? Presently their heads and wings began to brush
the inside of my hat. Then all was still again. Then I spoke to them,
called to them, exulted over them, but they betrayed no excitement or
alarm. Occasionally a head or a body came in gentle contact with the top
or the sides of my hat.

But the two females were evidently agitated by the sudden disappearance
of their contending lovers, and began uttering their mournful
alarm-note. After a minute or two I lifted one side of my hat and out
darted one of the birds; then I lifted the hat from the other. One of
the females then rushed, apparently with notes of joy and
congratulation, to one of the males, who gave her a spiteful tweak and
blow. Then the other came and he served her the same. He was evidently a
little bewildered, and not certain what had happened or who was
responsible for it. Did he think the two females were in some way to
blame? But he was soon reconciled to one of them again, as was the
other male with the other, yet the two couples did not separate till the
males had come into collision once more. Presently, however, they
drifted apart, and each pair was soon holding an animated conversation
punctuated by those pretty wing gestures, about the two bird-boxes.

These scenes of love and rivalry had lasted nearly all the forenoon, and
matters between the birds apparently remained as they were before--the
members of each pair quite satisfied with each other. One pair occupied
one of the bird-boxes in the vineyard and reared two broods there during
the season, but the other pair drifted away and took up their abode
somewhere else.


THE BLUEBIRD

A wistful note from out the sky,
"Pure, pure, pure," in plaintive tone,
As if the wand'rer were alone,
And hardly knew to sing or cry.

But now a flash of eager wing,
Flitting, twinkling by the wall,
And pleadings sweet and am'rous call,--
Ah, now I know his heart doth sing!

O bluebird, welcome back again,
Thy azure coat and ruddy vest
Are hues that April loveth best,--
Warm skies above the furrowed plain.

The farm boy hears thy tender voice,
And visions come of crystal days,
With sugar-camps in maple ways,
And scenes that make his heart rejoice.

The lucid smoke drifts on the breeze,
The steaming pans are mantling white,
And thy blue wing's a joyous sight,
Among the brown and leafless trees.

Now loosened currents glance and run,
And buckets shine on sturdy boles,
The forest folk peep from their holes,
And work is play from sun to sun.

The downy beats his sounding limb,
The nuthatch pipes his nasal call,
And Robin perched on tree-top tall
Heavenward lifts his evening hymn.

Now go and bring thy homesick bride,
Persuade her here is just the place
To build a home and found a race
In Downy's cell, my lodge beside.




THE ROBIN


Not long after the bluebird comes the robin. In large numbers they scour
the fields and groves. You hear their piping in the meadow, in the
pasture, on the hillside. Walk in the woods, and the dry leaves rustle
with the whir of their wings, the air is vocal with their cheery call.
In excess of joy and vivacity, they run, leap, scream, chase each other
through the air, diving and sweeping among the trees with perilous
rapidity.

In that free, fascinating, half-work-and-half-play
pursuit,--sugar-making,--a pursuit which still lingers in many parts of
New York, as in New England,--the robin is one's constant companion.
When the day is sunny and the ground bare, you meet him at all points
and hear him at all hours. At sunset, on the tops of the tall maples,
with look heavenward, and in a spirit of utter abandonment, he carols
his simple strain. And sitting thus amid the stark, silent trees, above
the wet, cold earth, with the chill of winter still in the air, there is
no fitter or sweeter songster in the whole round year. It is in keeping
with the scene and the occasion. How round and genuine the notes are,
and how eagerly our ears drink them in! The first utterance, and the
spell of winter is thoroughly broken, and the remembrance of it afar
off.

One of the most graceful of warriors is the robin. I know few prettier
sights than two males challenging and curveting about each other upon
the grass in early spring. Their attentions to each other are so
courteous and restrained. In alternate curves and graceful sallies, they
pursue and circumvent each other. First one hops a few feet, then the
other, each one standing erect in true military style while his fellow
passes him and describes the segment of an ellipse about him, both
uttering the while a fine complacent warble in a high but suppressed
key. Are they lovers or enemies? the beholder wonders, until they make a
spring and are beak to beak in the twinkling of an eye, and perhaps
mount a few feet into the air, but rarely actually deliver blows upon
each other. Every thrust is parried, every movement met. They follow
each other with dignified composure about the fields or lawn, into trees
and upon the ground, with plumage slightly spread, breasts glowing,
their lisping, shrill war-song just audible. It forms on the whole the
most civil and high-bred tilt to be witnessed during the season.

In the latter half of April, we pass through what I call the "robin
racket,"--trains of three or four birds rushing pell-mell over the lawn
and fetching up in a tree or bush, or occasionally upon the ground, all
piping and screaming at the top of their voices, but whether in mirth or
anger it is hard to tell. The nucleus of the train is a female. One
cannot see that the males in pursuit of her are rivals; it seems rather
as if they had united to hustle her out of the place. But somehow the
matches are no doubt made and sealed during these mad rushes. Maybe the
female shouts out to her suitors, "Who touches me first wins," and away
she scurries like an arrow. The males shout out, "Agreed!" and away they
go in pursuit, each trying to outdo the other. The game is a brief one.
Before one can get the clew to it, the party has dispersed.

* * * * *

The first year of my cabin life a pair of robins attempted to build a
nest upon the round timber that forms the plate under my porch roof. But
it was a poor place to build in. It took nearly a week's time and caused
the birds a great waste of labor to find this out. The coarse material
they brought for the foundation would not bed well upon the rounded
surface of the timber, and every vagrant breeze that came along swept it
off. My porch was kept littered with twigs and weed-stalks for days,
till finally the birds abandoned the undertaking. The next season a
wiser or more experienced pair made the attempt again, and succeeded.
They placed the nest against the rafter where it joins the plate; they
used mud from the start to level up with and to hold the first twigs and
straws, and had soon completed a firm, shapely structure. When the young
were about ready to fly, it was interesting to note that there was
apparently an older and a younger, as in most families. One bird was
more advanced than any of the others. Had the parent birds intentionally
stimulated it with extra quantities of food, so as to be able to launch
their offspring into the world one at a time? At any rate, one of the
birds was ready to leave the nest a day and a half before any of the
others. I happened to be looking at it when the first impulse to get
outside the nest seemed to seize it. Its parents were encouraging it
with calls and assurances from some rocks a few yards away. It answered
their calls in vigorous, strident tones. Then it climbed over the edge
of the nest upon the plate, took a few steps forward, then a few more,
till it was a yard from the nest and near the end of the timber, and
could look off into free space. Its parents apparently shouted, "Come
on!" But its courage was not quite equal to the leap; it looked around,
and, seeing how far it was from home, scampered back to the nest, and
climbed into it like a frightened child. It had made its first journey
into the world, but the home tie had brought it quickly back. A few
hours afterward it journeyed to the end of the plate again, and then
turned and rushed back. The third time its heart was braver, its wings
stronger, and, leaping into the air with a shout, it flew easily to some
rocks a dozen or more yards away. Each of the young in succession, at
intervals of nearly a day, left the nest in this manner. There would be
the first journey of a few feet along the plate, the first sudden panic
at being so far from home, the rush back, a second and perhaps a third
attempt, and then the irrevocable leap into the air, and a clamorous
flight to a near-by bush or rock. Young birds never go back when they
have once taken flight. The first free flap of the wings severs forever
the ties that bind them to home.

* * * * *

I recently observed a robin boring for grubs in a country dooryard. It
is a common enough sight to witness one seize an angle-worm and drag it
from its burrow in the turf, but I am not sure that I ever before saw
one drill for grubs and bring the big white morsel to the surface. The
robin I am speaking of had a nest of young in a maple near by, and she
worked the neighborhood very industriously for food. She would run
along over the short grass after the manner of robins, stopping every
few feet, her form stiff and erect. Now and then she would suddenly bend
her head toward the ground and bring eye or ear for a moment to bear
intently upon it. Then she would spring to boring the turf vigorously
with her bill, changing her attitude at each stroke, alert and watchful,
throwing up the grass roots and little jets of soil, stabbing deeper and
deeper, growing every moment more and more excited, till finally a fat
grub was seized and brought forth. Time after time, during several days,
I saw her mine for grubs in this way and drag them forth. How did she
know where to drill? The insect was in every case an inch below the
surface. Did she hear it gnawing the roots of the grasses, or did she
see a movement in the turf beneath which the grub was at work? I know
not. I only know that she struck her game unerringly each time. Only
twice did I see her make a few thrusts and then desist, as if she had
been for the moment deceived.




THE FLICKER


Another April comer, who arrives shortly after Robin Redbreast, with
whom he associates both at this season and in the autumn, is the
golden-winged woodpecker, _alias_ "high-hole," _alias_ "flicker,"
_alias_ "yarup," _alias_ "yellow-hammer." He is an old favorite of my
boyhood, and his note to me means very much. He announces his arrival by
a long, loud call, repeated from the dry branch of some tree, or a stake
in the fence,--a thoroughly melodious April sound. I think how Solomon
finished that beautiful description of spring, "and the voice of the
turtle is heard in our land," and see that a description of spring in
this farming country, to be equally characteristic, should culminate in
like manner,--"and the call of the high-hole comes up from the wood." It
is a loud, strong, sonorous call, and does not seem to imply an answer,
but rather to subserve some purpose of love or music. It is "Yarup's"
proclamation of peace and good-will to all.

I recall an ancient maple standing sentry to a large sugar-bush, that,
year after year, afforded protection to a brood of yellow-hammers in its
decayed heart. A week or two before the nesting seemed actually to have
begun, three or four of these birds might be seen, on almost any bright
morning, gamboling and courting amid its decayed branches. Sometimes you
would hear only a gentle persuasive cooing, or a quiet confidential
chattering; then that long, loud call, taken up by first one, then
another, as they sat about upon the naked limbs; anon, a sort of wild,
rollicking laughter, intermingled with various cries, yelps, and
squeals, as if some incident had excited their mirth and ridicule.
Whether this social hilarity and boisterousness is in celebration of the
pairing or mating ceremony, or whether it is only a sort of annual
"house-warming" common among high-holes on resuming their summer
quarters, is a question upon which I reserve my judgment.

[Illustration: FLICKER]

Unlike most of his kinsmen, the golden-wing prefers the fields and the
borders of the forest to the deeper seclusion of the woods, and hence,
contrary to the habit of his tribe, obtains most of his subsistence from
the ground, probing it for ants and crickets. He is not quite satisfied
with being a woodpecker. He courts the society of the robin and the
finches, abandons the trees for the meadow, and feeds eagerly upon
berries and grain. What may be the final upshot of this course of living
is a question worthy the attention of Darwin. Will his taking to the
ground and his pedestrian feats result in lengthening his legs, his
feeding upon berries and grains subdue his tints and soften his voice,
and his associating with Robin put a song into his heart?

* * * * *

In the cavity of an apple-tree, much nearer the house than they usually
build, a pair of high-holes took up their abode. A knot-hole which led
to the decayed interior was enlarged, the live wood being cut away as
clean as a squirrel would have done it. The inside preparations I could
not witness, but day after day, as I passed near, I heard the bird
hammering away, evidently beating down obstructions and shaping and
enlarging the cavity. The chips were not brought out, but were used
rather to floor the interior. The woodpeckers are not nest-builders, but
rather nest-carvers.

The time seemed very short before the voices of the young were heard in
the heart of the old tree,--at first feebly, but waxing stronger day by
day until they could be heard many rods distant. When I put my hand upon
the trunk of the tree, they would set up an eager, expectant chattering;
but if I climbed up it toward the opening, they soon detected the
unusual sound and would hush quickly, only now and then uttering a
warning note. Long before they were fully fledged they clambered up to
the orifice to receive their food. As but one could stand in the opening
at a time, there was a good deal of elbowing and struggling for this
position. It was a very desirable one aside from the advantages it had
when food was served; it looked out upon the great, shining world, into
which the young birds seemed never tired of gazing. The fresh air must
have been a consideration also, for the interior of a high-hole's
dwelling is not sweet. When the parent birds came with food, the young
one in the opening did not get it all, but after he had received a
portion, either on his own motion or on a hint from the old one, he
would give place to the one behind him. Still, one bird evidently
outstripped his fellows, and in the race of life was two or three days
in advance of them. His voice was loudest and his head oftenest at the
window. But I noticed that, when he had kept the position too long, the
others evidently made it uncomfortable in his rear, and, after
"fidgeting" about awhile, he would be compelled to "back down." But
retaliation was then easy, and I fear his mates spent few easy moments
at that lookout. They would close their eyes and slide back into the
cavity as if the world had suddenly lost all its charms for them.

This bird was, of course, the first to leave the nest. For two days
before that event he kept his position in the opening most of the time
and sent forth his strong voice incessantly. The old ones abstained from
feeding him almost entirely, no doubt to encourage his exit. As I stood
looking at him one afternoon and noting his progress, he suddenly
reached a resolution,--seconded, I have no doubt, from the rear,--and
launched forth upon his untried wings. They served him well, and carried
him about fifty yards up-hill the first heat. The second day after, the
next in size and spirit left in the same manner; then another, till only
one remained. The parent birds ceased their visits to him, and for one
day he called and called till our ears were tired of the sound. His was
the faintest heart of all. Then he had none to encourage him from
behind. He left the nest and clung to the outer bole of the tree, and
yelped and piped for an hour longer; then he committed himself to his
wings and went his way like the rest.

The matchmaking of the high-holes, which often comes under my
observation, is in marked contrast to that of the robins and the
bluebirds. There does not appear to be any anger or any blows. The male
or two males will alight on a limb in front of the female, and go
through with a series of bowings and scrapings that are truly comical.
He spreads his tail, he puffs out his breast, he throws back his head
and then bends his body to the right and to the left, uttering all the
while a curious musical hiccough. The female confronts him unmoved, but
whether her attitude is critical or defensive, I cannot tell. Presently
she flies away, followed by her suitor or suitors, and the little comedy
is enacted on another stump or tree. Among all the woodpeckers the drum
plays an important part in the matchmaking. The male takes up his stand
on a dry, resonant limb, or on the ridgeboard of a building, and beats
the loudest call he is capable of. A favorite drum of the high-holes
about me is a hollow wooden tube, a section of a pump, which stands as a
bird-box upon my summer-house. It is a good instrument; its tone is
sharp and clear. A high-hole alights upon it, and sends forth a rattle
that can be heard a long way off. Then he lifts up his head and utters
that long April call, _Wick, wick, wick, wick_. Then he drums again. If
the female does not find him, it is not because he does not make noise
enough. But his sounds are all welcome to the ear. They are simple and
primitive, and voice well a certain sentiment of the April days. As I
write these lines I hear through the half-open door his call come up
from a distant field. Then I hear the steady hammering of one that has
been for three days trying to penetrate the weather boarding of the big
icehouse by the river, and to reach the sawdust filling for a
nesting-place.




THE PHŒBE


Another April bird whose memory I fondly cherish is the phœbe-bird, the
pioneer of the flycatchers. In the inland farming districts, I used to
notice him, on some bright morning about Easter Day, proclaiming his
arrival, with much variety of motion and attitude, from the peak of the
barn or hay-shed. As yet, you may have heard only the plaintive,
homesick note of the bluebird, or the faint trill of the song sparrow;
and the phœbe's clear, vivacious assurance of his veritable bodily
presence among us again is welcomed by all ears. At agreeable intervals
in his lay he describes a circle or an ellipse in the air, ostensibly
prospecting for insects, but really, I suspect, as an artistic flourish,
thrown in to make up in some way for the deficiency of his musical
performance. If plainness of dress indicates powers of song, as it
usually does, the phœbe ought to be unrivaled in musical ability, for
surely that ashen-gray suit is the superlative of plainness; and that
form, likewise, would hardly pass for a "perfect figure" of a bird. The
seasonableness of his coming, however, and his civil, neighborly ways,
shall make up for all deficiencies in song and plumage.

The phœbe-bird is a wise architect and perhaps enjoys as great an
immunity from danger, both in its person and its nest, as any other
bird. Its modest ashen-gray suit is the color of the rocks where it
builds, and the moss of which it makes such free use gives to its nest
the look of a natural growth or accretion. But when it comes into the
barn or under the shed to build, as it so frequently does, the moss is
rather out of place. Doubtless in time the bird will take the hint, and
when she builds in such places will leave the moss out. I noted but two
nests the summer I am speaking of: one in a barn failed of issue, on
account of the rats, I suspect, though the little owl may have been the
depredator; the other, in the woods, sent forth three young. This latter
nest was most charmingly and ingeniously placed. I discovered it while
in quest of pond-lilies, in a long, deep, level stretch of water in the
woods. A large tree had blown over at the edge of the water, and its
dense mass of upturned roots, with the black, peaty soil filling the
interstices, was like the fragment of a wall several feet high, rising
from the edge of the languid current. In a niche in this earthy wall,
and visible and accessible only from the water, a phœbe had built her
nest and reared her brood. I paddled my boat up and came alongside
prepared to take the family aboard. The young, nearly ready to fly,
were quite undisturbed by my presence, having probably been assured that
no danger need be apprehended from that side. It was not a likely place
for minks, or they would not have been so secure.


THE COMING OF PHŒBE

When buckets shine 'gainst maple trees
And drop by drop the sap doth flow,
When days are warm, but still nights freeze,
And deep in woods lie drifts of snow,
When cattle low and fret in stall,
Then morning brings the phœbe's call,
"Phœbe,
Phœbe, phœbe," a cheery note,
While cackling hens make such a rout.

When snowbanks run, and hills are bare,
And early bees hum round the hive,
When woodchucks creep from out their lair
Right glad to find themselves alive,
When sheep go nibbling through the fields,
Then Phœbe oft her name reveals,
"Phœbe,
Phœbe, phœbe," a plaintive cry,
While jack-snipes call in morning sky.

When wild ducks quack in creek and pond
And bluebirds perch on mullein-stalks,
When spring has burst her icy bond
And in brown fields the sleek crow walks,
When chipmunks court in roadside walls,
Then Phœbe from the ridgeboard calls,
"Phœbe,
Phœbe, phœbe," and lifts her cap,
While smoking Dick doth boil the sap.




THE COWBIRD


The cow blackbird is a noticeable songster in April, though it takes a
back seat a little later.



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