WE are prone to set an extraordinary value upon all sources of pleasure that arrive in a season when they are few and unexpected. Hence the peculiar charm of the early flowers of spring, and of those equally delightful flowers that come up to cheer the short and melancholy days of November. The winter-birds, though they do not sing, are, on the same account, particularly interesting. The Chicadees and the little speckled Woodpeckers, that tarry with us in midwinter, and make the still cold days lively and cheerful by their merry voices, are, in animated nature, what flowers would be in inanimate nature, if they were found blooming under the snow. Nature does not permit, at any season, an entire dearth of those sources of enjoyment that spring from observation of the external world; and as there are evergreen mosses and ferns that supply in winter the places of the absent flowers, in like manner there are chattering birds that linger in the wintry woods; and Nature has multiplied the echoes at this season, that their few and feeble voices may be repeated by their lively responses among the hills.
To those who look upon Nature with the feelings of a poet or a painter, we need not speak of the value of the winter-birds as enliveners of the landscape. Any circumstance connected with scenery, that exercises our feelings of benevolence, adds to the picturesque charms of a prospect; and no man can see a little bird, or any other animal, at this time, without feeling a lively interest in its welfare. The sight of a flock of SnowBuntings descending, like a shower of meteors, upon a field of grass, and eagerly devouring the seeds contained in its drooping pannicles that extend above the snow-drifts,-of a company of Crows rejoicing with noisy sociability over some newly-discovered feast in the pine-wood,- of the party-colored wodpeckers winding round the trees and hammering upon their trunks,-all these, and many other sights and sounds, are associated with our ideas of the happiness of these creatures ; and While our benevolent feelings are thus agreeably exercised, the objects that cause our emotions add a positive charm to the dreary aspects of winter. These reflections have always led me to regard the birds and other interesting animals as having a value to mankind not to be estimated in dollars and cents, and which is entirely independent of any services they may render to the farmer or the orchardist by preventing the over-multiplication of noxious insects.
The greater number of small birds that remain in northern latitudes during winter, except the Woodpeckers and their congeners, are such as subsist chiefly upon seeds. Those insectivorous species that gather their food chiefly from the ground are under a particular necessity of migrating. Hence the common Robin, living entirely on insects and a little fruit, that serves him rather as a dessert than as substantial fare, a bird that never feeds upon grain or seeds of any kind, but devours the insects that are found upon the surface of the soil, cannot subsist in our latitude, except in open winters. During such favorable seasons, the Robins are able to collect vast quantities of dormant insects from the open ground. These birds always endeavor to keep on the outside of extensive snows ; and if in any year, very early in November, a large quantity of snow should fall in the latitude of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, while north of it the ground remained uncovered, the Robins would be retarded in their journey and tarry with us in unusual numbers. A great many of them must perish of hunger, or be reduced to the necessity of feeding on the berries of the Viburnum and Juniper, should they be overtaken by an extensive and enduring snow that cuts off their journey of emigration.'
The Woodpeckers and their allied species, though insectivorous, are not thus affected by the winter. Gathering all their food, consisting of larvæ and insects, from the bark and wood of trees, the snow cannot conceal it or place it beyond their reach. The quantity of this kind of food is less than in summer, but the birds can obtain it with about the same facility at all times, because other species of birds are diminished, which in summer divide with them this spoil. Henee, Woodpeckers, Creepers, and Tomtits do not migrate. They simply scatter more widely over the country, instead of keeping in the woods, and thus accommodate themselves to their more limited supplies of food. The Swallow tribes, that cateh their food in the air, are the first to migrate, because the swarms of insects are vastly diminished by the early frosts of autumn.
It is not often that we are led to reflect upon the extreme loneliness that would prevail in all solitary places in winter, were all the birds to migrate at this season to a warmer climate, or to sink into a state of torpidity, like frogs, dormice, and other small animals. But Nature, to preserve the pleasantness of this season, has endowed certain birds with power to endure the severest cold, and with the faculty of providing for their wants at a time when it would seem that there was not sustenance enough among the hidden stores of the season to keep them from starvation. The woodman, however insensible he may be to the charms of all such objects, is gladdened and encouraged in his toils by the sight of these sprightly creatures, some of which, like the Jay and the Woodpecker, are adorned with the most beautiful plumage, and are all pleasantly garrulous, filling the otherwise silent woods with constant and vociferous merriment.
In my early days, for the supposed benefit of my health, I passed a winter in Tennessee, and, being unoccupied, except with my studies, I spent a great portion of my time in botanical and zoölogical excursions in the woods adjoining the city of Nashville. It was during that season I experienced the full power of the winter-birds to give life and beauty to the scenes of Nature; for, though not one was heard to sing, they seemed as active and as full of merriment as in the early summer. The birds that most particularly attracted my attention at this time were the Woodpeckers, of which several species were very numerous. Conspicuous among them was the Pileated Woodpecker, (Picus pileatus,) a bird with rusty-black plumage, a red crest and moustaches, and a white stripe on each side of the neck,-one of the largest of the tribe. His loud croaking note was heard at all times in the deep woods, and his great size and his frequent hammering upon the resounding boles of the trees attracted every one’s attention.
A more beautiful, but smaller species, was the Redheaded Woodpecker. (P. erythrocephalus,) with head, neck, and throat of crimson, and other parts of his plumage variously marked with white and changeable blue. This species, though never seen in Eastern Massachusetts, is a common resident in this latitude, west of the Green-Mountain range. The birds of this species were very numerous, during my excursions, and the woods were constantly flushing with their bright colors as they flitted among the trees. They were sometimes joined by another species, hardly less beautiful, the Redbreasted Woodpecker (P. Caroliniensis).
It is impossible to describe the charm which these birds afforded to the otherwise solitary woods. The loud croaking of the Log-cock, the cackling screams of the Redheaded Woodpecker, and the solemn, tolling note of the Redbreast, blended with the occasional cooing of Turtledoves, formed a sylvan charm, that made my winter-rambles, at this period, as interesting as any I ever pursued in summer or autumn.
In our latitude, after the first flight of snow has covered the ground, the winter-birds, pressed by hunger, are compelled to make extensive forages in quest of food. Hence our attention is more closely attracted to them at this time, as many parties of them will visit our neighborhood in the course of the day, when, if no snow had fallen, they would have confined themselves to a more limited range. One of the most attractive sights on such occasions is caused by the flocks of SnowBuntings, which are particularly gregarious in their habits. In Sweden they are called “ Bad-Weather-Birds,” because they are mostly seen when the fallen snow has caused them to roam from place to place, in quest of their subsistence. They are far from being birds of illomen, however, as we see them commonly when the storm is past. Few sights are more picturesque than these flocks of Snow-Buntings, whirling with the subsiding winds, and moving as if they were guided by an eddying breeze, now half-concealed by the direction in which they meet the rays of the sun, then suddenly flashing, as with a simultaneous turn they present the under white side of their wings to the light of heaven. The power which these diminutive creatures seem to possess, of enduring the cold of winter, and of contending with the storm, attaches to their appearance a quality which is allied to sublimity. I cannot look upon them, therefore, in any other view than as important parts in that ever-changing picture of light, motion, and beauty, with which Nature benevolently consoles us for those evils which are assigned by fate to all the inhabitants of the earth.
The common Snow-Birds (Fringilla nivalis) are more interesting as individuals, but they are never seen in compact flocks. They go usually in scattered parties, and appear in Massachusetts about the middle of autumn, arriving from Canada and Labrador, where they spend the summer. They have many of the habits of the common HairBird, (Fringilla socialis,) assembling around our houses and barns, and picking up crumbs of bread and other fragments of food. They differ entirely from the Buntings in their appearance,
the latter being called White Snow-Birds, to distinguish them from the others, which are slate-colored. These birds are quite as remarkable, however, for their power of enduring the cold, and of snstaining the force of the tempest. In the midst of a snow-storm, they may often be seen sporting, as it were, in the very whirlpool of the driving snows, and alighting upon the tall sedges and weeds, and eagerly gathering the produce. The Hemp-Bird often joins their parties, and his cheerful and well-known twitter may be heard, as he hurriedly flits from one bush to another, hunting for the seeds of the golden-rods and asters.
The cause of the migration of these birds from their native northern latitudes is not, probably, the severe cold of those regions, but the deep snows that bury up their cereal stores at a very early period. But even if the grounds in those cold latitudes were only partially covered, these birds must scatter themselves over a wide extent of territory, in proportion as their food becomes less abundant. They live principally upon seeds, and hence their forages are made chiefly in the tilled lands, where the weeds afford them an abundance of food. The negligence of the tiller of the soil is, therefore, a great gain to the small birds, by leaving a supply of seeds in the annual grasses that grow thriftily with his crops.
Among these flocks of Snow-Birds, a few individuals of the common Hair-Bird (Fringlla socialis) may frequently be seen. The majority of this species migrate to a more open clime; but sufficient numbers remain to entitle them to be included with other Snow-Birds of the Finch tribe. He is one of the smallest of the Sparrows, of a brownish ash color above, and grayish white beneath. He wears a little cap or turban of brown velvet on his head, and by this mark he is readily distinguished from his kindred Sparrows. Relying on his diminutive size for his security, he comes quite up to our door-step, mindless of the people who are assembled round it, and, fearless of danger, picks up the crumbs that are scattered there. He may be seen at all seasons of the year, though his voice is not heard in the spring so early as that of the Song-Sparrow or the Blue-Bird. He lives chiefly on seeds, though, like other granivoroua birds, he feeds his young with grubs and small insects. This is a general practice with the granivorous tribes, in order to provide their young with soft and digestible food before they are strong enough to digest the hard, coriaceous seed. Nature has formed an exception in the Pigeon tribe ; but has compensated them by providing that the parent bird shall soften the food in her own crop before it is given to the tender young. From the peculiar manner in which the young are fed comes the epithet, “ sucking doves.”
It is common to speak disparagingly of the little Hair-Bird, as if he were good for nothing, without beauty and without song, and, what is of still more consequence in the eyes of the sordid epicure, too small to be eaten, his weight of flesh not being worth a charge of powder and shot. We can never sufficiently rejoice that there are some birds too small to excite the avaricious feelings of these knights of the fowling-piece and the ride. The Hair-Bird is not to be despised, except by epicures. Though he is contemptuously styled the “ Chipping-Sparrow,” - a name which I will never consent to apply to him,-his voice is no mean accompaniment to the general chorus which may be heard every still morning before sunrise, during May and June. His continued trilling note is to this warbling band what the octave flute is to a grand concert of artificial instruments. The voices of numbers of these birds, which are the very first to be heard and the last to become silent in the morning, serve to fill up the pauses in this sylvan anthem, like a running appoggiatural accompaniment in certain admired musical compositions. How little soever the Hair-Bird may generally be valued as a songster, his voice, I am sure, would be most sadly missed,
were it never more to be heard charmingly blending with the other louder voices of the feathered choristers.
How often, on still, sultry nights in July, when scarcely a breath of air is stirring among the foliage of the trees, when the humming of the Moth might be plainly heard, as it glided by my open window, have I been charmed with the voice of this little bird, uttered in a low, trilled note, from the branch of some neighboring tree ! He seems to be the sentinel whom Nature has appointed to watch for the first gleam of dawn, which he always faithfully announces before any other bird has begun to stir. Two or three strains from his octave pipe are the signal for a general awakening of the birds, and one by one they join the song, until the whole air resounds with an harmonious medley of voices. The Hair-Bird has a singular habit of sitting upon the ground, while chirping in the early morning. His nest is placed commonly upon an apple-tree, sometimes in a bush, but never on the ground. It is very neatly constructed of the fibres of roots closely woven together, and beautifully lined with fine soft hair, whence he has obtained his name. It is not surpassed in neatness and beauty by the nest of any other bird.
I will leave the granivorous birds to speak of another class, equally hardy, but of habits more like those of the Woodpecker. I allude to the Chicadees, to whose lively notes we are indebted for a great part of the cheerfulness of a winter's walk. These notes are not a song; but there is a liveliness in their sound, most frequently uttered during a pleasant winter-day, causing them to be associated with these agreeable changes in the weather. The Chicadees are not seen, like Snow-Birds, most numerous during a snow-storm, or after a fall of snow. Their habits are nearly the same in all weathers, except that they are more prone to be noisy and loquacious on pleasant, sunny days.
The sounds from which the Chicadee has derived his name appear to be his call-notes, like the crowing of a Cock or the gobbling of a Turkey, and are probably designed by Nature to enable the birds, while scattered singly over the forest, to signalize their presence to others of the same species. Hence it may be observed, that, when the call is rapidly repeated, a multitude of his kindred will immediately assemble around the one that gave the alarm. When no alarm is intended to be given, the bird utters these notes but seldom, and only as he passes from one tree to another. He is probably accustomed to hearing a response, and, if one is not soon heard, he will repeat his call until it is answered ; for as these birds do not forage the woods in flocks, this continual hailing is carried on between them to satisfy their desire for each other’s company. A similar conversation passes between the individuals of a flock of Chickens, when scattered over a farmyard; one, on finding itself alone, will chirp until it hears a response, when it seems immediately satisfied. The callnotes of the Chieadee are very lively, with a mixture of querulousness in their tone, that renders them the more pleasing.
The Chicadee is the smallest of the birds that remain with us during the winter. He is a permanent resident, and everybody knows him. He is a lively chatterer and an agreeable companion; and as he never tarries long in one place, he does not tire one with his garrulity. He is our attendant in all our pleasant winter-walks, in the orchard or the wood, in the garden or by the rustic wayside. We have seen him, on still winter-days, flitting from tree to tree, with the liveliest motions and in the most engaging attitudes, examining every twig and branch, and winding over and under and in and out among them, and, after a few lively notes, hopping to another tree to pass through the same manœuvres. Even those who are confined to the house are not excluded from a sight of these birds; one cannot open a window, on a bright winter's morning, without a greeting from one of them on the nearest tree.
Beside the note from which the Chieadee derives his name, he sometimes utters two very plaintive notes, which are separated by a regular musical interval, making a fourth on the descending scale. They slightly resemble those of the Pewee, and are often supposed to come from some other bird, so different are they from the common note of the Chicadee. I have not been able to ascertain the circumstances under which the bird repeats this plaintive strain, but it is uttered both in summer and winter. Indeed, there is such a variety in the notes uttered at different times by this bird, that, if they were repeated in uninterrupted succession, they would form one of the most agreeable of woodland melodies.
The Chicadee is not a singing-bird. He utters his usual notes at all times of the year; but in the early part of summer he is addicted to a very low but pleasant kind of warbling, considerably varied, and wanting only more loudness and precision to entitle him to a rank with the singing-birds. This warbling does not seem intended to cheer his partner, but it is rather a sort of soliloquizing for his own amusement. If it was uttered by the young birds only, we might suppose them to be taking lessons in music, and that this was a specimen of their first attempts. I have often heard the Golden Robin warbling in a similar manner.
In company with the Chicadees in their foraging excursions, we often see two Speckled Woodpeckers, differing apparently only in size, each having a sort of red crest. The smaller of the two (Picus pubescens) is the Downy Woodpecker. The birds of this species are called “ Sap-Suckers,” from their habit of making perforations in the sound branches of trees through the bark without penetrating the wood, as if they designed only to obtain the sap. These perforations are often made in a circle round the branch, and it is highly probable that they follow the path of a grub that is concealed underneath the bark. Our farmers, who suspect every bird of some mischievous designs, accuse them of boring into the tree for the purpose of drinking the sap.
The Woodpecker is a more restless, though not a more industrious bird than the Chicadee, and seldom gives the branches so thorough an examination as the latter. He searches for grubs that are Concealed in the Wood of the tree ; he examines those spots only where he hears their scratchings, bores the wood to obtain them, and then flies off. But the Chicadee looks for insects on or near the surface, and does not confine his search to trees. He examines fences, the under part of the eaves of houses, and the woodpile, and destroys, in the course of his foraging, many an embryo moth and butterfly which would otherwise become the parent of noxious larvæ. The Woodpecker is often represented as the emblem of industry; but the Chicadec is more truly emblematical of this virtue, and the Woodpecker of perseverance, as he never tires when drilling into the wood of a tree in quest of his prey.
Another of the companions of the Chicadee is the Brown Creeper, (Carthia familiaris,) of similar habits, and commonly seen moving in a spiral direction around the trunks and branches of trees, and, when he is conscious of being observed, keeping on the further side of the branch. He is more frequently seen in the winter than in the summer, when he confines himself to the seclusion of the pine forest. The different birds which I have named, as companions of the Chicadee, often assemble by seeming accident in large numbers upon one tree, and meeting with more company than is agreeable to them, they will often on these occasions make the wood resound with their noisy disputes. They may have been assembled by some accidental note of alarm, and on finding no particular cause for it, they raise a shout that reminds one of the extraordinary vociferation with which young men and boys conclude a false alarm of fire in the early part of the night. These different birds, though evidently social, are not gregarious, and sel-
dom, without vexation, endure the presence of more than two or three companions.
The Nut-Hatch (Sitta Caroliniensis) is often found among these assemblages, and may be recognized by his piercing trumpet-like note. This bird resembles the Woodpeckers in the shape of the bill, but has only one hinder toe, instead of two; and is said to have derived its name from a habit of breaking open or hatching nuts, to obtain the kernel. He is a permanent inhabitant of the cold parts of the American continent, resembling the Titmouse in his diligence and activity, and in the various manœuvres he performs while in quest of his insect-food.
There are times when even this class of birds, that collect their food from the bark and wood of trees, are driven to great extremities. When the trees are incased with ice, which, though not impenetrable by their strong bills, prevents their laying hold of the bark with their claws for support, they are in some danger of starving. It is at such times that the gardens and barnyards are frequented by large numbers of Woodpeckers, Creepers, and Nut-Hatches, driven by this necessity from their usual haunts. A piece of suet fastened to the branch of a tree, at any time of the winter, would soon be discovered by these birds and afford them a grateful repast. I have frequently assembled them under my windows by this allurement.
I will leave the Chicadees and their companions to speak of another class of birds of different character and habits : these are the Jays, and their sable-plumed congeners of the Crow family. In all parts of the country that abound in woods of any description, we are sure to be greeted by the loud voice of the Blue Jay, one of the most conspicuous tenants of the forest. He has a beautiful outward appearance, under which he conceals an unamiable temper and a propensity to mischief. Indeed, there is no other bird in our forest that is arrayed in equal splendor. His neck of fine purple, his pale azure crest and head with silky plumes, his black crescent-shaped collar, his wings and tail-feathers of bright blue with stripes of white and black, and his elegant form and vivacious manners, combine to render him attractive to all observers.
But with all this beauty, he has, like the Peacock, a harsh voice; he is a thief, and a disturber of the peace. He is a sort of Ishmael among the sylvan tribes, who are startled at the sound of his voice, and fear him as a bandit. The farmer, who is well acquainted with his habits, is no friend to him; for he not only takes what is required for his immediate wants, but hoards a variety of articles in large quantities for future use. It would seem as if he were aware when he was engaged in an honest and when in a dishonest expedition ; for while searching for food in the wood or open field, he is extremely noisy,-but when he ventures into a barn, to take what does not belong to him, he is silent and stealthy, and exhibits all the peculiar manners of a thief.
It would be no mean task to enumerate all the acts of mischief perpetrated by this bird; and I cannot but look upon him as one of the most guilty of the feathered tribe. He plunders the cornfield both at seed-time and harvest; he steals everything that is eatable, and conceals it in his hoarding-places ; he destroys the eggs of smaller birds and devours their young ; he quarrels with all other species, and his life is a constant scene of contentions. He is restless, pugnacious, and irascible, and always seems like one who is out on some expedition. Yet, though a pest to other birds, he is a watchful parent and a faithful guardian of his offspring. It is dangerous to venture near the nest of a pair of Jays, as they immediately attack the adventurer, aiming their blows at his face and eyes with the most savage determination.
Like the Magpie, the Jay has considerable talent for mimicry, and in a state of domestication may be taught to articulate words like a Parrot. At certain times I have heard this bird utter a few notes resembling the tinkle of a bell, and
which, if syllabled, might form such a word as dilly-lily; but it is not a musical strain. Indeed, there is no music in his nature, and in all his imitations of other sounds he prefers the harsh to the melodious, such as the voice of the Hawk, the Owl, and other unmusieal birds.
The Blue Jay is a true American ; he is known throughout this continent, and never visits any other country. At no season is he absent from our woods, and he is an industrious consumer of the larger insects and grubs, atoning in this way for some of his evil deeds. In this respect, however, his services are not to be compared to those of the Robin and the BlueBird. Yet I am not prepared to say that I would consent to his banishment, for he is one of the most cheering tenants of the groves, at a season when they have but few inhabitants; and I never listen to his voice without recalling a crowd of charming reminiscences of pleasant winter excursions and adventures at an early period of my life. The very harshness of his voice has caused it to be impressed more forcibly upon the memory, in connection with these scenes.
The common Crow may be considered the representative, in America, of the European Rook, which he resembles in many of his habits, performing similar services, and being guilty of the same mischievous deeds. It is remarkable that in Europe, where land is more valuable than in this country, and where agriculture is carried on with an amount of skill and nicety that would astonish an American farmer, the people are not so jealous of the birds. In Great Britain rookeries are regular establishments, and the Rooks, not with standing the mischief they do, are protected, on account of their services to agriculture. The farmers of Europe, having learned by repeated observation, that, without the aid of mischievous birds, the work of the farmer would be sacrificed to the more destructive insect-race, forgive them their trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of cats and dogs. The respect shown to birds by any people seems to bear a certain ratio to the antiquity of the nation. Hence the sacredness with which they are regarded in Japan, where the population is so dense that the inhabitants would feel that they could ill afford to divide the produce of their fields with the birds, unless they were convinced of their usefulness.
The Crow is one of the most unfortunate of the feathered tribe in his relations to man ; for by almost all nations he is regarded with hatred, and every man’s hand is against him. He is protected neither by custom nor superstition; the sentimentalist cares nothing for him as an object of poetical regard, and the utilitarian is blind to his services as a scavenger, The farmer considers him as the very ringleader of mischief, and uses all means he can invent for his destruction ; the friend of the singing-birds bears him a grudge as the destroyer of their eggs and young; and even the moralist is disposed to condemn him for his cunning and dissimulation.
Hence he is everywhere hated and persecuted, and the expedients used for his destruction are numerous and revolting to the sensibilities. He is outlawed by acts of Parliament and other legislative bodies ; he is hunted with the gun ; he is caught in crow-nets ; he is hoodwinked with bits of paper smeared with birdlime, in which he is caught by means of a bait; he is poisoned with grain steeped in hellebore and strychnine; the reeds in which he roosts are treacherously set on fire ; he is pinioned by his wings, on his back, and is made to grapple his sympathizing companions who come to his rescue ; like an infidel, he is not allowed the benefit of truth to save his reputation; and children, after receiving lessons of humanity, are taught to regard the Crow as an nnworthy subject when they carry their precepts into practice. Every government has set a price upon his head, and every people holds him up to public execration.
As an apology for these atrocities, might be enumerated a long catalogue of misdemeanors of which he is guilty. He pillages the cornfield, and pulls up the
young shoots of maize to obtain the kernels attached to their roots; he destroys the eggs and the young of innocent birds which we should like to preserve; he purloins fruit from the garden and orchard, and carries off young ducks and chickens from the farmyard. Beside his mischievous propensities and his habits of thieving, he is accused of cunning, and of a depraved disposition. He who would plead for the Crow will not deny the general truth of these accusations, but, on the other hand, would enumerate certain special benefits which he confers upon man.
In the catalogue of the services of this bird we find many details which should lead us to pause before we consent to his destruction. He consumes, in the course of the year, vast quantities of grubs, worms, and noxious vermin ; he is a valuable scavenger, and clears the land of offensive masses of decaying animal substances ; he hunts the grass-fields, and pulls out and devours the underground caterpillars, wherever he perceives the signs of their operations, as evinced by the wilted stalks; he destroys mice, young rats, lizards, and the smaller serpents; lastly, he is a volunteer sentinel about the farm, and drives the Hawk from its inclosures, thus preventing greater mischief than that of which he himself is guilty. It is chiefly during seed-time and harvest that the depredations of the Crow are committed; during the remainder of the year we witness only his services; and so highly are these services appreciated by those who have written of birds, that I cannot name an ornithologist who does not plead in his behalf.
Let us turn our attention, for a moment, to his moral qualities. In vain is he accused of cunning, when without this quality he could not live. His wariness is really a virtue, and, under the circumstances in which he is placed, it is his principal means of self-preservation. He has no moral principles, no creed, to which he is under obligations to offer himself as a martyr. His cunning is his armor; and I am persuaded that the persecutions to which he has always been subjected have caused the development of an amount of intelligence that elevates him many degrees above the majority of the feathered race.
There are few birds that equal the Crow in sagacity. He observes many things that would seem to require the faculties of a rational being. He judges with accuracy, from the deportment of the person approaching him, if he is prepared to do him an injury; and seems to pay no regard to one who is strolling the fields in search of flowers or for recreation. On such occasions, one may get so near him as to observe his manners, and even to note the varying shades of his plumage. But in vain does the sportsman endeavor to approach him. So sure is he to fly at the right moment for his safety, that one might suppose he could measure the distance of gunshot.
The voice of the Crow is like no other sound uttered by the feathered race ; it is harsh and unmelodious, and though he is capable, when domesticated, of imitating human speech, he cannot sing. But Æsop mistook the character of this bird when he represented him as the dupe of the fox, who gained the bit of cheese he carried in his mouth by inducing him to exhibit his musical powers. The Crow could not be fooled by any such appeals to his vanity.
The Crow is commonly regarded as a homely bird ; yet he is not without beauty. His coat of glossy black with violet reflections, his dark eyes and sagacious expression of countenance, his stately and graceful gait, and his steady and equable flight, combine to give him a proud and dignified appearance. The Crow and the Raven have always been celebrated for their gravity,-a character that seems to be the result of their black sacerdotal vesture, and of certain manifestations of intelligence in their ways and general deportment. Indeed, any one who should watch the motions of the Crow for the space of five minutes, either when he is stalking alone in the field, or when he is careering with his fellows around some tall tree in the forest, would acknowledge that he deserves to be called a grave bird.
Setting aside the services rendered by the Crow to agriculture, I esteem him for certain qualities which are agreeably associated with the charms of Nature. It is not the singing-birds alone that contribute by their voices to gladden the husbandman and cheer the solitary traveller. The crowing of the Cock at the break of day is as joyful a sound, though not so musical, as the voice of the Robin who chants his lays at the same early hour. To me the cawing of the Crow is cheering and delightful, and it is heard long before the majority of birds have left their perch. If not one of the melodies of morn, it is one of the most notable sounds that herald its approach. And how intimately is the voice of this bird associated with the sunshine of calm winter-days,-with our woodland excursions during this inclement season,-with the stroke of the woodman’s axe,-with open doors in bright and pleasant weather, when the eaves are dripping with the melting snow,-and with all those cheerful sounds that enliven the groves during that period when every object is valuable that relieves the silence or softens the dreary aspect of Nature !
If we leave the open fields and woods, and ramble near the coast to some retired and solitary branch of the sea, our meditations may be suddenly startled by the harsh voice of the Kingfisher, like the sound of a watchman’s rattle. This bird is seldom seen in winter in the interior; most of his species migrate southwardly and to the sea-coast, just so far as to be within reach of the open waters. As they subsist on the smaller kinds of fishes, they would perish with hunger, after the waters are frozen, if they did not migrate. But the Kingfisher often remains on the coast during open winters, and may therefore be considered one of our winterbirds.
This bird is the celebrated Alcedo, or Halcyon, of the ancients, wno attributed to him many apparently supernatural powers. He was supposed to construct his nest upon the waves, on which it was made to float like a skiff. But as the turbulence of a storm would he likely to cause its destruction, Nature had gifted him with the extraordinary power of stilling the motions of the winds and waves, during the period of incubation. Hence the serene weather that accompanies the summer solstice was supposed to be occasioned by the benign influence of this bird, and the term “ halcyon days” was applied to this period. It is remarkable that the fable should add to these supernatural gifts the power of song as one of the accomplishments of the Kingfisher. These superstitions must have been very general among the ancients, and were not confined to the Greeks and Romans. Some of the Asiatic nations still wear the skin of the Kingfisher about their persons, as a protection against both moral and physical evils; the feathers are used as love-charms; and it is believed, that, if the body of the Kingfisher be evenly fixed upon a pivot, it will turn its head to the north, like the magnetic needle.
This bird is singularly grotesque in his appearance, though not without beauty of plumage. With his long, straight, and quadrangular bill, his short and diminutive feet and legs, and his immense head, his plumage of a handsome dusky blue, with a bluish band on the breast and a white collar around the neck,-when this mixture of the grotesque and the beautiful is considered in connection with the singularity of his habits, we need not marvel at the superstitions connected with his history. He sits patiently, like an angler, on a post at the head of a wharf, or on a branch of a tree that extends over the bank, and, leaning obliquely, with extended head and beak, he watches for his finny prey. There, with the light blue sky above him and the dark blue waves beneath, nothing on the surface of the water can escape his penetrating eyes. Quickly, with a sudden swoop, he seizes a single fish from an unsuspecting
shoal, and announces his success by the peculiar sound of bis rattle.
It may not have been observed by all that the most interesting periods or situations for rambling are not those which most abound with exciting scenes and objects. There must be a certain dearth of individual objects that draw the attention, intermingled with occasional remarkable or mysterious sights and sounds, to yield an excursion its greatest interest. The hunter (unless he be a purveyor for the market) understands this philosophy, and knows that there is more pleasure in chasing a single deer or a solitary fox over miles of pasture and moorland, than in hunting where these animals are abundant, and slaughtering them as fast as one can load his gun. The pleasures attending a rural excursion in the winter are founded on this fact, and may be explained by this principle. There, amid the general silence, every sound attracts attention and is accompanied by its echo; and since the trees and shrubs have lost their leafy garniture, every tree and other object has its own distinct shadow, and we fix our attention more easily upon anything that excites our interest than when it is distracted by the confusion of numbers.
Hence it is in the winter that the pieturesque character of the flight of birds is particularly noticeable. In summer, and in autumn, before the fall of the leaf, birds are partially concealed by the foliage of trees, so that the manner of their flight does not become so readily apparent. But in winter, if we start a flock of birds from the ground, we can hardly avoid taking notice of all the peculiarities of their movements. I have alluded to the descent of Snow-Buntings upon the landscape as singularly picturesque ; but the motions of a flock of Quails, when suddenly aroused from a thicket, are not less so. When a Pigeon, or any other bird with strong and large wings, takes flight, the motions of its wings are not vibratory, and its progress through the air is so rapid as to injure the pleasing effect of its motions, because we obtain no distinct perception of the bird during its flight. It is quite otherwise with the Quail. The body of this bird is plump and heavy, and his wings are short, and have a peculiar concavity of the under surface when expanded; their motions are very rapid, and, having but little sweep, the bird seems to sail on the air, carried along by a gentle but rapid vibration of the wings, which describe only a very small arc of a circle. Hence we observe the entire shape of the bird during its flight. The Partridge, and other gallinaceous birds, fly in a similar manner; but, on account of their larger size, their morions are less attractive.
The Humming-Bird has proportionally larger wings than the Quail, and, when flying, his wings describe almost a complete circle in their rapid vibrations. If we look upon one during his flight, he seems to have no wings, but rather to be encircled by a semi-transparent halo. There are other birds that seem to be wings only, their bodies being hardly perceptible, on account of their small proportional size; such are the Swallow, the Pigeon, the Cuckoo, and the NightHawk.
Birds of prey are remarkable for their steady and graceful flight; the motion of their wings is slow, while, like the Pigeon, they are capable of propelling themselves through the air with great rapidity. The circumgyrations of a Hawk, when reconnoitring far aloft in the air, are singularly graceful. The flight of the Crow and the Raven is slow and apparently difficult, and they are easily overtaken and annoyed by the King-Bird and other small birds. They are not formed, like the Falcon, to catch their prey upon the wing, and, though their wings are large and powerful, they are incapable of performing those graceful and difficult evolutions which we observe in the flight of birds of prey. The
flight of Herons resembles that of the Raven.
Small birds, with the exception of a few species,move in an undulating course, alternately rising and sinking. Birds that move in this manner are, I believe, incapable of making a long journey on the wing without rest, and commonly perform their migrations by short daily stages.
The flight of the little Sand-Pipers, which frequent the salt marshes in numerous flocks, is particularly worthy of study. It is not unlike the flight of Quails, but more evenly sustained, on account of the greater length and power of their wings. These birds are capable of holding an even flight in a perfectly horizontal line, only a few inches above the surface of the ground. When they alight, they seldom make a curve or gyration, but descend in a straight and oblique course. SnowBuntings usually turn about, just before they reach the ground; and I have seen them perform the most intricate changes, like the movements of a cotillon-party, executed with the rapidity of arrows, when suddenly checked in their flight by the discovery of a good tract of forage.
With these observations, which might be indefinitely extended, I take leave of the subject, simply remarking, that to the motions of birds, no less than to their beauty of plumage and the sounds of their voices, are we indebted for a great part of the picturesque attractions of landscape ; and the more we study them, the more are we convinced, that, in whatever direction we turn our observations, we may extend them to infinity. There is no limit to any study of Nature, and even one so apparently insignificant as the flight of birds leads to an endless series of interesting facts, and opens the eyes to new beauties in the aspect of Nature and new sources of rational delight.