Birds of the Night

THERE are numerous swarms of insects and many small quadrupeds, requiring partial darkness for their security, that come abroad only during the night or twilight. These would multiply almost without check, but that certain birds are formed with the power of seeing in the dark, and, on account of their partial blindness in the daytime, are forced by necessity to seek their food by night. Many species of insects are most active after dewfall, — such, especially, as spend a great portion of their lifetime in the air. Hence the very late hour at which Swallows retire to rest, the hour succeeding sunset providing them with a fuller repast than any other part of the day. No sooner has the Swallow disappeared, than the Whippoorwill and the Night-Jar come forth, to prey upon the larger kinds of aerial insects. The Bat, an animal of an antediluvian type, comes out at the same time, and assists in lessening these multitudinous swarms. The little Owls, though they pursue the larger beetles and moths, direct their efforts chiefly at the small quadrupeds that steal out in the early evening to nibble the tender herbs and grasses. Thus the night, except the hours of total darkness, is with many species of animals, though they pursue their objects with comparative stillness and silence, a period of general activity.

In this sketch, I shall treat of the Birds of the Night under two heads, including, beside the true nocturnal birds that go abroad in the night to seek their subsistence, those diurnal birds that continue their songs during a considerable portion of the night. Some species of birds are partly nocturnal in their habits. Such is the Chimney Swallow. This bird is seldom out at noonday, which it employs in sleep, after excessive activity from the earliest morning dawn. It is seen afterwards circling about in the decline of day, and is sometimes abroad in fine weather the greater part of the night, when the young broods require almost unremitted exertions, on the part of the old birds, to procure their subsistence.

The true nocturnal birds, of which the Owl and the Whippoorwill are conspicuous examples, are distinguished by a peculiar sensibility of the eye, that enables them to see clearly by twilight and in cloudy weather, while they are dazzled by the broad light of day. Their organs of hearing are proportionally delicate and acute. Their wing-feathers also have a peculiar downy softness, so that they fly without the usual fluttering sounds that attend the flight of other birds, and are able to steal unawares upon their prey, and make their predal excursions without disturbing the general silence of the hour. This noiseless flight is very remarkable in the Owl, as may be observed, if a tame one be allowed to fly about a room, when we can perceive his motions only by our sight. It is a fact worthy of our attention, that this peculiar structure of the wing-feathers does not exist in the Woodcock. Nature makes no useless provisions for her creatures; and hence this nocturnal bird, which obtains his food by digging into the soil, and gets no part of it while on the wing, has no need of this Contrivance, Neither stillness nor stealth would assist him in securing his helpless prey.

Among the nocturnal birds, the most notorious is the Owl, of which there are many species, varying from the size of an Eagle down to the little Acadian, which is no larger than a Robin. The resemblance of the Owl to the feline quadrupeds has been a frequent subject of remark. Like the cat, he sees most clearly by twilight or the light of the moon, seeks his prey in the night, and spends the principal part of the day in sleep. The likeness is made stronger by his tufts of feathers, that correspond to the ears of the quadruped, — by his largo head,— his round, full, and glaring eyes, set widely apart,— by the extreme contractility of the pupil,— and in his manners, by his lurking and stealthy habit of surprising his victims. His eyes are partially encircled by a disk of feathers that yields a peculiarly significant expression to his face. His hooked bill turned downwards, so as to resemble the nose in a human countenance, the general flatness of his features, and his upright position, give him a grave and intelligent look ; and it was this expression that caused him to be selected by the ancients as the emblem of wisdom, and consecrated to Minerva.

The Owl is remarkable also for the acuteness of his hearing, having a large ear-drum, and being provided with an apparatus by which he can exalt this faculty, when under the necessity of listening with greater attention. Hence, while he is silent in his own motions, he is able to perceive the least sound from the motion of any other object, and overtakes his prey by coming upon it in silence and darkness. The stillness of his flight is one of the circumstances that add mystery to his character, and which have assisted in rendering him an object of superstitious dread.

Aware of his defenceless condition in the bright daylight, when his purblindness would prevent him from evading the attacks of his enemies, he seeks some obscure retreat where he may pass the day without exposing himself to observation. It is this necessity which has caused him to make his abode in desolate and ruined buildings, in old towers and belfries, and in the crevices of dilapidated walls. In these places he hides himself from the sight of other birds, who regard him as their common enemy, and who show him no mercy when he is discovered. Here also he rears his offspring, and with these solitary haunts his image is closely associated. In thinly settled and wooded countries, heselects the hollows of old trees and the clefts of rocks for his retreats. All the smaller Owls, however, seem to multiply with the increase of human population, subsisting upon the minute animals that accumulate in outhouses, orchards, and fallows.

When the Owl is discovered in his hiding-place, the alarm is given, and there is a general excitement among tin; small birds. They assemble in great numbers, and with loud chattering commence assailing and annoying him in various ways, and soon drive him out of his retreat. The Jay, usually his first assailant, like a thief employed as a thieftaker, attacks him with great zeal and animation; the Chickadee, the Nuthatch, and the small Thrushes peck at his head and eyes; while other birds, less bold, fly round him, and by their vociferation encourage his assailants and help to terrify their victim.

It is while sitting on the branch of a tree or on a fence, after his misfortune and his escape, that he is most frequently seen in the daytime ; and here he has formed a subject for painters, who have commonly introduced him into their pictures as he appears in one of these open situations, He is likewise represented ensconced in his own select retreats, apparently peeping out of his hiding-place while half-concealed; and the fact of his being seen in these lonely places has caused many superstitions to be attached to his image. His voice is supposed to bode misfortune, and his spectral visits are regarded as the forewarnings of death. His connection with deserted houses and ruins has invested him with a peculiarly romantic character ; while the poets, by introducing him to deepen the force of their gloomy and pathetic descriptions, have enlivened these associations; and he deserves, therefore, in a special degree, to be named among those animals which we call picturesque.

The gravity of the Owl’s general appearance, combined with a sort of human expression in his countenance, undoubtedly caused him to be selected by the ancients as the emblem of wisdom. The moderns have practically renounced this idea, which had no foundation in the real character of the bird, who possesses only the sly and sinister traits that mark the feline race. A very different train of associations and a new series of picturesque images are now suggested by the figure of the Owl, who has been portrayed more correctly by modern poetry than by ancient mythology. He is now universally regarded as the emblem of ruin and desolation, true to his character and habits, which are intimately allied to this description of scenery.

I will not enter into a speculation concerning the nature and origin of those agreeable emotions which are so generally produced by the sight of objects that suggest the ideas of decay and desolation. It is happy for us, that, by the alchemy of poetry, we are able to turn some of our misfortunes into sources of melancholy pleasure, after the poignancy of grief has been assuaged by time. Nature has beneficently provided, also, that many an object, which is capable of communicating no direct pleasure to our senses, shall affect us agreeably through the medium of sentiment The image of the Owl is calculated to awaken the sentiment of ruin, and to this feeling of the human soul we may trace the pleasure we derive from the sight of this bird in his appropriate scenery. Two Doves upon the mossy branch of a tree in a wild and beautiful sylvan retreat are the pleasing emblems of innocent love and constancy ; but they are not more suggestive of poetic fancies than an Owl sitting upon an old gate-post near a deserted bouse.

I have alluded, in another page, to the faint sounds we hear when the Night Birds, on a still summer evening, are flying over short distances in a neighboring wood. There is a feeling of mystery excited by these sounds, that exalts the pleasure we derive from the delightful influence of the hour and the season. But the emotions thus produced are of a cheerful kind, and not equal in intensity to the effects of the scarcely perceptible sound occasioned by the flight of the Owl, as he glides by in the dusk of the evening or in the dim light of the moon. Similar in its influence is the dismal voice of this bird, which is harmonized with darkness, and, though in some cases not unmusical, is tuned, as it were, to the terrors of that hour when he makes secret warfare upon the sleeping inhabitants of the wood.

One of the most interesting of this tribe of birds is the little Acadian Owl, (Strix Acadica,) whose note has formerly excited a great deal of curiosity. In “ The Canadian Naturalist,” an account is given of a rural excursion in April, in the course of which the attention of one of the party is called by his companion, just after sunset, to a peculiar sound proceeding from a cedar swamp. It was compared to the measured tinkling of a cowbell, or regular strokes upon a piece of iron, quickly repeated. The one appealed to is able to give no satisfactory information about it, but remarks, that, “during the months of April and May, and in the former part of June, we frequently hear, after nightfall, the sound just described. From its regularity, it is thought to resemble the whetting of a saw, and hence the bird from which it proceeds is called the Saw-Whetter.” The author could not identify the bird that uttered this note, but conjectured that it might be a Heron or a Bittern. It has since been ascertained that this singular note proceeds from the Acadian Owl. It is like the sound produced by the filing of a millsaw, and is said to be the amatory note of the male, being heard only during the season of incubation.

Mr. S. P. Fowler, of Danvers, informs me that “ the Acadian Owl has another note, which we frequently hear in the autumn, after the breeding season is over. The parent birds, then accompanied by their young, while hunting their prey during a bright moonlight night, utter a peculiar note, resembling a suppressed moan or a low whistle. The little Acadian, to avoid the annoyance of the birds he would meet by day, and the blinding light of the sun, retires in the morning, his feathers wet with dew and rumpled by the hard struggles he has encountered in seizing his prey, to the gloom of the forest or tbe thick swamp, where, perched on a bough, near the trunk of the tree, he sleeps through a summer’s day, the perfect picture of a used-up little fellow, suffering from the sad effects of a night’s carouse. But he is an honest bird, notwithstanding his late hours and his idle sleeping days; he is also domestic in his habits, and the father of an interesting family, close at hand, in a hollow white-birch, and he is ever ready to give them his support and protection.”

The Mottled Owl, (Strix Asio,) or Screech Owl, is somewhat larger than the Acadian or Whetsaw, and not so familiar as the Barn Owl of Europe, though resembling it in general habits. He commonly builds in the hollow of an old tree, also in deserted buildings, whither he resorts in the daytime to find repose and to escape annoyance. His voice is heard most frequently in the latter part of summer, when the young Owlets are abroad, and use their cries for purposes of mutual salutation and recognition. This wailing note is singularly wild, and not unmusical. It is not properly a screech or a scream, like that of the Hawk or the Peacock, but rather a sort of moaning melody, half music and halt bewailment. This wailing song is far from disagreeable, though it has a cadence which is expressive of dreariness and melancholy. It might be performed on a small flute, by commencing with D octave and running down by semitones to a fifth below, and frequently repeating the notes, for the space of a minute, with occasional pauses and slight variations, sometimes ascending as well as descending the scale. The bird does not slur the passages, but utters them with a sort of trembling staccato. Tbe separate notes may be distinctly perceived, with intervals of about a semitone.

The Owl is not properly regarded as a useful bird. The generality of the tribe deserve to be considered only as mischievous birds of prey, and no more entitled to mercy and protection than the Falcons, to which they are allied. All the little Owls, however, though guilty of destroying small birds, are very serviceable in ridding our fields and premises of mischievous animals. They likewise destroy multitudes of large nocturnal insects, flying above the summits of the trees in pursuit of them, while at other times their flight is low, when watching for the small animals that run upon the ground. It is probably on account of its low flight that the Owl is seldom seen on the wing. Bats, which are employed by Nature for the same kind of services, fall victims in large numbers to the Owls of different species, who are the principal means of preventing their multiplication.

I should wander from my present purpose, were I to attempt a sketch of the large Owls, as I design only to treat of those birds which contribute, either as poetic or picturesque objects, to improve the charms of Nature. I shall say but a passing word, therefore, of the Great Snowy Owl, almost exclusively an inhabitant of the Arctic regions, where he frightens both man and beast with his dismal hootings,— or of the Cat Owl, the prince of these monsters, who should he consecrated to Pluto,—or of his brother monster, the Gray Owl, that will carry off a full-grown rabbit. There are several other species, more or less interesting, ridiculous, or frightful. I will leave them, to speak of birds of move pleasing habits and a more innocent character.

The next remarkable family of nocturnal birds comprises the Moth-Hunters, including, in New England, only two species,—the Whippoorwill and the NightHawk, or Piramidig. These birds resemble the Owls in some of their habits; but in their structure, in their mode of subsistence, and in their general traits of character, they are like Swallows. They are shy and solitary, take their food while on the wing, abide chiefly in deep woods, and come abroad only at twilight or in cloudy weather. They remain, like the Dove, permanently paired, lay their eggs on the bare ground, and, when perched upon the branch of a tree, sit upon it lengthwise, unlike other birds. They are remarkable for their singular voices, of which that of only one species, the Whippoorwill, can be considered musical. They are known in all parts of the world, but are particularly numerous in the warmer parts of America.

The Whippoorwill (Caprimulgus vociferus) is well known to the inhabitants of this part of the world, on account of his nocturnal song. This is heard only in densely wooded and retired situations, and is associated with the solitude of the forest, as well as the silence of night. The Whippoorwill is, therefore, emblematic of the rudeness of primitive Nature, and his voice always reminds us of seclusion and retirement. Sometimes he wanders away from the wood into the precincts of the town, and sings near some dwelling-house. Such an incident was formerly the occasion of superstitious alarm, being regarded as an omen of some evil to the inmates of the dwelling. The true cause of these irregular visits is probably the accidental abundance of a particular kind of insects, which the bird has followed from his retirement.

I believe the Whippoorwill, in this part of the country, is first heard in May, and continues vocal until the middle of July. He begins to sing at dusk, and we usually hear his note soon after the Veery, the Philomel of our summer evenings, has become silent, His song consists of three notes, in a sort of triple or waltz time, with a slight pause after the first note in the bar, as given below : —


Whip-poor-Will Whip-p'r-Will Whip-p'r-Will Whip-

I should remark, that the bird usually commences his song with the second syllable of his name, or the second note in the bar. Some birds fall short of these intervals; but there seems to be an endeavor, on the part of each individual, to reach the notes as they are written on the scale. A few sliding notes are occasionally introduced, and an occasional preluding cluck is heard when we are near the singer.

The note of the Quail so closely resembles that of the Whippoorwill, that I have thought it might be interesting to compare the two.


Bob White.

More Wet.

So great is the general similarity of the notes of these two birds, that those of the Quail need only to be repeated several times in succession, without pause, to be mistaken for those of the Whippoorwill. They are uttered with similar intonations ; but the voice of the nocturnal bird is more harsh, and his song consists of three notes instead of two.

The song of the Whippoorwill, though wanting in mellowness of tone, as may be perceived when he is only a short distance from us, is to most people very agreeable, notwithstanding the superstitions associated with it. Some persons are not disposed to rank the Whippoorwill among singing-birds, regarding him as more vociferous than musical. But it would be difficult to determine in what respect his notes differ from the songs of other birds, except that they approach more nearly to the precision of artificial music. Yet it will he admitted that considerable distance is required to “lend enchantment” to the sound of his voice. In some retired and solitary districts, the Whippoorwills arc often so numerous as to be annoying by their vociferations; but in those places where only two or three individuals are heard during the season, their music is the source of a great deal of pleasure, and is a kind of recommendation to the place.

I was witness of this, some time since, in one of my botanical rambles in the town of Beverly, which is, for the most part, too densely populated to suit the habits of these solitary birds. On one of these excursions, after walking several hours over a rather unattractive region, I arrived at a very romantic spot, known by the unpoetical name of Black Swamp. Nature uses her most ordinary materials to form her most delightful landscapes, and often keeps in reserve prospects of enchanting beauty, and causes them to rise up, as it were, by magic, where we should least expect them. Here I suddenly found myself encompassed by a charming amphitheatre of hills and woods, and in a valley so beautiful that 1 could not have imagined anything equal to it. A neat cottage stood alone in this spot, without a single architectural decoration, which I am confident would have dissolved the spell that made the whole scene so attractive. It was occupied by a shoemaker, whom I recognized as an old acquaintance and a worthy man, who resided here with his wife and children, 1 asked them if they could live contented so far from other families. The wife of the cottager replied, that they suffered in the winter from their solitude, but in the spring and summer they preferred it to the town. — “for in this place we hear all the singing-birds, early and late, and the Whippoorwill sings here every night during May and June.” It was the usual practice of these birds, they told me, to sing both in the morning and the evenimr twilight; but if the moon rose late in the evening, after they had become silent, they would begin to sing anew, as if to welcome her rising. May the birds continue to sing to this happy family, and may the voice of the Whippoorwill never bode them any misfortune !

The Night-Hawk, or Piramidig, (Caprimulgus Americanus,) is similar in many points to the Whippoorwill, and the two species were formerly considered identical. The former, however, is a smaller bird; he has no song, and exhibits more of the ways of the Swallow. He is marked by a white spot on his wings, which is very apparent during his flight. He takes his prey in a higher part of the atmosphere,—being frequently seen, at twilight and in cloudy weather, soaring above the house-tops in quest of insects. The Whippoorwill finds his subsistence chiefly in the woods, and takes a part of it from the branches of trees, while poising himself on the wing, like a Humming-Bird. I believe he is never seen circling aloft like the Night-Hawk.

The movements of the Night-Hawk, during this flight, are performed, for the most part, in circles, and are very picturesque. The birds are usually seen in pairs, at such times, but occasionally there are numbers assembled together ; and one might suppose they were engaged in a sort of aerial dance, or that they were emulating each other in their attempts at soaring to a great height. It is evident that these evolutions proceed in part from the pleasure of motion ; but they are also connected with their courtship. While they are soaring and circling in the air, they occasionally utter the shrill and broken note which has been supposed to resemble the word Piramidig, whence the name is derived,— and now and then they dart suddenly aside, to seize a passing insect.

While performing these circumvolutions, the male frequently dives almost perpendicularly downwards, a distance of forty feet or more, uttering, when he turns at the bottom of his descent, a singular note, resembling the twang of a viol-string. This sound has been supposed to proceed from the action of the air, as the bird dives swiftly through it with open mouth ; but this supposition is rendered improbable by the fact that the European species makes a similar sound while sitting on its perch. It has also been alleged that the diving motion of this bird is an act designed to intimidate those who seem to be approaching his nest; but this cannot be true, because the bird performs the manoeuvre when he has no nest to defend. This habit is peculiar to the male, and it is probably one of those fantastic motions which are noticeable among the males of the Gallinaceous birds, and are evidently their artifices to attract the attention of the female ; very many of these motions may be observed in the manners of tame Pigeons.

The twanging note produced during the precipitate descent of the Night-Hawk is one of the picturesque sounds of Nature, and is heard most frequently in the morning twilight, when the birds are busy collecting their repast of insects. During an early morning walk, while they are circling about, we may bear their cry frequently repeated, and occasionally the booming sound, which, if one is not accustomed to it, and is not acquainted with this habit of the bird, affects him with a sensation of mystery, and excites his curiosity in an extraordinary degree.

The sound produced by the European species is a sort of drumming or whizzing note, like the hum of a spinningwheel. The male commences this performance about dusk, and continues it at intervals during a great part of the night. It is effected while the breast is inflated with air, like that of a cooing Dove. The Piramidig has the power of inflating himself in the same manner, and he utters this whizzing note when one approaches his nest.

The American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a more interesting bird than we should infer from his general appearance and physiognomy. He is mainly nocturnal in his habits, and his ways are worthy of study and observation. He obtains his food by scratching up the leaves and rubbish that lie upon the surface of the ground in damp and wooded places, and by boring into the earth for worms. He remains concealed in the wood during the day, and comes out to feed at twilight, choosing the open ploughed lands where worms are abundant; though it is probable that in the shade of the wood he is more or less busy in scratching among the leaves in the daytime.

The Woodeock does not commonly venture abroad in the open day, unless he be disturbed and driven from his retreats, He makes his first appearance here in the latter part ot April, and at this season we may observe that soaring habit which renders him one of the picturesque objects of Nature. This soaring takes place soon after sunset, continues during twilight, and is repeated at the corresponding hour in the morning. If you listen at this time near the places of his resort, he will soon reveal himself by a lively peep, frequently uttered, from the ground. While repeating this note, he may be seen strutting about, like a turkey-cock, with fantastic jerkings of the tail and a frequent bowing of the head ; and his mate, I believe, is at this time not far off. Suddenly he springs upward, and with a wide circular sweep, uttering at the same time a rapid whistling note, he rises in a spiral course to a great height in the air. At the summit of his ascent, he hovers about with irregular motions, chirping a medley of broken notes, like imperfect warbling. This continues about ten or fifteen seconds, when it ceases, and he descends rapidly to the ground. We seldom hear him while in his descent, but receive the first intimation of it by hearing a repetition of his peep, resembling the sound produced by those minute wooden trumpets sold at the German toy-shops.

No person could watch this playful flight of the Woodcock without interest; and it is remarkable that a bird with short wings and difficult flight should be capable of mounting to so great an altitude. It affords me a vivid conception of the pleasure with which I should witness the soaring and singing of the Skylark, known to me only by description. I have but to imagine the chirruping of the Woodcock to be a melodious series of notes, to feel that I am listening to that bird, which is so familiarized to our imaginations by English poetry that in our early days we always expect his greetings with a summer sunrise. It is with sadness that we first learn in our youth that the Skylark is not an inhabitant of the New World; and our mornings seem divested of a great portion of their charms, for the want of this poetical accompaniment.

There is another circumstance connected with the habits of the Woodcock which increases his importance as an actor in the melodrame of Nature. When we stroll away from the noise and din of the town, where the stillness permits us to hear distinctly all those faint sounds which are turned by the silence of night into music, we may hear at frequent intervals the hum produced by the irregular flights of the Woodcock, as he passes over short distances in the wood, where he is collecting his repast. It resembles the sound of the wings of Doves, rendered distinct by the stillness of all other things, and melodious by the distance. There is a feeling of mystery attached to these musical flights that yields a savor of romance to the quiet voluptuousness of a summer evening.

It is on such occasions, if we are in a moralizing mood, that we may be keenly impressed with the truth of the saying, that the secret of happiness consists in keeping alive our susceptibilities by frugal indulgences, rather than by seeking a multitude of pleasures, that pall in exact proportion to their abundance. The stillness and darkness of a quiet night produce this enlivening effect upon our minds. Our susceptibility is then awakened to such a degree, that slight sounds and feeble sparks of light convey to our souls an amount of pleasure which we seldom experience in the daytime from sights and sounds of the most pleasing description. Thus the player in an orchestra can enjoy such music only as would deafen common ears by its crash of sounds, in which they perceive no connection or harmony ; while the simple rustic listens to the rude notes of a flageolet in the hands of a clown with feelings of ineffable delight. Nature, if the seekers after luxurious and exciting pleasures could but understand her language, would say to them, “ Except ye become as this simple rustic, ye cannot enter into my paradise.”

The American Snipe has some of the nocturnal habits of the Woodcock, and the same habit of soaring at twilight, when he performs a sort of musical medley, which Audubon has very graphically described in the following passage:— “The birds are met with in meadows and low grounds, and, by being on the spotbefore sunrise, you may see both (male and female) mount high, in a spiral manner, now with continuous beats of the wings, now in short sailings, until more than a hundred yards high, when they whirl round each other with extreme velocity, and dance, as it were, to their own music; for, at this juncture, and during the space of five or six minutes, you hear rolling notes mingled together, each more or less distinct, perhaps, according to the state of the atmosphere. The sounds produced are extremely pleasing, though they fall faintly on the ear. I know not how to describe them ; but I am well assured that they are not produced simply by the beatings of their wings, as at this time the wings are not flapped, but are used in sailing swiftly in a circle, not many feet in diameter, A person might cause a sound somewhat similar by blowing rapidly and alternately, from one end to another, across a set of Small pipes, consisting of two or three modulations. This performance is kept up till incubation terminates ; but I have never observed it at any other period.”

Among the Heron family we discover a feiv nocturnal birds, which, though not very well known, have some ways that are singular and interesting. Goldsmith considered one of these birds worthy of introduction into his “ Deserted Village,” as contributing to the poetic conception of desolation. Thus, in his description of the grounds which were the ancient site of the village, we read,—

“Along its glades, a solitary guest,
The hollow-sounding Bittern guards its nest.”

“ The Bittern is a shy and solitary bird ; it is never seen on the wing in the daytime, but sits, generally with the head erect, hid among the reeds and rushes of extensive marshes, from whence it will not stir, unless disturbed by the sportsman. When it changes its haunts, it removes in the dusk of the evening, and then, rising in a spiral direction, soars to a vast height. It flies in the same heavy manner as the Heron, and might be mistaken for that bird, were it not for the singularly resounding cry which it utters, from time to time, while on the wing: but this cry is feeble when compared with the hollow booming noise which it makes during the night, in the breeding season, from its swampy retreats. From the loudness and solemnity of its note, an erroneous notion prevails with the vulgar, that it either thrusts its head into a reed, which serves as a pipe for swelling its note beyond its natural pitch, or that it immerges its head in water, and then produces its boomings by blowing with all its might.”

The American Bittern is a smaller bird, but is probably a variety of the European species. It exhibits the same nocturnal habits, and has received at the South the name of Dunkadoo, from the resemblance of its common note to these syllables. This is a hollow-sounding noise, but not so loud as the voice of the Bittern to which Goldsmith alludes. I have heard it by day proceeding from the wooded swamps, and am at a loss to explain how so small a bird can produce so low and hollow a note. Among this family of birds are one or two other nocturnal species, including the Qua-Bird, which is common to both continents ; but there is little to be said of it that would be interesting in this connection. The Herons, however, and their allied species, are birds of remarkable habits, the enumeration and account of which would occupy a considerable space. In an essay on the flight of birds in particular, the Heron? would furnish a multitude of very interesting facts.

Let us now turn our attention to those diurnal birds that sing in the night as well as in the day, and which might be comprehended under the general appellation of Nightingales. These birds do not confine their singing to the night, like the true nocturnal birds, and are most vocal when inspired by the light of the moon. Europe has several of these minstrels of the night. Beside the true Philomel of poetry and romance, the Reed-Thrush and the Woodcock are of this character. In the United States, the Mocking-Bird enjoys the greatest reputation ; the Rosebreasted Grosbeak and the New York Thrush are also nocturnal songsters.

The Mocking-Bird (Tardus polyglottus) is well known in the Middle and Southern States, but seldom passes a season in New England, except in the southern part of Rhode Island and Connecticut, which seem to be the northern limit of its migrations. Probably, like the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, winch is constantly extending its limits in an eastern direction, the Mocking-Bird may be gradually making progress northwardly, so that fifty years hence both of these birds may be common in Massachusetts. The Mocking-Bird is familiar in his habits, frequenting gardens and orchards, and perching on the roofs of houses when singing, like the common Robin. Like the Robin, too, who sings at all hours excepting those of darkness, he is a persevering songster, and seems to be inspired by living in the vicinity of man. In his manners, however, he bears more resemblance to the Red Thrush, being distinguished by his vivacity, and the courage with which he repels the attacks of his enemies.

The Mocking-Bird is celebrated throughout the world for his musical powers ; but it is difficult to ascertain precisely the character and quality of his original notes. Hence some naturalists have contended that he has no song of his own, but confines himself to imitations. That this is an error, all persons who have listened to him in his native wild-wood can testify. I should say, from my own observations, not only that he has a distinct song, peculiarly his own, but that his imitations are far from being equal to his original notes. Yet it is seldom we hear him except when he is engaged in mimicry. In his native woods, and especially at an early hour in the morning, when he is not provoked to imitation by the voices of other birds and animals, he sometimes pours forth his own wild notes with full fervor. Yet I have often listened vainly for hours to hear him utter anything but a few idle repetitions of monotonous sounds, interspersed with some ludicrous varieties. Why he should neglect his own pleasing notes, to tease the listener with his imitations of all imaginable discords, is not easily explained.

Though his imitations are the cause of his notoriety, they are not the utterances upon which his true merit is based, He 'would be infinitely more valuable as a songster, if he were incapable of imitating a single sound. I would add, that as an imitator of the songs of other birds he is very imperfect, and‘in this respect has been greatly overrated by our ornithologists, who seem to vie with one another in their exaggerations of his powers. He cannot utter the notes of the rapid singers; he is successful only in his imitations of those birds whose notes are simple and moderately delivered, He is, indeed, more remarkable for his indefatigable propensity than for his powers. Single sounds, from whatever source they may come, from birds, quadrupeds, reptiles, or machines, he gives very accurately; but I have heard numbers of Mocking-Birds in confinement attempt to imitate the Canary, and always without success. There is a common saying, that the Mocking-Bird will die of chagrin, if placed in a cage by the side of a caged Bobolink, mortified because he cannot give utterance to his rapid notes. If this were the cause of his death, he would also die when caged in a room with a Canary, a Goldfinch, or any of the rapidly singing Finches. It is also an error to say of his imitations, as the generality of writers assert, that they are. improvements upon the originals. When lie utters the notes of the RedBird, the Golden Robin, or the Common Robin, he does not improve them ; and when he gives us the screaming of the Jay or the mewing of the Cat, he does not change them into music.

As an original songster, judging him by what he is capable of performing, however unfrequently he may exercise his powers to the best advantage, the Mocking-Bird is probably equalled only by two or three of our singing-birds. His notes are loud, varied, melodious, and of great compass. They may be compared to those ot the Red Thrush, more rapidly delivered, and having more flute notes and fewer guttural notes and sudden transitions. He also sings on the wing and with fervor, like the Linnet, while the other Thrushes sing only from their perch. But his song has less variety than that of the Red Thrush, and falls short of it in as many respects as it surpasses it. For the greater part of the time, the only notes of the Mocking-Bird, when he is not engaged in mimicry, are a sort of melodious whistle, consisting of two notes about a fourth apart, uttered in quick, but not rapid, succession, and hardly to be distinguished from those of the RedBird of Virginia.

I heard the notes of the Mocking-Bird the first time in his native wilds, during a railroad journey by night, through the Pine Barrens of North Carolina, in the month of June. The journey' was very tiresome and unpleasant, nothing being seen, when looking out upon the landscape, but a gloomy stretch of level forest, consisting of tall pines, thinly scattered, without any branches, except at their tops. The dusky forms of these trees, pictured against the half-luminous sky, seemed like so many giant spectres watching ihe progress of our journey, and increased the loneliness of the hour. Before daylight, when the sky was faintly crimsoned around the place where the sun was to come forth, the train made a pause of half an hour, at one of the stations, and the passengers alighted. While I was looking at the dreary prospect of desert, tired of my journey and longing for day, suddenly the notes of the Mocking-Bird came to my ear, and changed all my gloomy feelings into delight.

It is seldom I have felt so vividly the power of one little incident to change the tone of one’s feelings and the humor of the occasion. As a few drops of oil, cast upon the surface of the waters, will quiet the troubled waves, so did the glad voice of this merry bird suddenly dispel all those sombre feelings which had been fostered by dismal scenes and a lonely journey. Nature never seemed so lovely as when the rising dawn, with its tearful beams and purple radiance, was greeted by this warbling salutation, as from some messenger of light, who came to announce that Morning was soon to step forth from her throne, and extend over all things her smiles and her beneficence.

Of the other American birds that sing in the night I can say nothing from my own observation. The most important of these is the New York Thrush, (Turdus aquaticus,) which is said to resemble the River Nightingale of Europe. This bird, which is common in the Western States, is said to sing melodiously night and day. Wilson remarks of this species, “ They are eminently distinguished by the loudness, sweetness, and expressive vivacity of their notes, which begin very high and clear, falling with an almost imperceptible gradation, till they are scarcely articulated. At these times the musician is perched on the middle branches of a tree, over a brook or river-bank, pouring out his charming melody, that may be distinctly heard for nearly half a mile. The voice of this little bird appeared to me so exquisitely sweet and expressive, that I was never tired listening to it.” This description is exactly applicable to the song of the Veery, supposed to be silent by Wilson, who could not have fallen into such an error, except by having confined his researches chiefly to the Middle and Southern States.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Loxia rosea) is said to be an excellent songster, passing the greater part of the night in singing, and continuing vocal in confinement. This bird is common in the Western States, but until lately has seldom been seen in New England. I learn, however, from Mr. Fowler, that “the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is found in Essex County, and, though formerly seldom seen, is becoming every year more common. Like the Wood Thrush and Scarlet Tanager, it is retiring in its habits, and is usually found in the most sheltered part of the wood, where, perched about midway on a tree, in fancied concealment, it warbles its soft, clear, and melodious notes.” He thinks this bird is not heard so frequently by niglit as by day, though it often sings in the light of the moon.

In connection with this theme, we cannot help feeling a sense of regret, almost like melancholy, when we reflect that the true Nightingale and the Skylark, the classical birds of European literature, are strangers to our fields and woods. In May and June there is no want of sylvan minstrels to wake the morn and to sing the vespers of a sweet summer evening. A flood of song wakes us at the earliest daylight; and the shy and solitary Veery, after the Vesper-Bird has concluded his evening hymn, pours his few pensive notes into the very bosom of twilight, and makes the hour sacred by his melody. But after twilight is sped, and the moon rises to shed her meek radiance over the sleeping earth, the Nightingale is not here to greet her rising, and to turn her melancholy beams into the cheerfulness of daylight. And when the Queen Moon is on her throne,

“ Clustered around by all her starry Fays,”

the Whippoorwill alone brings her the tribute of his monotonous song, and soothes the dull ear of Night with sounds which, however delightful, are not of heaven. We have become so familiar with the Lark and the Nightingale, by the perusal of the romance of rural life, that “ neither breath of Morn, when she ascends ” without the charm of this her earliest harbinger, “nor silent Night” without her “ solemn bird,” seems holy, as when we contemplate them in the works of pastoral song. Poetry has hallowed to our minds the pleasing objects of the Old World; those of the New have to be cherished in song yet many more years, before they will be equally sacred to our imaginations.

By some of our writers the MockingBird is put forward as equal in song to the Nightingale. This assumption might be worthy of consideration, if the American bird were not a mimic. But his mocking habits almost annihilate his value as a songster,— as the effect of a good concert would be spoiled, if the players were constantly introducing, in the midst of their serious performances, snatches of ridiculous tunes and uncouth sounds. I have never heard the Nightingale; but if I may judge from descriptions of its song, and from the notes of those Canaries which are said to give us perfect imitations of it, we have no bird in America that equals this classical songster. The following description, by Pliny, which is said to be superior to any other, may afford us some idea of the extent of its powers:— “The Nightingale, that for fifteen days and nights, hid in the thickest shades, continues her note without intermission, deserves our attention and wonder. How surprising that so great a voice can reside in so small a body! Such perseverance in so minute an animal ! With what musical propriety are the sounds it produces modulated ! The note at one time drawn out with a long breath, now stealing off into a different cadence, now interrupted by a break, then changing into a new note by an unexpected transition, now seeming to renew the same strain, then deceiving expectation. She sometimes seems to murmur within herself; full, deep, sharp, swift, drawling, trembling; now at the top, the middle, and the bottom of the scale. In short, in that little bill seems to reside all the melody which man has vainly labored to bring from a variety of musical instruments. Some even seem to be possessed of a different note from the rest, and contend with each other with great ardor. The bird, overcome, is then seen to discontinue its song only with its life.”

The cause of the nocturnal singing of birds that do not go abroad during the night and are strictly diurnal in all their other habits has never been satisfactorily explained. It is natural that the Whippoorwill, which is a nocturnal bird, should sing during his hours of wakefulness and activity. There is also no difficulty in explaining why Ducks and Geese, and some other social birds, should utter their loud alarm-notes, when they meet with any midnight disturbance. These birds usually have a sentinel who keeps awake; and if he give an alarm, the others reply to it. The crowing of the Cock bears more analogy to the song of a bird, for it does not seem to be an alarm-note. This domestic bird may be considered, therefore, a nocturnal songster, if his crowing can be called a song ; though it is remarkable that we seldom hear it during evening twilight. The Cock sings his matins, but not his vespers; he crows at the earliest dawn of day, and at midnight upon the rising of the moon, and whenever he is awakened by artificial light. Many singing-birds are accustomed to prolong their notes after sunset to a late hour, and become silent only to commence again at the earliest daybreak. But the habit of singing in the night is peculiar to a small number of birds, and the cause of it forms a curious subject of inquiry.

By what means are they enabled to sustain such constant watchfulness, singing and providing subsistence for their offspring during the day, and still continuing wakeful and musical while it is night? Why do they take pleasure in singing, when no one will come in answer to their call ? Have they their worship, like religious beings, and are their midnight lays but the outpouring of the fervency of their spirits ? Do they rejoice, like the clouds, in the presence of the moon, hailing her beams as a pleasant relief from the darkness that has surrounded them? Or in the silence of night, are their songs but responses to the sounds of the trees, when they bow their heads and shake their rustling leaves in the wind ? When they listen to the streamlet, that makes audible melody only in the hush of night, do they not answer to it from their leafy perch? And when the moth flies hmmningly through the recesses of the wood, and the beetle sounds his horn, what are their notes but cheerful responses to these sounds, that break sweetly upon the quiet of their slumbers ?

Wilson remarks, that the hunters in the Southern States, when setting out on an excursion by night, as soon as they hear the Mocking-Bird sing, know that the moon is rising. He quotes a writer who supposes that it may be fear that operates upon the birds when they perceive the Owls flitting among the trees, and that they sing, as a timid person whistles in a lonely place, to quiet their fears. But the musical notes of birds are never used by them to express their fears; they are the language of love, sometimes animated by jealousy. It must be admitted that the moonlight awakes these birds, and may be the most frequent exciting cause of their nocturnal singing; but it is not true that they always wait for the rising of the moon ; and if this were the fact, the question may still be asked, why these few species alone should be thus affected.

Since Philosophy can give no explanation of this instinct, let Fancy come to her aid, and assist us in our dilemma,— as when we have vainly sought from Reason an explanation of the mysteries of Religion, we humbly submit to the guidance of Faith. With Fancy for our interpreter, we may suppose that Nature has adapted the works of creation to our moral as well as our physical wants; and while she has instituted the night as a time for general rest, she has provided means that shall soften the gloomy effects of darkness. The birds, which are the harbingers of all rural delights, are hence made to sing during twilight; and when they cease, the nocturnal songsters become vocal, bearing pleasant sensations to the sleepless, and by their lulling melodies preparing us to be keenly susceptible of all agreeable emotions.


CAROLLING BIRD, that merrily, night and day,
Teilest thy raptures from the rustling spray,
And wakest the morning with thy varied lay,
Singing thy matins,—
When we have come to hear thy sweet oblation
Of love and joyance from thy sylvan station,
Why, in the place of musical cantation,
Balk us with pratings?

We stroll by moonlight in the dusky forest,
Where the tall cypress shields thee, fervent chorist!
And sit in haunts of Echoes, when thou pourest
Thy woodland solo.
Hark! from the next green tree tny song commences:
Music and discord join to mock the senses,
Repeated from the tree-tops and the fences,
From hill and hollow.

A hundred voices mingle with thy clamor;
Bird, beast, and reptile take part in thy drama;
Out-speak they all in turn without a stammer,—
Brisk Polyglot!
Voices of Killdeer, Plover, Duck, and Dotterel;
Notes bubbling, hissing, mellow, sharp, and utter all,
And all-untaught.

The Raven’s croak, the chirping of the Sparrow,
The scream of Jays, the creaking of Wheelbarrow,
And hoot of Owls,—all join the soul to harrow,
And grate the ear.
We listen to thy quaint soliloquizing,
As if all creatures thou wert catechizing,
Tuning their voices, and their notes revising,
From far and near.

Sweet bird! that surely lovest the noise of folly;
Most musical, but never melancholy;
Disturber of the hour that should be holy,
With sound prodigious!
Fie on thee, O thou feathered Paganini!
To use thy little pipes to squawk and whinny,
And emulate the hinge and spinning-jenny,
Making night hideous!

Provoking melodist! why canst thou breathe us
No thrilling harmony, no charming pathos,
No cheerful song of love without its bathos?
The Furies take thee,—
Blast thy obstreperous mirth, thy foolish chatter,—
Gag thee, exhaust thy breath, and stop thy clatter,
And change thee to a beast, thou senseless
Nought else can check thee!

A lengthened pause ensues: — but hark again!
From the new woodland, stealing o’er the plain,
Comes forth a sweeter and a holier strain! —
Listening delighted,
The gales breathe softly, as they bear along
The warbled treasure, — the delicious throng
Of notes that swell accordant in the song,
As love is plighted.

The Echoes, joyful from their vocal cell,
Leap with the winged sounds o’er hill and dell,
With kindling fervor, as the chimes they tell
To wakeful Even:—
They melt upon the ear; they float away;
They rise, they sink, they hasten, they delay,
And hold the listener with bewitching sway,
Like sounds from heaven !