THE happiness of birds, heretofore taken for granted, and long ago put to service in a proverb, is in these last days made a matter of doubt. It transpires that they are engaged without respite in a struggle for existence, — a struggle so fierce that at least two of them perish every year for one that survives.1 How, then, can they be otherwise than miserable ?
There is no denying the struggle, of course ; nor need we question some real effect produced by it upon the cheerfulness of the participants. The more rationalistic of the smaller species, we may be sure, find it hard to reconcile the existence of hawks and owls with the doctrine of an all-wise Providence ; while even the most simple-minded of them can scarcely fail to realize that a world in which one is liable any day to be pursued by a boy with a shot-gun is not in any strict sense paradisiacal.
And yet, who knows the heart of a bird ? A child, possibly, or a poet; certainly not a philosopher. And happiness, too, — is that something of which the scientific mind can render us a quite adequate description? Or is it, rather, a wayward, mysterious thing, coming often when least expected, and going away again when, by all tokens, it Ought to remain ? How is it with ourselves ? Do we wait to weigh all the good and evil of our state, to take an accurate account of it pro and con, before we allow ourselves to be glad or sorry ? Not many of us, I think. Mortuary tables may demonstrate that one half of the children born in this country fail to reach the age of twenty years. But what then ? Our “expectation of life ” is not dependent upon statistics. The tables may be correct, for aught we know ; but they deal with men in general and on the average ; they have no message for you and me individually. It seems not unlikely that birds may be equally illogical; always expecting to live, and not die, and often giving themselves up to impulses of gladness without stopping to inquire whether, on grounds of absolute reason, these impulses are to be justified. Let us hope so, at all events, till somebody proves the contrary.
But even looking at the subject a little more philosophically, we may say — and be thankful to say it — that the joy of life is not dependent upon comfort, nor yet upon safety. The essential matter is that the heart be engaged. Then, though we be toiling up the Matterhorn, or swept along in the rush of a bayonet charge, we may still find existence not only endurable, but in the highest degree exhilarating. On the other hand, if there is no longer anything we care for; if enthusiasm is dead, and hope also, then, though we have all that money can buy, suicide is perhaps the only fitting action that is left for us, — unless, perchance, we are still able to pass the time in writing treatises to prove that everybody else ought to be as unhappy as ourselves.
Birds have many enemies and their full share of privation, but I do not believe that they often suffer from ennui. Having “ neither storehouse nor barn,” 2 they are never in want of something to do. From sunrise till noon there is the getting of breakfast, then from noon till sunset the getting of dinner, — both out-of-doors, and without any trouble of cookery or dishes, — a kind of perpetual picnic. What could be simpler or more delightful ? Carried on in this way, eating is no longer the coarse and sensual thing we make it.
Country children know that there are two ways to go berrying. According to the first method, you stroll into the pasture in the cool of the day, and at your leisure pick as many as you choose of the ripest and largest of the berries, putting every one into your mouth. This is agreeable. According to the second method, you carry a basket, which you are expected to bring home again well filled. And this way — well, tastes will differ, but I think most unsophisticated persons prefer the other. The hand-to-mouth process certainly agrees best with our idea of life in Eden ; and, what is more to the purpose now, it is the one which the birds, still keeping the garden instead of tilling the ground, continue to follow.
That this unworldliness of the birds has any religious or theological significance I do not myself believe. Still, as anybody may see, there are certain very plain Scripture texts on their side.
Indeed, if birds were only acute theologians, they would unquestionably proceed to turn these texts (since they find it so easy to obey them) into the basis of a “ system of truth.” Other parts of the Bible (so the theory would run) must be interpreted, to be sure; but these statements mean just what they say, and whoever meddles with them is carnally minded and a rationalist.
But somebody will object that, with our talk about a “ perpetual picnic ” we are making a bird’s life one cloudless holiday; forgetting what we have before admitted about a struggle for existence, and leaving out of sight altogether the seasons of scarcity, the storms, and the biting cold. These hardships are real enough, and serious enough ; but they are not necessarily inconsistent with enjoyment; they may even give to life an additional zest. It is a matter of every-day observation that the people who have nothing to do except to “ live well ” (as the common sarcasm has it) are not always the most cheerful ; while there are certain diseases, like pessimism and the gout, which seem appointed to wait on luxury and idleness, — as though nature were determined to have the scales kept somewhat even. And surely this divine law of compensation has not left the innocent birds unprovided for, — the innocent birds of whom it was said, “ Your heavenly Father feedeth them.” How must the feathered pair exult, when, in spite of owls and hawks, squirrels and weasels, small boys and oölogists, they have finally reared a brood of offspring! The long uncertainty and the thousand perils only Intensify the joy. In truth, so far as this world is concerned, the highest bliss is never to be had without antecedent sorrow ; and even of heaven itself we may not scruple to say that if there are painters there they probably feel obliged to put some shadows into their pictures.
But of course (and this is what we have been coming to through this long introduction), — of course our friends of the air are happiest in the season of mating; happiest, and therefore most attractive to us who find our pleasure in studying them. In spring, of all times of the year, it seems a pity that everybody should not be an ornithologist. For “all mankind love a lover;” and the world, in consequence, has given itself up to novel-reading, not knowing, unfortunately, how much better that rôle is taken by the birds than by the common run of story-book heroes.
People whose notions of the subject are derived from attending to the antics of our imported sparrows have no idea how delicate and beautiful a thing a real feathered courtship is. To tell the truth, these foreigners have associated too long and too intimately with men, and have fallen far away from their primal innocence. There is no need to describe their actions. The vociferous and most unmannerly importunity of the suitor, and the correspondingly spiteful rejection of his overtures by the little vixen on whom his affections are for the moment placed, — these we have all seen until we are weary.
The sparrow will not have been brought over the sea for nothing, however, if his bad behavior serves to heighten our appreciation of our own native songsters, with their “ perfect virtues ” and their “ manners for the heart’s delight.”
The American robin, for instance, is not by any means a bird of exceptional refinement. His nest is rude, not to say slovenly, and his general deportment is unmistakably common. But watch him when he goes a-wooing, and you will begin to feel quite a new respect for him. How gently he approaches his beloved ! How carefully he avoids ever coming disrespectfully near ! No sparrow-like screaming, no dancing about, no melodramatic gesticulation. If she moves from one side of the tree to the other, or to the tree adjoining, he follows in silence. Yet every movement is a petition, an assurance that his heart is hers and ever must be. The action is extremely simple; there is nothing of which to make an eloquent description ; but I should pity the man who could witness it with indifference. Not that the robin always behaves in one way; he is much too versatile for that. On one occasion, at least, I saw him holding himself absolutely motionless, in a horizontal posture, staring at his sweetheart as though he would charm her with his gaze, and emitting all the while a subdued hissing sound. The significance of this conduct I do not profess to have understood ; it ended with his suddenly darting at the female, who took wing and was pursued. Not improbably the robin finds the feminine nature somewhat fickle, and counts it expedient to vary his tactics accordingly ; for it is coming to be more and more believed that, in kind at least, the intelligence of the lower animals is not different from ours.
I once came unexpectedly upon a woodthrush, who was in the midst of a performance very similar to this of the robin. He was standing on the dead branch of a tree, with his crown feathers erect, his bill set wide open, and his whole body looking as rigid as death. His mate, as I perceived the next moment, was not far away, on the same limb. If he was attempting fascination, he was making a serious mistake, I thought, unless his mate’s idea of beauty was totally different from mine; for I could hardly keep from laughing at his absurd appearance. It did not occur to me till afterwards that he had probably heard of Othello’s method, and was at that moment acting out a story
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe And sold to slavery.
” How much depends upon the point of view! Here was I, ready to laugh; while poor Desdemona only thought, “ ’T was pitiful, ’t was wondrous pitiful.” Dear sympathetic soul ! Let us hope that she was never called to play out the tragedy.
Two things are very noticeable during the pairing season, — the scarcity of females and their indifference. Every one of them seems to have at least two admirers dangling after her,3 while she is almost sure to carry herself as if a wedding were the last thing she would ever consent to think of; and that not because of bashfulness, but from downright aversion. The observer begins to suspect that the fair creatures have really entered into some sort of no-marriage league, and that there are not to be any nests this year, nor any young birds. But by and by he discovers that somehow, he cannot surmise how,— it must have been when his eyes were turned the other way, — the scene is entirely changed, the maidens are all wedded, and even now the nests are being got ready.
I watched a trio of cat-birds in a clump of alder bushes by the roadside; two males, almost as a matter of course, “ paying attentions ” to one female. Both suitors were evidently in earnest; each hoped to carry off the prize, and perhaps felt that he should be miserable forever if he were disappointed; and yet, on their part, everything was being done decently and in order. So far as I saw, there was no disposition to quarrel. Only let the dear creature choose one of them, and the other would take his broken heart away. So, always at a modest remove, they followed her about from bush to bush, entreating her in most loving and persuasive tones to listen to their suit; but she, all this time, answered every approach with a snarl. She would never have anything to do with either of them; she disliked them both, and only wished they would leave her to herself. This lasted as long as I stayed to watch. Still I had little doubt she fully intended to accept one of them, and had even made up her mind already which it should be. She knew enough, I felt sure, to calculate the value of a proper maidenly reluctance. How could her mate be expected to rate her at her worth, if she allowed herself to be won too easily? Besides, she could afford not to be in haste, seeing she had a choice of two.
What a comfortably simple affair the matrimonial question is with the feminine cat-bird! Her wooers are all of equally good family and all equally rich. There is literally nothing for her to do but to look into her own heart and choose. No temptation has she to sell herself for the sake of a fashionable name or a fine house, or in order to gratify the prejudice of father or mother. As for a marriage settlement, she knows neither the name nor the thing. In fact, marriage in her thought is a simple union of hearts, with no taint of anything mercantile about it. Happy cat-bird! She perhaps imagines that human marriages are of the same ideal sort!
I have spoken of the affectionate language of these cat-bird lovers ; but it was noticeable that they did not sing, although, to have fulfilled the common idea of such an affair, they certainly should have been doing so, and each trying his best to outsing the Other. Possibly, there had Already been such a tournament before my arrival ; or, for aught I know, this particular female may have given out that she had no ear for music.
Yet there was really nothing peculiar in their conduct. No doubt, in the earlier stages of a bird’s attachment he is likely to express his passion musically ; but later he is not content to warble from a tree-top. There are things to be said which cannot appropriately be spoken at long range ; and unless my study of novels has been to little purpose, all this agrees well with the practices of human gallants. Do not these begin by singing under the lady’s window, or by sending verses to her? and are not such proceedings intended to prepare the way, as speedily as possible, for others of a more satisfying, though it may be of a less romantic nature ?
Bearing this in mind, we may be able to account, in part at least, for the disappointment which an inexperienced observer meets with when, fresh from the perusal of (for example) the thirteenth chapter of Darwin’s Descent of Man, he goes into the woods to look about for himself. He expects to find here and there two or three songsters, each in turn doing his utmost to surpass the brilliancy and power of the other’s music ; while a feminine auditor sits in full view, preparing to render her verdict, and reward the successful competitor with her own precious self. This would be a pretty picture. Unfortunately, it is looked for in vain. The two or three singers may be found, likely enough; but the female, if she be indeed within hearing, is modestly hidden away somewhere in the bushes, and our student is none the wiser. Let him watch as long as he please, he will hardly see the prize awarded.
Nevertheless he need not feel that his time has been wasted. He certainly will not, if he be one who loves music ; for birds, like all true artists, can do their best only on great occasions. Our brown thrush, for instance, is a magnificent singer, albeit he is not of the best school, being too “ sensational ” to suit the most exacting taste. His song is a grand improvisation : a good deal jumbled, to be sure, and without any recognizable form or theme ; and yet, like a Liszt rhapsody, it perfectly answers its purpose, — that is, it gives the performer full scope to show what he can do with his instrument. You may laugh a little, if you like, at an occasional grotesque or overwrought passage, but unless you are well used to it you will surely be astonished. Such power and range of voice; such startling transitions; such endless variety! And withal such boundless enthusiasm and almost incredible endurance! Considered as pure music, one strain of the hermit thrush is to my mind worth the whole of it; just as a single movement of Beethoven’s is better than a world of Liszt transcriptions. But in its own way it is unsurpassable.
Still, though this is a meagre and quite unexaggerated account of the ordinary song of the brown thrush, I have discovered that even he can be outdone—by himself. One morning in early May I came upon three birds of this species, all singing at once, in a kind of jealous frenzy. As they sang they continually shifted from tree to tree, and one in particular (the one who was nearest to where I stood) could hardly be quiet a moment. Once he sang with full power while on the ground (or close to it, for he was just then behind a low bush), after which he mounted to the very tip of a tall pine, which bent beneath his weight. In the midst of the hurly-burly one of the trio suddenly sounded the whip-poor-will’s call twice,—an absolutely perfect reproduction.1
The significance of all this sound and fury; what the prize was, if any, and who obtained it, — this another can conjecture as well as myself. I know no more than old Kaspar : —
‘ But ’t was a famous victory.’ ”
As I turned to come away, the contest all at once ceased, and the silence of the woods, or what seemed like silence, was really impressive. The chewinks and field sparrows were singing, but it was like the music of a village singer after Patti ; or, to make the comparison less unjust, like the Pastoral Symphony of Handel after a Wagner tempest.
It is curious how deeply we are sometimes affected by a very trifling occurrence. I have remembered many times a slight scene in which three purple finches were the actors. Of the two males, one was in full adult plumage of bright crimson, while the other still wore his youthful suit of brown. First, the older bird suspended himself in mid air, and sang most beautifully ; dropping, as he concluded, to a perch beside the female. Then the younger candidate, who was already sitting near by, took his turn, singing nearly or quite as well as his rival, but without quitting the branch, though his wings quivered. I saw no more. Yet, as I say, I have often since thought of the three birds, and wondered whether the bright feathers and the flying song carried the day against the younger suitor. I fear they did. Sometimes, too, I have wondered whether young birds (who none the less are of age to marry) can be so very meek or so very dull as never to rebel against the fashion that only the old fellows shall dress handsomely ; and I have tried in vain to imagine the mutterings, deep and loud, which such a law would excite in certain other quarters. It pains me to say it, but I suspect that taxation without representation would seem a small injustice, in comparison.
Like these linnets in the exceptional interest they excited were two large seabirds, who suddenly appeared circling about over the woods, as I was taking a solitary walk on a Sunday morning in April. One of them was closely pursuing the other ; not as though he were trying to overtake her, but rather as though he were determined to keep her company. They swept now this way, now that, — now lost to sight, and now reappearing ; and once they passed straight over my head, so that I heard the whistling of their wings. Then they were off. and I saw them no more. They came from far, and by night they were perhaps a hundred leagues away, But I followed them with my blessing, and to this day I feel toward them a little as I suppose we all do toward a certain few strangers whom we have met here and there in our journeyings, and chatted with for an hour or two. We had never seen them before ; if we learned their names we have long ago forgotten them; but somehow the persons themselves keep a place in our memory, and even in our affection.
And a certain use in the world, no doubt;
Yet a hand’s breadth of it shines alone
’Mid the blank miles round about:
And there I put inside my breast,
A moulted feather, an eagle-feather!
Well, I forget the rest.”
Since we cannot ask birds for an explanation of their conduct, we have nothing to do but to steal their secrets, if possible, by patient and stealthy watching. In this way I hope, sooner or later, to find out what the golden-winged woodpecker means by the shout with which he makes the fields reëcho in the spring, especially in the latter half of April. I have no doubt it has something to do with the process of mating, but I am puzzled to guess just what the message can be which requires to be published so loudly. Such a stentorian, longwinded cry ! You wonder where the bird finds breath for such an effort, and think he must be a very ungentle lover, surely. But withhold your judgment for a few days, till you see him and his mate gamboling about the branches of some old tree, calling in soft, affectionate tones, Wick-a-wick, wick-a-wick; then you will confess that, whatever failings the golden-wing may have, he is not to be charged with insensibility. The fact is that our “ yellow-hammer ” has a genius for noise. When he is very happy he drums. Sometimes, indeed, he marvels how birds who have n’t this resource are able to get through the world at all. Nor ought we to think it strange that in his love-making he finds great use for this his crowning accomplishment. True, we have nowhere read of a human lover’s serenading his mistress with a drum ; but we must remember what creatures of convention men are, and that there is no inherent reason why a drum should not serve as well as a flute for such a purpose.
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
All are but ministers of Love,
And feed his sacred flame.”
I saw two of these flickers clinging to the trunk of a shell-bark tree; which, by the way, is a tree after the woodpecker’s own heart. One was perhaps fifteen feet above the other, and before each was a strip of loose bark, which answered for a drum-head. First, the lower one drummed, rather softly. Then, as he ceased, and held his head back to listen, the other answered him ; and so the dialogue went on. Evidently, they were already mated, and were now renewing their mutual vows ; for birds, to their praise be it spoken, believe in courtship after marriage. The day happened to be Sunday, and it did occur to me that possibly this was the woodpeckers’ ritual, — a kind of High Church service, with antiphonal choirs. But I dismissed the thought; for, on the whole, the shouting seems more likely to be diagnostic, and, in spite of his gold-lined wings, I have set the flicker down as almost certainly an old-fashioned Methodist.
Speaking of courtship after marriage, I am reminded of a spotted sandpiper, whose capers I amused myself with watching, one day last June, on the border of Saco Lake. As I caught sight of him, he was straightening himself up, with a pretty, self-conscious air, at the same time spreading his white-edged tail, and calling, Tweet, tweet, tweet.4 Afterwards he got upon a log, where, with head erect and wings thrown forward and downward, he ran for a yard or two, calling as before. This trick seemed especially to please him, and was several times repeated. He ran rapidly, and with a comical prancing movement. But nothing he did was half so laughable as the behavior of his mate, who all this while dressed her feathers without once deigning to look at her spouse’s performance. Undoubtedly they had been married for several weeks, and she was, by this time, well used to his nonsense. It must be a devoted husband, I fancy, who continues to offer attentions when they are received in such a spirit.
Walking a log is a somewhat common practice with birds. I once detected our little golden-crowned thrush showing off in this way to his mate, who stood on the ground, near by. In his case the head was lowered instead of raised, and the general effect was heightened by his curiously precise gait, which even on ordinary occasions is enough to provoke a smile.
Not improbably every species of birds has its own code of etiquette; unwritten, of course, but carefully handed down from father to son, and faithfully observed. Nor is it cause for wonder if, in our ignorant eyes, some of these “ society manners ” seem a little ridiculous. Even the usages of fashionable human circles have not always escaped the laughter of the profane.
I was standing on the edge of a small thicket, observing a pair of cuckoos as they made a breakfast out of a nest of tent caterpillars (it was a feast rather than a common meal; for the caterpillars were plentiful, and, as I judged, just at their best, being about half grown), when a couple of scarlet tanagers appeared upon the scene. The female soon selected a fine strip of cedar bark, and started off with it, sounding a call to her handsome husband, who at once followed in her wake. I thought, What a brute, to leave his wife to build the house! But he, plainly enough, felt that in escorting her back and forth he was doing all that could be expected of any well-bred, scarlet-coated tanager. And the lady herself, if one might infer anything from her tone and demeanor, was of the same opinion. I mention this trifling occurrence, not to put any slight upon Pyranga rubra (who am I, that I should accuse so gentle and well dressed a bird of had manners?), but merely as an example of the way in which feathered politeness varies. In fact, it seems not unlikely that the male tanager may abstain on principle from taking any active part in constructing the nest, for fear that his fiery color should betray its whereabouts. As for his kindness and loyalty, I only wish that I felt as sure of one half of the human husbands whom I meet.
It would be very ungallant, however, to leave the impression that the female bird is always as unsympathetic as most of the descriptions I have thus far given would appear to indicate. In my memory are several scenes, any one of which, if I could put it on paper as I saw it, would suffice to correct any such mistake. In one of these the parties were a pair of chipping sparrows. Never was man so churlish that his heart would not have been touched with the vision of their gentle but rapturous delight. As they chased each other gayly about from branch to branch and from tree to tree, they flew with that delicate, affected movement of the wings which birds are accustomed to use at such times, and which, perhaps, bears the same relation to their ordinary flight that dancing does to the every-day walk of men and women. The two seemed equally enchanted, and both sang. Little they knew of the “struggle for existence ” and the “ survival of the fittest.” Adam and Eve, in Paradise, were never more happy.
A few weeks later, taking an evening walk, I was stopped by the sight of a pair of cedar birds on a stone wall. They had chosen a convenient flat stone, and were hopping about upon it, pausing every moment or two to put their little bills together. What a loving ecstasy possessed them ! Sometimes one, sometimes the other, sounded a faint lisping note, and motioned for another kiss. But there is no setting forth the ineffable grace and sweetness of their chaste behavior. I looked and looked, till a passing carriage frightened them away. They were only common cedar birds; if I were to see them again I should not know them; hut if my pen were equal to my wish, they should be made immortal.
- Wallace, Natural Selection, page 30.↩
- The shrike lays up grasshoppers and sparrows, and the California woodpecker hoards great numbers of acorns, but it is still in dispute, I believe, whether thrift is the motive with either of them. Considering what has often been done in similar cases, we may think it surprising that the Scripture text above quoted (together with its exegetical parallel, Matthew vi. 26) has never been brought into court to settle the controversy ; but to the best of my knowledge it never has been.↩
- So near do birds come to Mr. Ruskin’s idea that “ a girl worth anything ought to have always half a dozen or so of suitors under vow for her.”↩
- “ That’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over,↩
- Lest you should think he never could, recapture The first fine careless rapture!”↩
- The “authorities” long since forbade Harporhynchus rufus to play the mimic. Probably in the excitement of the moment this fellow forgot himself.↩
- May one who knows nothing of philology venture to inquire whether the very close agreement of this tweet with our sweet (compare also the Anglo-Saxon swéte, the Icelandic sœtr, and the Sanskrit svad) does not point to a common origin of the Aryan and sandpiper languages?↩