Upon the Tree-Top
WHEN I stepped into the yard of the cottage that was to be my home for a month, the first bird I saw was a Baltimore oriole, perched on a dead branch near the top of a tall old apple-tree. His rich colors shone brightly against the foliage behind him, and he was evidently at home, for he had the air of a proprietor. I was pleased; but the sentiment was not mutual. He greeted me with scolding, and as that did not drive me away he became restless, hopped from branch to branch, flirting his tail and showing extreme uneasiness. Looking about for the reason of his uncalledfor hostilities, I saw the nest, on a slender branch of a young maple, ten or twelve feet high. He was on guard, and it was in his official capacity of special police that he had given me so inhospitable a reception. Nor could I wonder; it must have been disconcerting to him. Relying upon a cottage shut up and showing no signs of life, he had set up housekeeping not a dozen feet from the kitchen door, and naturally, on so small a tree, in a most conspicuous position ; when suddenly the silent old building had burst open at every window and door, and swarmed with human life. A mischievous boy, or an inquisitive student of bird-ways might cause untold trouble and alarm in that small household. Such, at least I fancied, were the reflections of the troubled soul in that agitated body as he looked down upon us, watching every movement, flitting from tree to tree, but never losing sight of any one who chanced to be in the orchard. During this uneasy period I saw what looked like a deliberate intention to deceive. In examining this new field I noticed a small nest in an upright fork of an old tree, in a dead branch at the top, doubtless a last year’s home of some small bird. While I looked at it, the oriole flew from his perch directly to it, leaned over as if interested in its contents, and so intently, that I could not resist the conviction that he wished to mislead me, for when I examined his nest, and he saw that all disguise was at an end, he never again, that I saw, went near that deserted residence.
This oriole was a remarkably silent bird, the first of his family that I have noticed who passed hour after hour without opening his mouth to sing, and I sometimes thought, to eat, so quietly did he sit on the branch overlooking his homestead. Happily, he soon learned that we were friends, and if, perhaps, somewhat prying as to his domestic concerns, still not intending harm. He grew more free in movement, ventured now and then to desert his post of watcher, and be absent a half-hour at a time ; also he found his voice, and entertained us with calls, single notes of the rich flute-like quality for which his family is noted, and very rarely with his song.
It was the third day of June, and setting was already begun. The tree on which his nest was placed had ten branches, not one more than two feet long ; the eighth was the largest, and upon that hung the oriole nursery. It was pretty to see the birds approach it. When not alarmed, they invariably alighted on the lowest branch near the stem of the tree, and hopped from step to step upward; in leaving they never retraced their steps, but mounted the two remaining branches, and took flight from the top twig. When the female reached home after a short absence, she hastened up the winding stairs, looked anxiously at her treasures, plunged in head-first, and then, quick as a jack-in-the-box, thrust her head above the edge for a last look, before she settled out of sight within. Very seldom did both birds leave home at the same time. When she was obliged to go for food, for he never appeared to bring her anything, she uttered a call to which he responded, and placed himself on his post of observation to watch; on returning she dropped another note or two, as if of thanks, and then he flew away. Once, in the early morning, before the house was open, I found them both off, so I concluded it was because of us that they were so vigilant during the day. A more constant and jealous watcher than this bird could scarcely be. When not in the apple boughs, he might generally be seen in a tree in the next lot, a little farther off, and it seemed as if he was not absent long enough to get necessary food.
One day an impatient visitor, wishing to see if the oriole was at home, gave the tree a violent shake. She was at home, and she flew off in a rage, perching on the next tree, scolding and shaking her wings at him, every moment emitting a peculiar cry, new to me then, but very familiar later, — the cry of distress. In a moment or two this brought upon the scene her mate, who added his cries and demonstrations to hers. The perpetrator of this rude joke retired, somewhat ashamed, and it was interesting to see how long it was after all was quiet before the birds were reassured. He went to the nest and looked in, but she could not be persuaded that it was safe for her to return. She flew back and forth between two trees about a hundred feet apart. In the route she went past her home; after flying straight by once or twice, her course began to swerve a little towards her own tree ; the second time she almost reached it, but turned and went on ; the third time she alighted an instant on the lowest step, hastily flying away as if she expected another earthquake ; the fourth time she rapidly mounted her winding stairs, and glanced in the nest; the fifth time she entered it for a moment; the sixth time she stayed.
One morning, after breakfast, an unusual sound was heard, the same by which the female oriole when in trouble had called her mate, — the signal of distress. It came from the front of the house, and I hastened to see what was amiss with the little family. Before I reached them I noticed the cawing of a crow nearer than we usually heard that sound, and when I came in sight of the woods on that side, behold ! Corvus himself on the top branch of a tall tree, perfectly outlined against the sky, cawing his loudest. The oriole was not in sight, but while I looked a second crow rose from the woods, and after him, to my surprise, the oriole. He pursued the same tactics that the kingbird does, flying above the enemy and pouncing upon the back of his head or neck. The crow flew over the orchard accompanied all the way by his plucky little assailant, while the first crow remained on the perch and encouraged his comrade till both were out of sight, when he also took wing and followed. They were out of sight certainly, but not out of hearing, for the cry of the oriole and the caw of the crow came to us for half an hour, growing more and more distant, however, till I began to fear that unlucky oriole would be completely exhausted, or possibly dispatched — which would have been easy enough if the two crows had combined, for he was utterly reckless in his attack. Just as I was becoming anxious, for the sounds had ceased, I heard a joyous song of triumph, and there he was ! in the old spot, looking as fresh and gay as it he had not come from a battle-field. Upon his cry, the little spouse came out of the nest, and responded with a few notes, evidently praise of his bravery, for he fidgeted about in a self-conscious way, bowed his head, flirted his wings, and manifested great excitement for some time.
But though driven away, the crows were not conquered, and the next morning I was wakened by the voice of a crow so very near that I sprang to the window. It was five o’clock, and of course perfectly light, and there sat the marauder in plain sight on an apple-tree in the orchard, a thing the wary bird never did after getting-up time. The oriole was there also, uttering his war cry, and hidden from them by the blinds I had a perfect opportunity to see his method of attack. I have never seen the kingbird annoy a crow except when flying : while the crow is at rest, the kingbird also remains quiet, at some little distance. Not so my brave oriole ; he harassed that crow constantly, alighting not more than two feet from him, and at his own level, so that I was surprised the crow did not seize him, for I am sure he was easily within reach. The oriole called, and bowed, and turned this way and that, holding his wings a little out and fluttering them, and then he flew over and picked at the crow as he went, alighting on the other side ; then, in a moment, after more posturing and calling, returned in the same way. So he kept up the warfare, while the crow continued his cawing, being answered from the next lot, but made no attempt to put an end to the attacks. Fully five minutes he sat there, though it was manifestly not comfortable, for he lowered his head to avoid the beak of his tormentor, and once or twice turned, and seemed to snap at him. When at last he flew, his small foe was upon him. I thought it strange that of the twentyfive or thirty birds which frequented the place, among which were several known to fight the crow, not one came to help. If the robins and cat-birds and others whose territory he invaded had united, they could have driven him away at once, but perhaps mobbing is the exclusive prerogative of the English house sparrow.
The next encounter I saw was also early in the morning. First I noticed a crow silently fly over, and perch in the top of a pine-tree. It was a singular place, and most undesirable apparently, for it was in the middle of a clump of top branches of about the same height. The crow seemed to have trouble in adjusting himself among the hundreds of sharp needles that pointed upward, changing his position and settling himself with difficulty, but at length he seemed satisfied with his arrangements, and began his loud caw. In a moment the oriole was after him, and I now guessed the reason of his choice of seat. There were no surrounding twigs which his foe could use as a base for offensive operations, and moreover the bristling needles which surrounded him offered very good protection from the fiery little oriole, who found it impossible to pursue his usual tactics. I was amused to see the wary precautions of the crow, and doubtless he thought he had outwitted the enemy. But he underrated the intelligence of the small bird, for although difficult to reach him, it was not at all impossible. He simply rose above the crow, pounced directly upon him, and instantly rose again, instead of glancing off one side as usual. It was distinctly different, but equally effective, and in a few moments the crow gave up the contest for the time, flying across the orchard, and making a deep swoop down to avoid the plunge of his assailant.
Unfortunately, like some personages of military fame, this bird did not know when he was beaten, and every day or two, through June, hostilities were renewed. On one occasion I was pleased to see a kingbird join the oriole and assist in worrying the common enemy in his passage over the house. Several times, before the little ones became too clamorous, the female oriole accompanied him.
This bird’s song consisted of four notes, and it is curious that although there is a peculiar, rich, flute-like quality by which the oriole notes may be recognized, no two sing alike. Robins, song sparrows, and perhaps all other birds sing differently from each other, so far as I have observed, but none differ so greatly — in my opinion — as orioles. The four that I have been able to study carefully enough to reduce this song to the musical scale, though all having the same compass, arranged the notes differently in every case. The oriole is, of course, not limited in expression to his song. I have spoken of his cry of distress or of war, which was two tones slurred together. The ordinary call, as he goes about a tree, especially a fruit-tree in bloom, seeking insects over and under each leaf or blossom, is a single note, loud and clear. If a pair are on the tree together, it is the same, but much softer.
An oriole that I watched in the Catskill Mountains regularly fed his mate while she was sitting, and as he left the nest after giving her a morsel, he uttered two notes which sounded exactly like " A-dieu,” adding, after a pause, two more which irresistibly said, “ Dear-y.” There was a peculiar mournfulness in this bird’s strain, as if he implied “It’s a sad world; a world of cats and crows and inquisitive people, and we may never meet again.” Perhaps it was prophetic, for disaster did overtake the little family; a high wind rocked the cradle — which also was on a small maple-tree — so violently as to throw out the youngsters before they could fly. The accident was remedied as far as possible by returning them to the nest, but whether they were injured by the fall I never learned.
Scolding is quite ready to an oriole’s tongue, and even squawks like a robin’s are not unknown. The female has similar utterances, but in those I have listened to her song was weaker, lacked the clear-cut perfection of her mate’s, and sounded like the first efforts of a young bird. In the case of those now under consideration, the female reproduced exactly her partner’s notes, only in this inferior style, which seemed rather unusual. The sweetest sound the oriole utters is a very low one, to his mate when near her, or flying away with her, or to his nestlings before they leave the home. It is a tender, yearning call that makes one feel like an intruder, and as if he should beg pardon and retire. It is impossible to describe or reduce to the scale, but it is well worth waiting and listening for.
What I most desired to see, in watching the oriole’s nest, was the introduction of the young into the world, the first steps, the first flight; and on the thirteenth day of the month came the first indication that they were out of the shell. The male bird went to the nest, leaned over, and looked in with great interest, while his mate stood unconcernedly on another twig near. The next day it became evident that her special duties were over, for she spent no more hours setting, and her consort suddenly undertook the housekeeping. She frequently perched on another tree, and dressed her feathers a half-hour at a time; and greatly she needed to, poor soul ! for a more ragged, neglectedlooking bird, I never saw. The feathers were quite off the back of her head, giving her a curious outline, as though a bit of her neck had been chopped out, which peculiarity was of use later, since it enabled me to identify her half a mile from her home. Her manner to her mate at this time said plainly, “ I ’ve done my work, now it ’s your turn,” and he gladly accepted the charge. He was obviously tired of idleness and waiting, and he devoted himself with his whole soul to his babies. Many times a day he ascended the winding stairs and stood on the landing leaning over, head down in the nursery and tail standing straight up in the air, making him look like a black stick from where I sat. For a day or two he took nearly the whole charge, then she began to help, and before many days both were engaged every moment, the hardest working pair imaginable, constantly seeking food and carrying it to the little ones, or putting the crowded house in order. He was as faithful and cheerful a drudge as the mother herself, for which he must have the more credit, since he nearly stood on his head in doing anything about the nest. It required, indeed, the untiring efforts of both parents to keep pace with the growth of the family.
On the twenty - second day of the month, nine days after the sitting was abandoned and I knew the young orioles to be hatched (though of course they may have been out a day or two before), I heard them peep softly when food was brought, and I redoubled my watching to see them appear. On the 27th, when I went on to the veranda about eight o’clock, I heard a new and strange cry in the next lot, a pasture with scattering trees, and I saw both orioles often fly that way. It sounded like birds in distress, and reminded me of cries I once heard from several woodthrushes when disturbed by a cat. I hastened upon the scene, and was met at the entrance by a bluebird in a great rage. I thought she was in trouble, but upon following the cries (in spite of her protests) I came upon a new bird, to me. It somewhat resembled the female oriole, being almost her colors, with head and wings a little darker. This bird received me with scolding, and was very lively in running over the trees, though he did not seem inclined to fly. The calling was now very near, and while I never saw him in the act, I was confident he made at least a part of it; and I still think he did, although I afterwards found those whose natural cry it proved to be. I think it was a last year’s oriole, not yet come to his full plumage. Possibly he was attracted by the cry of the young, as we know birds sometimes are, and it seems not unlikely that he replied to them in their own tones. However that may be, I saw later the young birds — two of them, and found to my surprise that they were orioles and from our nest, for I saw the well-marked mother feed them. Moreover, orioles are not so clannish as robins, nor so often found near each other. I knew of another pair a quarter of a mile off, and once a strange female came upon a tree where our little mother was looking for food. She received the visitor — I regret to say — with a sharp “ fuff ! ” more like a cat than a bird, on which the intruder very properly left.
The baby orioles were dumpy little yellowish things, much like a young chicken in color, and the most persistent cry-babies I ever saw among birds. The young robin generally sits on his branch motionless, seldom opens his mouth for a call, and makes demonstrations only when food is in sight; the baby thrush is patience and silence itself, indeed how otherwise could he be a thrush ? Even the little blackbird, though restless and fussy, does not cry much; but those oriole infants simply bawled (there’s no other word) every instant. The cry was very peculiar, four or five loud notes on an ascending scale, rapidly and constantly repeated, like “ chr-r-r-r.”
I should think the parents of these clamorous creatures would have been driven wild, and they did appear nearly so ; almost every moment one or the other brought food to the two bawlers, who were on different trees twenty feet apart. Each one sat stock still, like a lost child afraid to stir, and gave his whole mind to the noise he was making, and I wondered how they had raised courage to fly so far from home. I felt greatly chagrined that they had flown without my seeing them, but on returning to my usual seat was consoled to find the nest not yet empty. The father gave his almost undivided attention to the two already out, but the mother was very busy at the homestead, and I resolved that no more should fly without my assisting at the operation, at least by my presence; consequently I nearly lived upon the veranda. All through the next day, until nearly eight o’clock, those youngsters could be heard crying, and on the third day the sounds came from further off, and the male oriole was rarely seen.
The 25th passed, and no birds left the nest; on the 26th there was a stir in the maple. Early in the morning a nestling scrambled up on the edge of his cradle and peeped out upon the big world, while both parents hovered about in great excitement. He found it uncongenial, perhaps, for although a brother oriole clambered up beside him, and stood shivering on the brink, he hesitated, turned toward the warm nest, and plunged in head-first, dragging the other with him in his fall. Perhaps it was because the second came up, for I noticed afterwards that two were never out at the same time ; not until one had flown did the next come up, and then he followed at once. Upon the sudden disappearance above, both parents retreated to the apple-tree, and one announced the failure of their hopes to the other with a scolding note, — “ gone back,” it said. But his hour had come, and before long that young bird made another trial: first his fluffy little head appeared ; a struggle, a scramble, and he was safely upon a twig outside. No sooner did he find himself in the air than he began the “chr-r-r-r” of the brothers who had preceded him by two days. The mother came, but she did not feed him, though he was very eager. She alighted upon a twig below him, and he fluttered towards her, when suddenly she flew. Then she returned, passed him, and attended to the one in the nest, and he was disappointed again. For two hours, during which he seldom received a morsel, while both parents coaxed him from the next tree, he stretched his wings, shook them out, plumed himself, and gradually grew accustomed to being out. They called, they flew about, around him, as if to show how easy it was ; they uttered the low yearning cry spoken of; and above all, they nearly starved him. “ Come here, and you shall eat,” their manner said; and at last the youngling fluttered away, in a wavering, uncertain manner. He reached the nearest tree, caught at a twig, missed it, clutched awkwardly, beat the air, and finally managed to secure a hold. Then he at once righted himself, shook himself out, — and began to cry ! He was abundantly fed and coddled by the delighted parents, and soon began to hop around on the tree quite proudly.
Meanwhile number four had scrambled up to the twig from which flew every young oriole that I saw. Even in the cradle, or at least on its edge, these birds displayed character. This one was quite different from his predecessor : he looked about him ; he did not cry so much; and when, after an hour’s preparation, he flew, he soared off in a strong flight, aiming for a tree more than twice as far from home as that his brother had selected for his first attempt. He was a bold, self-reliant, heroic spirit, doubtless his father’s own son, who would fight crows to the end of his days. But, alas, he had miscalculated his strength, and before reaching his goal he came fluttering to the ground. The parents were at hand, but instantly became silent, apparently not knowing how to help him, for this was a serious calamity. It was in an open lane that he had come down, and at any moment a passing boy or dog might discover him; so although I should like to have seen if they could do anything for him, I did not dare risk it. I hurried down, and found him running about in the hot grass, wild-eyed and panting, but silent. The moment I came near both parents found their voices and began scolding : but after a good look at him I drew down a low branch, and put him upon it, when the orioles became quiet, and I left them. He was yellowishdrab on the breast and ash-colored on the wings, with distinct oriole markings, short wings, and no tail; smaller in proportion to the parents than a young robin, I think.
Quiet descended once more upon the “ cradle in the tree-top,” though I saw, to my surprise, that it still was not empty ; four birds of that size I should think enough, and more than enough, to fill it. The father assumed the care of the two just out, and the mother alone remained about the home. The next day passed without departures; but on the morning of the 28th, number five came up to the edge. This bird had begun his loud calls before he appeared, the day before in fact, and when he finally reached the outside world, he flew very soon, about eight o’clock in the morning. He, too, started for the distant tree that had attracted number four, and the anxious mother, remembering, no doubt, the late accident, flew close by him, cheering and encouraging all the time as she went. It was beautiful to see her, sometimes over, sometimes under him, but never a foot away, and constantly calling most sweetly. He reached the tree in safety.
Now came in sight number six, as it proved, the last of the family. Unfortunately it was not a fair morning, and soon it began to rain. He crowded nearer to the tree stem and sat in silence. It was a cool reception from the world; I feared it would be too much for him. The mother came anxiously, and now I saw him fed. The parent had, so far as I could see, nothing in her mouth, but she put her beak to his, then drew it away, and returned it again, four or five times in succession, to his evident satisfaction. Most of the time the youngster was alone on the tree, facing the wet, wet world by himself,— occasionally calling a little. It was so discouraging, that I kept constant watch, hoping he would wait for better weather, and fearing his wet wings would not carry him even to the next tree.
At about two o’clock it cleared, and after much pruning and dressing of feathers, number six flew successfully, reaching a still different tree. No two of them alighted on the same tree, and no two acted, or looked, or flew alike. Also, I noticed the six had left the nest in pairs, with forty-eight hours between each pair.
All the next day I heard baby cries in the adjoining lot, as well as in the woods beyond; but on the third day no sounds were to be heard, no birds were seen, and the nest in the maple was as completely deserted as if no orioles had ever lived in the orchard. When the little ones can fly, the birds are at home anywhere; any twig is a perch, any field or wood a gleaning ground, and any branch a bed.
Olive Thorne Miller.