Confessions of a Bird's-Nest Hunter

LET it be said at the outset that the seeker after bird’s-nests is never without plenty of company, of one sort and another. For instance, I was out early one cloudy morning last spring, when I caught sight of a black and white animal nosing his way through the bushes, not many rods distant. Evidently he had come forth on the same errand as myself ; but though he was an extremely pretty creature, I felt no great degree of pride in our community of interest. I did not offer to exchange the compli-

ments of the morning with him, nor, indeed, make any overtures whatever toward a more intimate acquaintance. I knew him by name and reputation, — Mephitis mephitica the scientific folk call him, with felicitous reverberative emphasis, — and that sufficed. It was not pleasant to think of him as in any sense a rival ; yet such he undoubtedly was, and I very much feared that he would anticipate me in finding a certain veery’s nest, which I had been looking for in vain, but which I believed to be not far from either of us. At another time, a few weeks later than this, I overheard an unusual commotion among the birds in our apple orchard. “ Some rascally cat! ” I thought; and, picking up a stone, I hastened to put a stop to his depredations. But there was no cat in sight; and it was not till I stood immediately under him that I discovered the marauder to be a snake, which was just then slowly making toward the ground, with a young bird in his jaws. Watching my opportunity, while he was engaged in the delicate operation of lowering himself from one branch to another, I shook the trunk vigorously, and down he tumbled at my feet. Once and again I set my heel upon him ; but the tall grass was in his favor, and he succeeded in getting off, leaving his dead victim behind him.1

it is noble society in which we find ourselves, is it not ? In the front rank are what we may call the professional oölogists,—such as follow the business for a livelihood: snakes, skunks, weasels, squirrels, cats, crows, jays, cuckoos, and the like. Then come the not inconsiderable number of persons who, for a more or less strictly scientific purpose, take here and there a nest with its contents ; while these are followed by hordes of schoolboys, whom the prevalent mania for “collecting” drives to scrape together miscellaneous lots of eggs, — half-named, misnamed, and nameless, — to put with previous accumulations of postage-stamps, autographs, business cards, and other like precious rubbish.

Alas, the poor birds ! These “ perils of robbers ” and “ perils among false brethren ” are bad enough, but they have many others to encounter ; “ journeyings often ” and “ perils of waters ” being among the worst. Gentle and innocent as they seem, it speaks well for their cunning and endurance that they escape utter extermination.

This phase of the subject is especially forced upon the attention of observers like myself, who search for nests, not mischievously, nor even with the laudable design of the scientific investigator, but solely as a means of promoting friendly acquaintance. We may not often witness the catastrophe itself ; but as we go our daily rounds, now peeping under the bank or into the bush, and now climbing the tree, to see how some timid friend of ours is faring, we are only too certain to come upon first one home and then another which has been rifled and deserted since our last visit; till we begin to wonder why the defenseless and persecuted creatures do not turn pessimists outright, and relinquish forever their attempt to “ be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.”

Thinking of these things anew, now that I am reviewing my last spring’s experiences, it is doubly gratifying to recall that I robbed only one nest during the entire season, and that not of malice, but by accident. It happened on this wise. A couple of solitary vireos had taken up their abode on a wooded hillside, where they, or others like them, had passed the previous summer, and one day I proposed to a friend that we make it our business to search out the nest. It proved to be not very difficult of discovery, though, when we put our eyes upon it, it appeared that we had walked directly by it several times, all in sight as it was, suspended from near the end of an oak-tree branch, perhaps nine feet from the ground. It contained five eggs, including one of the cow-bird ; but just as my companion was about to let go the branch, which he had been holding down for my convenience, the end snapped, up went the nest, and out jumped four of the eggs. We were sorry, of course, but consoled ourselves with the destruction of the parasite, which otherwise would very likely have been the death of the vireos’ own offspring. Meanwhile, the birds themselves took matters coolly. One of them fell to singing as soon as we withdrew, while the other flew to the nest, looked in, and without a word resumed her seat. After all, the accident might turn out to be nothing worse than a blessing in disguise, we said to each other. But before many days it became evident that the pair had given up the nest, and I carried it to a friend whom I knew to be in want of such a specimen for his cabinet.

It is worth noticing how widely birds of the same species differ among themselves in their behavior under trial. Their minds are no more run in one mould than human minds are. In their case, as in ours, innumerable causes have worked together to produce the unique individual result. Much is due to inheritance, no doubt, but much likewise to accident. One mother has never had her nest invaded, and is therefore careless of our presence. Another has so frequently been robbed of her all that she has grown hardened to disaster, and she also makes no very great ado when we intrude upon her. A third is still in a middle state, — alive to the danger, but not yet able to face it philosophically, — and she will become hysterical at the first symptom of trouble.

At the very time of the mishap just described I was keeping watch over the household arrangements of another and much less stoical pair of solitary vireos. These, as soon as I discovered their secret (which was not till after several attempts), became extremely jealous of

my proximity, no matter how indirect and innocent my approaches. Even when I seated myself at what I deemed a very respectful distance the sitting bird would at once quit her place, and begin to complain in her own delightfully characteristic manner,—chattering, scolding, and warbling by turns, — refusing to be pacified in the least until I took myself off. Once I remained for some time close under the nest, on purpose to see how many of the neighbors would be attracted to the spot. With the exception of the wood wagtails, I should say that nearly all the small birds in the immediate vicinity must have turned out : black-and-white creepers, redstarts, chestnut-sided warblers, black-throated greens, a blue golden-wing, red-eyed vireos, and a third solitary vireo. If they were moved with pity for the pair whose lamentations had drawn them together, they did not manifest it, as far as I could see. Perhaps they found small occasion for so loud a disturbance. Possibly, moreover, as spectators who had honored me with their presence (and that in the very midst of their busy season), they felt themselves cheated, and, so to speak, outraged, by my failure to finish the tragedy artistically, by shooting the parent birds and pulling down the nest. Creatures who can neither read novels nor attend upon dramatic performances may be presumed to suffer at times for lack of a pleasurable excitement of the sensibilities. At all events, these visitors contented themselves with staring at me for a few minutes, and then one by one turned away, as if it were not much of a show after all. To the interested couple, however, it was a matter of life and death. The female especially (or the sitter, for the sexes are indistinguishable) hopped close about my head, sometimes uttering a strangely sweet, pleading note, which might have melted a heart much harder than mine. Her associate kept at a more cautious remove, but made amends by continuing to scold after the danger was all over. By the bye, I noticed that in the midst of the commotion, as soon as the first agony was past, the one who had been sitting was not so entirely overcome as not to be able to relish an occasional insect, which she snatched here and there between her vituperative exclamations. Faithful and hungry little mother ! her heart was not broken, let us hope, when within a week or so some miscreant, to me unknown, ravaged her house and left it desolate.

Not many rods from the vireos’ cedartree was a brown thrasher’s nest in a barberry bush. It had an exceedingly dilapidated, year-old appearance, and I went by it several times without thinking it worth looking at, till I accidentally observed the bird upon it. She did not budge till I was within a few feet of her, when she tumbled to the ground, and limped away with loud cries. Perceiving that this worn-out ruse did not avail, she turned upon me, and actually seemed about to make an attack. How she did rave! I thought that I had

never seen a bird so beside herself with anger.

Shortly after my encounter with this irate thrush I nearly stepped upon one of her sisters, brooding upon a ground nest; and it illustrates what has been said about variety of temperament that the second bird received me in a very quiet, self-contained manner; giving me to understand, to be sure, that my visit was ill-timed and unwelcome, but not acting at all as if I were some ogre, the very sight of which must perforce drive a body crazy.

In the course of the season I found three nests of the rose-breasted grosbeak. The first, to my surprise, was in the topmost branches of a tall sweet-birch, perhaps forty feet above the ground. I noticed the female flying into the grove with a load of building materials, and a little later (as soon as my engagement with an interesting company of

gray-cheeked thrushes would permit) I followed, and almost at once saw the pair at their work. And a very pretty exhibition it was, — so pretty that I returned the next morning to see more of it. It must be admitted that the labor seemed rather unequally divided. The female not only fetched all the sticks, but took upon herself the entire business of construction, her partner’s contribution to the enterprise being limited strictly to the performance of escort duty. When she had fitted the new twigs into their place to her satisfaction (which often took considerable time) she uttered a signal, and the pair flew out of the wood together, talking sweetly as they went. The male was aware of my presence from the beginning, I think, but he appeared to regard it as of no consequence. Probably he believed the nest well out of my reach, as in fact it was. He usually sang a few snatches while waiting for his wife, and, as he sat within a few feet of her and made no attempt at concealment, it could hardly be supposed that he refrained from offering to assist her for fear his brighter colors should betray their secret. Some different motive from this must be assigned for his seeming want of gallantry. To all appearance, however, the parties themselves took the whole proceeding as a simple matter of course. They were but minding the most approved grosbeak precedents; and after all, who is so likely to be in the right as he who follows the fashion ? Shall one bird presume to be wiser than all the millions of his race? Nay; as the Preacher long ago said, “ The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.” Nothing could have been more complacent and affectionate than the lady’s voice and demeanor as often as she gave the finishing touches to a twig, and called to her companion, “ Come, now, let’s go for another.” Naturally, the female is the one most concerned about the stability and comfortable shape of the nest, and possibly she does not count it prudent to entrust her spouse with any share in so delicate and important an undertaking; but, if so, she must know him for an arrant bungler, since the structure which she herself puts together is a most shabby-looking affair, scarcely better than the cuckoo’s.

Such happiness as that of these married lovers was perhaps too perfect to last. At any rate, it was only a week before their idyl all at once turned to tragedy. A sharp click, click attracted my attention, as I passed under their birch (on my way to call upon a pair of chickadees, who were keeping house in a low stump close by), and, glancing up, I saw the bushy tail of a red squirrel hanging over the edge of the nest. The male grosbeak was dashing wildly about the invader, while a wood thrush, a towhee bunting (who looked strange at such a height), a red-eyed vireo, and a blue golden-winged warbler were surveying the scene from the adjacent branches, — though the thrush withdrew in the midst of the tumult, and fell to singing (as one may see happy young couples going merrily homeward after witnessing the murder of Duncan or Desdemona). Meanwhile, the squirrel, having finished his work, descended leisurely toward the ground, snickering and chuckling, as if he felt immensely pleased with his achievement. Probably his emotions did not differ essentially from those of a human sportsman, but it was lucky for him, nevertheless, that I had no means of putting an end to his mirth. I could have blown his head off without compunction. When he had gone, and the visiting birds with him, the grosbeak returned to his nest, and in the most piteous manner hovered about the spot, — getting into the nest and out again, — as if completely dazed by the sudden disaster. Throughout the excitement the female did not show herself, and I wondered whether she could have submitted to be killed rather than desert her charge. To the honor of her kind be it said that the supposition is far from incredible. My second nest of this species was within twenty rods of the first, and was in use at the same time ; but it met with no better fate, though I was not present to see it robbed. The third was more prosperous, and, unless something befell the young at the last moment, they were safely launched upon the wing. This nest was situated in a clump of witch-hazel bushes, at a height of eight or nine feet. I remarked a grosbeak singing near the spot, and, seeing him very unwilling to move away, concluded that his home could not be far off. It was soon found, — a slight, shapeless, frail-looking bundle of sticks, with the female upon it. I took hold of the main stem, just below her, and drew her towards me ; but she would not rise, although I could see her moving uneasily. I had no heart to annoy her ; so I called her a good, brave bird, and left her in peace. Her mate, while this was going on, continued to sing only a few rods away. To judge from his behavior, I might have been some honored guest, to be welcomed with music. The simple-hearted — not to say simpleminded — fearlessness of this bird is really astonishing; especially in view of the fact that his showy plumage makes him a favorite mark for every amateur taxidermist. He will even warble while brooding upon the eggs, a delicious piece of absurdity, which I hope sooner or later to witness for myself.

While watching my first couple of grosbeaks I suddenly became aware of a wood thrush passing back and forth between the edge of a brook and a certain oak, against the bole of which she was making ready her summer residence. She seemed to be quite unattended ; but just as I was beginning to contrast her case with that of the feminine grosbeak overhead, her mate broke into song from a low branch directly behind me. She had all the while known where he was, I dare say, and would have been greatly amused at my commiseration of her loneliness. The next morning she was compelled to make longer flights for such stuff as she needed ; and now it was pleasant to observe that her lord did not fail to accompany her to and fro, and to sing to her while she worked.

The wood thrush has the name of a recluse, and, as compared with the omnipresent robin, he may deserve the title ; but he is seldom very difficult of approach, if one only knows how to go about it, while his nest is peculiarly easy of detection. I remember one which was close by an unfenced road, just outside the city of Washington; and two or three years ago I found another in a barberry bush, not more than fifteen feet from a horse-car track, and so near the fence as to be almost within arm’s-length of passers-by. This latter was in full view from the street, and withal was so feebly supported that some kindhearted neighbor had taken pains to tie up the bush (which stood by itself) with a piece of dangerously new-looking rope. And even as I write I recall still a third, which also was close by the roadside, though at the very exceptional elevation of twenty-five or thirty feet.

It is one of the capital advantages of the ornithologist’s condition that he is rarely called upon to spend his time and strength for naught. If he fails of the particular object of his search, he is all but sure to be rewarded with something else. For example, while I was unsuccessfully playing the spy upon a pair of my solitary vireos, a female tanager suddenly dropped into her half-built nest in a low pine-branch, at the same time calling softly to her mate, who at once came to sit beside her. Unfortunately, one of the pair very soon caught sight of me, and they made off in haste. I lingered about, till finally the lady appeared again, with her beak full of sticks, standing out at all points of the compass. She was so jealous of my espionage, however, that it looked as if she would never be rid of her load. No sooner did she alight in the tree than she began to crane her neck, staring this way and that, and chipping nervously ; then she shifted her perch ; then out of the tree she went altogether ; then back again ; then off once more ; then back within a yard of the nest; then away again, till at last my patience gave out, and I left her mistress of the field. All this while the male was in sight, flitting restlessly from tree to tree at a safe distance. I have never witnessed a prettier display of connubial felicity than this pair afforded me during the minute or two which elapsed between my discovery of them and their discovery of me. I felt almost guilty for intruding upon such a scene ; but, if they could only have believed it, I intended no harm, nor have I now any thought of profaning their innocent mysteries by attempting to describe what I saw.

The male tanager, with his glory of jet black and flaming scarlet, is in curious contrast with his mate, with whose personal appearance, nevertheless, he seems to be abundantly satisfied. Possibly he looks upon a dirty greenish-yellow as the loveliest of tints, and regards his own dress as nothing better than commonplace, in comparison. Like the rose-breasted grosbeak and the wood thrush, however, he is brought up with the notion that it belongs to the female to be the carpenter of the family ; a belief in which, happily for his domestic peace, the female herself fully concurs.

As a general thing, handsomely dressed people live in handsome houses (emphasis should perhaps be laid upon the word dressed), and it would seem natural that a like congruity should hold in the case of birds. But, if such be the rule, there are at least some glaring exceptions. I have alluded to the rude structure of the rose-breast, and might have used nearly the same language concerning the tanager’s, which latter is often fabricated so loosely that one can see the sky through it. Yet these two are among the most gorgeously attired of all our birds. On the other hand, while the wood pewee is one of the very plainest, there are few, if any, that excel her as an architect. During the season under review I had the good fortune to light upon my first nest of this fly-catcher; and, as is apt to be true, having found one, I immediately and without effort found two others. The first two were in oaks, the third in a hornbeam; and all were set upon the upper side of a horizontal bough (“ saddled ” upon it, as the manuals say), at the junction of an offshoot with the main branch. Two of them were but partially done when discovered, and I was glad to see one pair of the birds in something very like a frolic, such a state as would hardly be predicted of these peculiarly sober-seeming creatures. The builder of the second nest was remarkably confiding, and proceeded with her labors, quite undisturbed by my proximity and undisguised interest. It was to be remarked that she had trimmed the outside of her nest with lichens before finishing the interior; and I especially admired the very clever manner in which she hovered against the dead pine-trunk, from which she was gathering strips of bark. Concerning her unsuspiciousness, however, it should be said that the word applies only to her treatment of myself. When a thrasher had the impertinence to alight in her oak she ordered him off in high dudgeon, dashing back and forth above him, and snapping spitefully as she passed. She knew her rights, and, knowing, dared maintain. When a bird builds her nest in any part of a tree she claims every twig of it as her own. I have even seen the gentle-hearted chickadee resent the intrusion of a chipping sparrow, though it appeared impossible that the latter could be suspected of any predatory or sinister design.

The shallowness of the wood pewee’s saucer-shaped nest, its position upon the branch, and especially its external dress of lichens, all conspire to render it inconspicuous. It is an interesting question whether the owner herself appreciates all this, or has merely inherited the fashion, without thought of the reasons for it. The latter supposition, I confess, looks to me the more probable. It must often be true of other animals, as it is of men, that they build better than they know. Their wisdom is not their own, but belongs to a power back of them, — a power which works, if you will, in accordance with what we designate as the law of natural selection, and which, so to speak, enlightens the race rather than the individual.

After all, it is the ground birds that puzzle the human oölogist. Crossing a brook, I saw what I regarded as almost infallible signs that a pair of Maryland yellow-throats had begun to build beside it. Unless I was entirely at fault, the nest must be within a certain two or three square yards, and I devoted half an hour, more or less, to ransacking the grass and bushes, till I thought every inch of the ground had been gone over ; but all to no purpose. Continuing my walk, I noticed after a while that the male warbler was accompanying me up the hillside, apparently determined to see me safely out of the way. Coming to the same brook again the next morning, I halted for another search ; and lo ! all in a moment my eye fell upon the coveted nest, not on the ground, but perhaps eight inches from it, in a little clump of young golden-rods, which would soon overgrow it completely. The female proprietor was present, and manifested so much concern that I would not tarry, but made rather as if I had seen nothing, and passed on. It was some time before I observed that she was keeping along beside me, precisely as her mate had done the day before. The innocent creatures, sorely pestered as they were, could hardly be blamed for such precautions; yet it is not pleasant to be “shadowed” as a suspicious character, even by Maryland yellowthroats.

This was my first nest of a very common warbler, and I felt particularly solicitous for its safety ; but alas ! no sooner was the first egg laid than something or somebody carried it off, and the afflicted couple deserted the house on which they had expended so much labor and anxiety.

Not far beyond the yellow-throats’ brook, and almost directly under one of the pewees’ oaks, was a nest which pretty certainly had belonged to a pair of chewinks, but which was already forsaken when I found it, though I had then no inkling of the fact. It contained four eggs, and everything was in perfect order. The mother had gone away, and had never come back ; having fallen a victim, probably, to some collector, human or inhuman. The tragedy was peculiar ; and the tragical effect of it was heightened as day after day, for nearly a fortnight at least (I cannot say for how much longer), the beautiful eggs lay there entirely uncovered, and yet no skunk, squirrel, or other devourer of such dainties happened to spy them. It seemed doubly sad that so many precious nests should be robbed, while this set of worthless eggs was left to spoil.

I have already mentioned the housekeeping of a couple of chickadees in a low birch stump. Theirs was one of three titmouse nests just then claiming my attention. I visited it frequently, from the time when the pair were hard at work making the cavity up to the time when the brood were nearly ready to shift for themselves. Both birds took their share of the digging, and on several occasions I saw one feeding the other. After the eggs were deposited, the mother (or the sitter) displayed admirable courage, refusing again and again to quit her post when I peered in upon her, and even when with my cane I rapped smartly upon the stump. If I put my fingers into the hole, however, she followed them out in hot haste. Even when most seriously disturbed by my attentions the pair made use of no other notes than the common chickadee, dee, but these they sometimes delivered in an unnaturally sharp, fault-finding tone.

My two other titmouse nests were both in apple-trees, and one of them was in my own door-yard, though beyond convenient reach without the help of a ladder. The owners of this last were interesting for a very decided change in their behavior after the young were hatched, and especially as the time for the little ones’ exodus drew near. At first, notwithstanding their door opened right upon the street, as it were, within a rod or two of passing horsecars, the father and mother went in and out without the least apparent concern as to who might be watching them; but when they came to be feeding their hungry offspring, it was almost laughable to witness the little craftinesses to which they resorted. They would perch on one of the outer branches, call chickadee, dee, fly a little nearer, then likely enough go further off, till finally, after a variety of such “ false motions,” into the hole they would duck, as if nobody for the world must be allowed to know where they had gone. It was really wonderful how expert they grew at entering quickly. I pondered a good deal over their continual calling on such occasions. It seemed foolish and inconsistent; half the time I should have failed to notice their approach, had they only kept still. Toward the end, however, when the chicks inside the trunk could be heard articulating chickadee, dee with perfect distinctness, it occurred to me that possibly all this persistent repetition of the phrase by the old birds had been only or mainly in the way of tuition. At all events, the youngsters had this part of the chickadese vocabulary right at their tongues’ end, as we say, before making their début in the great world.

But it was reserved for my third pair of tits to give me a genuine surprise. I had been so constant a visitor at their house that I had come to feel myself quite on terms of intimacy with them. So, after their brood was hatched, I one day climbed into the tree (as I had done more than once before), the better to overlook their parental labors. I had hardly placed myself in a comfortable seat before the couple returned from one of their foraging expeditions. The male — or the one that I took for such — had a black morsel of some kind in his bill, which, on reaching the tree, he passed over to his mate, who forthwith carried it into the hollow stub, in the depths of which the hungry little ones were. Then the male flew off again, and presently came back with another beakful, which his helpmeet took from him at the door, where she had been awaiting his arrival. After this performance had been repeated two or three times, curiosity led me to stand up against the stub, with my hand resting upon it; at which the female (who was just inside the mouth of the cavity) slipped out, and set up an anxious chickadee, dee, dee. When her mate appeared, — which he did almost immediately, — he flew into what looked like a downright paroxysm of rage, not against me, but against the mother bird, shaking his wings and scolding violently. I relieved the situation of its embarrassment by dropping to the ground, and within a few minutes the pair again approached the stub in company ; but when the female made a motion to take the food from her husband’s bill, as before, he pounced upon her spitefully, drove her away, and dived into the hole himself. Apparently he had not yet forgiven what he accounted her pusillanimous desertion of her charge. All in all, the scene was a revelation to me, a chickadee family quarrel being something the like of which I had never dreamed of. Perhaps no titmouse ever before bad so timorous a wife. But however that might be, I sincerely hoped that they would not be long in making up their difference. I had enjoyed the sight of their loving intercourse so many weeks that I should have been sorry indeed to believe that it could end in strife. Nor could I regard it as so unpardonable a weakness for a bird to move off, even from her young, when a man put his fingers within a few inches of her. Possibly she ought to have known that I meant no mischief. Possibly, too, her doughty lord would have behaved more coramendably in the same circumstances ; but of that I am by no means certain. To borrow a theological term, my conception of bird nature is decidedly anthropomorphic, and I incline to believe that chickadees as well as men find it easier to blame others than to do better themselves.

Here these reminiscences must come to an end, though the greater part of my season’s experiences are still untouched. First, however, let me relieve my conscience by putting on record the bravery of a black-billed cuckoo, whom I was obliged fairly to drive from her post of duty. Her nest was a sorry enough spectacle, — a flat, unwalled platform, carpeted with willow catkins and littered with egg-shells, in the midst of which latter lay a single callow nestling, nearly as black as a crow. But as I looked at the parent bird, while she sat within ten feet of me, eying my every movement intently, and uttering her wrath in various cries (some cat-like mewings among them), my heart reproached me that I had ever written of the cuckoo as a coward and a sneak. Truth will not allow me to take the words back entirely, even now; but I felt at that moment, and do still, that I might have been better employed mending my own faults than in holding up to scorn the foibles of a creature who, when worst came to worst, could set me such a shining example of courageous fidelity. It is always in order to be charitable ; and I ought to have remembered that, for those who are themselves subject to imperfection, generosity is the best kind of justice.

Bradford Torrey.

  1. The birds at once became quiet, and I went back complacently to my book under the linden-tree. Who knows, however, whether there may not have been another side to the story ? Who shall say what were the emotions of the snake, as he wriggled painfully homeward after such an unprovoked and dastardly assault ? Myself no vegetarian, by what right had I belabored him for liking the taste of chicken ? It were well, perhaps, not to pry too curiously into questions of this kind. Most likely it would not flatter our human self-esteem to know what some of our “poor relations” think of us.