The Mocking-Bird's Nest
That o er the general leafage boldly grew,”
as literally as though Lanier had sketched that particular bird, stood the first free mocking-bird I ever heard. His perch was the topmost twig of the tallest tree in the group. It was a cedar, perhaps fifteen feet high, around which a jasmine vine had clambered, and that morning opened a cluster of fragrant blossoms at his feet, as though an offering to the most noted singer on our side of the globe. As I drew near he turned his clear, bright eye upon me, and sang a welcome to North Carolina; and several hours later, when the moon rose high over the waters of the Sound, he completed his perfect performance with a serenade, the like of which I fear I may never hear again. I chose to consider his attentions personal, because, of all the household, I am sure I was the only one who listened, and I had passed over many miles of rolling and tossing ocean to make his acquaintance.
Nothing would have been easier, or more delightful, than to pitch one’s tent in a certain pine grove not far away, and pass days and weeks in forgetting the world of cares, and reading favorite books, lulled at all hours of day and night by the softened roar of the ocean, and the wonderful bird
Consummate sweet and calm.”
But it was not merely as singer that I wished to know him; nor to watch his dainty and graceful ways as he went about the daily duties of food-hunting, singing, and driving off marauders, which occupied his hours from dawn to late evening, and left him spirit enough for many a midnight rhapsody. It was in his domestic relations that I desired to see him, — the wooing of the bride and building the nest, the training of mocking-bird babies and starting them in the world; and no loitering and dreaming in the pine grove, however tempting, would tell me this. I must follow him to his more secluded retreats, see where he had set up his homestead.
Thoreau — or is it Emerson ? — says one always finds what he looks for, and of course I found my nests. One pair of birds I noticed through the courtship, the selection of the site, the building and occupying of the nest; another couple, already sitting when discovered, I watched through the incubation and nursing of the little ones, and at last assisted in giving them a fair chance for their lives and a start in the world. It may be thought that my assistance was not particularly valuable ; the birds shared this opinion; none the less, but for my presence not one of those birdlings would be free and happy to-day, as I hope and believe they are. To the study of these two households I gave nearly every hour of daylight, in all weathers, for a month, and of the life that went on in and around them I can speak from personal knowledge; beyond that, and at other times in his life, I do not profess to know the mocking-bird.
The bird whose nest-making I witnessed was the one whose performance I chose to consider a welcome, and his home was in the pine grove, a group of about twenty trees, left from the original forest, possibly ; at any rate, nearly a hundred feet high, with all branches near the top, as though they had grown in close woods. They were quite scattering now, and lower trees and shrubs flourished in their shade, making a charming spot, and a home worthy even of this superb songster. The bird himself was remarkably friendly. Seeming to appreciate my attitude of admiring listener, he often perched on the peak of a low roof (separated only by a carriage drive from the upper “ gallery ” where I sat), and sang for hours at a time, with occasional lunches; or, as Lanier, his most ardent lover, has it, —
The sward, twitched in a grasshopper, made song
Midflight, perched, prinked, and to his art again.”
Whatever he did, his eyes were upon me; he came to the corner nearest me to sing, and was so intelligent in look and bearing that I believe he liked a quiet listener.
His wooing, however, the bird did not intend me to see, though two or three times I surprised him at it. The first part that I chanced upon was curious and amusing. A female, probably the “ beloved object,” stood demurely on one of the dead top branches of a large tree down in the garden, while her admirer performed fantastic evolutions in the air about her. No fly-catcher ever made half the eccentric movements this aerial acrobat indulged in. He flew straight up very high, executing various extraordinary turns and gyrations, so rapidly they could not be followed and described, and came back singing ; in a moment he departed in another direction, and repeated the grotesque performance. He was plainly exerting himself to be agreeable and entertaining, in mocking-bird style, and I noticed that every time he returned from an excursion he perched a little nearer his audience of one, until, after some time, he stood upon the same twig, a few inches from her. They were facing and apparently trying to stare each other out of countenance ; and as I waited, breathless, to see what would happen next, the damsel coquettishly flitted to another branch. Then the whole scene was repeated : the most singular and graceful evolutions, the songs, and the gradual approach. Sometimes, after alighting on a top twig, he dropped down through the branches, singing, in a way to suggest the “ dropping song ” so graphically described by Maurice Thompson, but never really falling, and never touching the ground. Each performance ended in his reaching the twig which she occupied and her flight to another, until at last, by some apparently mutual agreement, both flew, and I saw no more.
A remarkable “ dance ” which I also saw, with the same bird as principal actor, seems to me another phase of the wooing, though I must say it resembled a war-dance as well; but love is so like war among the lower orders, even of men, that it is hard to distinguish between them. I shall not try to decide, only to relate, and, I beg to say, without the smallest exaggeration. The dances I saw were strictly pas-de-deux, and they always began by a flash of wings and two birds alighting on the grass, about a foot apart. Both instantly drew themselves up perfectly erect, tail elevated at an angle of forty-five degrees, and wings held straight down at the sides. Then followed a most droll dance. Number one stood like a statue, while number two pranced around, with short, mincing steps and dainty little hops which did not advance him an inch ; first he passed down the right, then turned and went down the left, all in the queer, unnatural manner of short hops and steps, and holding himself rigidly erect, while number one always faced the dancer, whichever way he turned. After a few moments of this movement, number one decided to participate, and when his partner moved to the right he did the same; to the left he still accompanied him, always facing, and maintaining the exact distance from him. Then number two described a circle around number one, who turned to face him with short hops where he stood. Next followed a chassé of both birds to the right; then a separation, one dancing to the right and the other to the left, always facing, and always slowly and with dignity. This stately minuet they kept up for some time, and appeared so much like a pair of old - fashioned human dancers that when, on one occasion, number two varied the performance by a spring over the head of his partner, I was startled, as if an old gentleman had suddenly hopped over the head of the grand dame his vis-à-vis. When this strange new figure was introduced, number one proved equal to the emergency, hopping backward, and turning so dextrously that when his partner alighted they were facing, and about a foot apart, as before. The object of all this was very uncertain to a looker-on. It might be the approaches of love, and quite as probably the wary beginnings of war, and the next feature of the programme was not explanatory : they rose together in the air ten feet or more, face to face, fluttering and snatching at each other, apparently trying to clinch ; succeeding in doing so, they fell to the ground, separated just before they touched it, and flew away. O wings ! most maddening to a bird-student.
It was not very long after these performances, which seem to me to belong to the courtship period, when I noticed that my bird had won his bride and they were busy house-hunting. The place they apparently preferred, and at last fixed upon, was at a very unusual height for mocking-birds, near the top of one of the tall pines, and I was no less surprised than pleased to see them lay the foundation of their home in that spot. I congratulated myself that at least one brood in North Carolina would have a chance to come to maturity and be free; and so persistent is the warfare waged against this bird — unfortunately marketable at any stage from the egg — that I almost doubt if another will. The day after they began building a northwest storm set in, and for three days we had high winds and cold weather. In spite of this, the brave birds persevered, and finished their nest during those three days, although much of the time they made infrequent trips. It was really most touching to watch them at their unnatural task, and remember that nothing but the cruelty of man forced them to it (one nest had been destroyed). Their difficulty was to get up against the wind, and, havinglittle experience in flying upward, they made the natural mistake of starting from the foot of their chosen tree. Sometimes, at first, they flew with the body almost perpendicular; and afterwards, when they held the body in proper position, they wished to go so directly up that they turned the head back over the shoulder to see where they were going. The wind, too, beat them far out of their course, and they were obliged to alight and rest, occasionally being forced to cling to the trunk of a tree to recover breath and strength to go on. They never attempted to make the whole ascent at once, but always stopped four or five times, perching on the ends of fallen branches, of which there were eight or ten below the living part of the pine. Even when no wind disturbed them, they made these pauses on the way, and it was always a hard task to reach the top. They learned, after a few days, however, to begin their ascent at a distance, and not approach the tree till at least half as high as they wished to go, which simplified the matter very much. It was beautiful to see them, upon reaching the lowest of the living branches, bound gayly up, as though over a winding stair, to the particular spot they had fixed upon.
During the building I missed the daily music of the singer. Occasionally he alighted on the roof, looked over at me, and bubbled out a few notes, as much as to say, " You must excuse me now; I am very busy ; ” but all the time I hoped that while sitting was going on I should have him back. I reckoned ignorantly ;
I did not know my bird. No sooner was he the possessor of a house and family than he suddenly became very wary. No more solos on the roof ; no more confidential remarks ; no more familiarities of any sort. Now he must beware of human beings, and even when on the grass he held himself very erect, wings straight down, every instant on guard. His happiness demanded expression in song, certainly, but instead of confining himself to the roof he circled the lawn, which was between two and three hundred feet wide. If he began in a group of cedars on the right, he sang awhile there, then flew to the fence next the road without pausing in the music, and in a few minutes passed to the group of pines at the left, perched on a dead branch, and finished his song there. It was most tantalizing, though I could but admit it a proof of intelligence.
Another change appeared in the bird with the advent of family cares : he was more belligerent; he drove the bluebird off the lawn, he worried the tufted titmouse when it chanced to alight on his tree, and in the most offensive way claimed ownership of pine-trees, lawn, and all the fence bordering the same. Neighboring mocking-birds disputed his claim, and many a furious chase took place among the trees. (So universal is their habit of insisting upon exclusive right to certain grounds that two mocking-birds are never found nesting very near each other, in that part of the country. This I was assured, and found it true of those I observed.) These little episodes in his life kept the pine-tree bird from dullness, while his mate was engaged in the top of the tall pine, where, by the way, he went now and then to see how she was getting on. Sometimes his spouse received him amiably, but occasionally. I regret to say, I heard a “ huff" from the nest that said plainly, “ Don’t you touch those eggs ! ” And what was amusing, he acknowledged her right to dictate in the matter, and meekly took his departure. Whenever she came down for a lunch, he saw her instantly, and was ready for a frolic. He dropped to the grass near her, and they usually indulged in a lively romp, chasing each other over and through the trees, across the yard, around the garden, and back to the lawn, where she went on with her eating, and he resumed his singing.
While I was watching the pine-tree household, the other nest, in the top of a low, flat-topped cedar, perhaps twentyfive feet high, and profusely fringed with Spanish moss, became of even more interest. I could not see into the nest, for there was no building high enough to overlook it, but I could see the bird when he stood upon the edge. Sitting, in a warm climate, is not particularly close work. Although the weather was cool, yet when the sun was out the sitter left her nest from six to eight minutes at a time, and as often as once in twenty minutes. Of course in rain she had not so much liberty, and on some days left only when her mate was ready to take her place, which he frequently did.
On the ninth day of my watching (I had not seen the beginning of the sitting), the 3d of May, I found work was over and the youngsters were out. There was much excitement in the cedartree, but in a quiet way; in fact, the birds became so silent and so wary in approaching the nest that it required the closest watching to see them go or come, and only occasionally could I detect any food in the beak. I discovered very soon that mocking-bird babies are brought up on hygienic principles, and have their meals with great regularity. For some time both parents were exceedingly busy, going and coming almost constantly ; then there came a rest of a half hour or more, during which no food was brought. Each bird had its own way of coming to the tree. Madam came over the roof of the cottage where I sat, and was exposed to view for only a few feet, over which she passed so quickly and silently that I had to be constantly on the alert to see her at all. The singer had another way, and by rising behind a hickory-tree beyond the cedar managed to keep a screen of branches between him and myself nearly every foot of the way. I could see them both almost every time, but I could not always tell whether they carried food. Now the bluebird, honest soul, always stops in plain sight to rest, with his mouth full of dainties for his young brood, and a robin will stand staring at one for two minutes with three or four. wriggling worms in his beak. It is quite a different affair in the mockingbird family, as is certainly natural, after the persecution it has endured. No special fear of me was the cause, — it is a marked peculiarity of the bird ; and I think, with a little study, one could learn to know exactly the moment the eggs hatch by the sudden silence and wariness of both birds. Poor little creatures ! a sympathetic friend hates to add to the anxiety they suffer, and he cannot help a feeling of reproach when the brave little head of the family alights on the fence, and looks I him straight in the eye, as if to demand why he is subjected to all this annoyance. I had to console myself by thinking that I was undoubtedly a providence to him ; for I am certain that nothing but my watching him so conspicuously that every negro within a mile saw me, saved his family to him, so low and easy of access was the nest.
The day those nestlings were one week old they uttered their first cry. It was not at all a “peep,” but a cry, continued a few seconds; at first only when food was offered to them, but as they increased in age and strength more frequently. It was much like a high-pitched "ē-ē-ē,” and on the first day there was but one voice, which grew rapidly stronger as the hours went by. The next day another and a weaker cry joined the first, now grown assured and strong. But the music of the father was hushed the moment the youngsters began ; from that time until they had left the nest, he sang not a note in my hearing. Perhaps he was too busy, though he never seemed to work so hard as the robin or oriole; but I think it was cautiousness, for the trouble of those parents was painful to witness. They introduced a new sound among their musical notes, a harsh squawk ; neither dog nor negro could cross the yard without being saluted with it. As for me, though I was meekness itself, taking the most obscure position I could find, and remaining as absolutely motionless as possible, they eyed me with suspicion ; from the first they “ huffed ” at me, and at this point began to squawk the moment I entered the gate. On one occasion I discovered that by changing my seat I could actually see the nest, which I much desired ; so I removed while the birds were absent. Madam was the first to return, with a beakful of food ; she saw me instantly, and was too much excited to dispose of her load. She came to my side of her tree, squawked loudly, flapping her wings and jerking herself about. I remained motionless, and did not look at her, pretending to be absorbed in my book; but she refused to be mollified. It evidently did not please her to have me see so plainly ; she desired to retain the friendly screen of leaves which had secured her a small measure of privacy. I could not blame her; I felt myself intrusive ; and at last I respected her wishes, and returned to my old place, when she immediately calmed down, and administered the food she had held till then. Poor mother! those were trying times. Her solicitude overpowered her discretion, and her manner proclaimed to every one within hearing that the nestlings were out. Then, too, on the eighth day the little ones added their voices, and soon called loudly enough to attract the dullest of nest robbers. I was so fearful lest that nest should he disturbed that I scarcely dared to sleep o’ nights; the birds themselves were hardly more anxious than I was.
The eleventh day of the birdlings’ life was exceedingly warm, without a breath of air stirring, suffocating to humanity, but preëminently inspiring to mockingbirds, and every singer within a mile of me, I am sure, was singing madly, excepting the newly made parent. Upon reaching my usual seat I knew at once, by the louder cry, that a young bird was out of the nest, and after some searching through the tree I found him, — a yellowish-drab little fellow, with very decided wing-markings, a tail perhaps an inch in length, and soft slate - colored spots, so long as almost to be streaks, on the breast. He was scrambling about the branches, always trying to get a higher place, calling and perking his insignificant tail in true mocking-bird fashion. I think the parents disapproved this early ambition, for they did not feed him for a long time, though they passed him to go to the nest. So far from being lightened, their cares were greatly increased by the precociousness of the youngster, and from this moment their trouble and worry were grievous to see. So much self-reliance has the mockingbird, even in the nest, that he cannot be kept there until his legs are strongenough to bear his weight, or his wings ready to fly. The full-grown spirit of the race blossoms out in the young one at eleven days, and for several more he is exposed to so many dangers that I wonder there is one left in the State.
The parents, one after the other, came down on to a bush near my seat to remonstrate with me; and I must admit that so great was my sympathy, and so uncomfortable did I feel at adding in the least to their anxiety, that I should never have seen that young family fledged, only that I knew perfectly well what they did not, that I was a protection to them. I tried to reassure the mother by addressing her in her own language (as it were), and she turned quickly, looked, listened, and returned to her tree, quieted. This sound is a low whistling through the teeth, which readily soothes cage birds. It interests and calms them, though I have no notion what it means to them, for I am speaking an unknown tongue.
The baby on the tree was not quiet, climbing about the branches every moment that he was not engaged in dressing his feathers, the first and most important business of the newly emancipated nestling. After an hour or more of watching there was a sudden stir in the family, and the youngster made his appearance on the ground. He was not under the side of the tree on which he had been resting, so, although I did not see the passage, I knew he had not fallen, as he is popularly said to do, but flown as well as he was able. I started slowly down the yard to examine the little stranger, but was absolutely startled by a cry from the mother, that sounded exactly like “ Go ’way! ” as I have often heard a negro girl say it. Later it was very familiar, a yearning, anxious, heart-aching sound to hear.
The youth was very lively, starting off at once on his travels, never for an instant doubting his own powers. I saw his first movement, which was a hop, and, what surprised and delighted me, accompanied by a peculiar lifting of the wings, of which I shall have more to say. He quickly hopped through the thin grass till he reached a fence, passed down beside it till a break in the pickets left an open place on the bottom board, sprang without hesitation upon that, and after a moment’s survey of the country beyond dropped down on the farther side. Now that was a lane much frequented by negroes, and, being alarmed for his safety, I sent a boy after him, and in a moment had him in my hand. He was a beautiful little creature, having a head covered with downy dark feathers, and soft black eyes, which regarded me with interest, but not at all with fear. All this time, of course, the parents were scolding and crying, and I held him only long enough to look carefully at him, when I replaced him on the grass. Off he started at once, directly west, — like the " march of empire,”— went through the same fence again, but farther down, and, as I could tell by the conduct of the parents, in a few moments was safely through a second fence into a comparatively retired old garden beyond, where I hoped he would he unmolested. Thus departed number one, with energy and curiosity, to investigate a brand-new world, fearless in his ignorance and self-confidence, although his entrance into the world had not been the triumphant fly we might look for, but an ignominious “ flop,” and was irresistibly and ludicrously suggestive of the manner of exit from the home nest of sundry individuals of our own race, which we consider of much greater importance.
The young traveler set out at exactly ten o’clock. As soon as he was out of sight, though not out of hearing, — for the youngster, as well as the parents, kept the whole world of boys and cats well informed of his whereabouts for three days, — I returned, and gave my attention to number two, who was now out upon the native tree. This one was much more quiet than his predecessor. He did not cry, but occasionally uttered a mocking-bird squawk, though spending most of his time dressing his plumage, in preparation for the grand entrée. At twelve o’clock he made the plunge, and came to the ground in a heap. This was plainly a bird of different disposition from number one ; his first journey evidently tired him. He found the world hard and disappointing, so he simply stayed where he dropped in the middle of the path, and refused to move, though I touched him as a gentle reminder of the duty he owed to his parents and his family. He sat crouched upon the gravel and looked at me with calm black eye, showing no fear, and certainly no intention of moving, even indulging in a nap while I waited.
Now appeared upon the scene several persons, both white and black, each of whom wanted a young mocking-bird for a cage; but I stood over him like a godparent, and refused to let any one touch him. I began to fear that I should have him on my hands at last, for even the parents seemed to appreciate his characteristics, and to know that he could not be hurried, and both were still busy following the vagaries of number one. The mother now and then returned to look after him, and was greatly disturbed by his unnatural conduct, — and so was I. He appeared stupid, as if he had come out too soon, and did not even know how to hop. It was twenty minutes by the watch before he moved. His mother’s calls at last aroused him; he raised himself upon his shaky little legs, cried out, and started off exactly as number one had done, — westward, hopping, and lifting his wings at every step. Then I saw by the enormous amount of white on his wings that he was a singer. He went as far as the fence, and there he paused again. In vain did the mother coax and scold ; in vain did I try to push him along. He simply knew his own will, and meant to have it; the world might be strange, but he was not in the least interested. He rested in that spot fifteen or twenty minutes more, while I stood guard as before, and preserved him from cages of both negroes and whites. At last he did manage to squeeze through the fence, and, much relieved, I left him to the old birds, one of whom was down in the lot beyond the garden, no doubt following up his ambitious first-born.
Whoever, meanwhile, was left in the nest had a poor chance of food, and one was already crying. It was not until six o’clock that the birds seemed to remember the nestling; then it was well fed, and left again. Nothing would be easier than to follow the wandering youngsters, see how they got on and how soon they were able to fly, but this so disturbed the parents I had not the heart to do it; and besides, I feared they would starve the infants, for one was never fed while I was near. Doubtless their experience of the human race forbade their confiding in the kindly intentions of any one. It was well that only two of the young appeared in one day, for keeping track of them was so serious a matter that two parents could scarcely manage it.
Number three differed from both of his elders; he was a cry-baby. He was not bright and lively like number one, and he did not squawk like number two, but he cried constantly, and at six P. M. I left him calling and crying at the top of his voice. Very early the next morning I hastened to the scene of yesterday’s excitement. Number three was out on the tree. I could hear number two still crying and squawking in the garden, and from the position and labors of the male I concluded that number one was in the next lot. It was a dismal, damp morning, every grass blade loaded with water, and a heavy fog driving in from the sea. I hoped number three would know enough to stay at home, but his fate was upon him, and no rain was ever wet enough to overcome destiny. At about eight o’clock he stretched his little wings and flew to the ground, — a very good flight for his family, nearly thirty feet, twice as far as either of his predecessors had gone ; silently, too, — no fuss about it. He began at once the baby mocker’s hop with lifting wings, headed for the west fence, jumped upon the lower board, squeezed through, and was off down the garden before the usual crowd of spectators had collected to strive for his head. I was delighted. The parents, who were not near when he flew, came back soon, and found him at once. I left him to them, and returned to my place.
But silence seemed to have fallen upon the cedar, late so full of life. In vain I listened for another cry; in vain I watched for another visit from the parents. All were busy in the garden and lot, and if any baby were in that nest it must surely starve. Occasionally a bird came back, hunted a little over the old ground in the yard, perched a moment on the fence, and saluted me with a low squawk, but their interest in the place was plainly over.
After two hours I concluded the nest was empty ; and a curious performance of the head of the late family convinced me it was so. He came quite near to me, perched on a bush in the yard, fixed his eyes on me, and then, with great deliberation, first huffed, then squawked, then sang a little, then flew. I do not know what the bird meant to say, but this is what it expressed to me : “You’ve worried us all through this trying time, but you did n’t get one of our babies ! Hurrah! ”
In the afternoon I had the nest brought down to me. For foundation it had a mass of small twigs from six to eight inches long, crooked and forked and straight, which were so slightly held together that they could only be handled by lifting with both hands, and placing at once in a cloth, where they were carefully tied in. Within this mass of twigs was the nest proper, thick and roughly constructed, three and a half inches in inside diameter, made of string, rags, newspaper, cotton wadding, bark, Spanish moss, and feathers, lined with fine root fibre, I think. The feathers were not inside for lining, but outside, on the upper edge. It was, like the foundation, so frail that, though carefully managed, it could only be kept in shape by a string around it, even after the mass of twigs had been removed. I have a last year’s nest, made of exactly the same materials, but in a much more substantial manner; so perhaps the cedar-tree birds were not so skillful builders as some of their family.
The mocking-bird’s movements, excepting in flight, are the perfection of grace; not even the cat-bird can rival him in airy lightness, in easy elegance of motion. In alighting on a fence, he does not merely come down upon it; his manner is fairly poetical. He flies a little too high, drops like a feather, touches the perch lightly with his feet, balances and tosses upward his tail, often quickly running over the tips of half a dozen pickets before he rests. Passing across the yard, he turns not to avoid a taller tree or shrub, nor does he go through it; he simply bounds over, almost touching it, as if for pure sport. In the matter of bounds the mocker is without a peer. The upward spring while singing is an ecstatic action, that must be seen to be appreciated ; he rises into the air as though too happy to remain on earth, and, opening his wings, floats down, singing all the while. It is indescribable, but enchanting to see. In courtship, too, as related, he makes effective use of this exquisite movement. In simple foodhunting on the ground,— a most prosaic occupation truly, — on approaching a hummock of grass he bounds over it instead of going around. In alighting on a tree, he does not pounce upon the twig he has selected, but upon a lower one, and passes quickly up through the branches, as lithe as a serpent. So fond is he of this exercise that one which I watched amused himself half an hour at a time in a pile of brush; starting from the ground, slipping easily through up to the top, standing there a moment, then flying back and repeating the performance. Should the goal of his journey be a fence picket, he alights on the beam which supports it, and hops gracefully to the top.
Like the robin, the mocking-bird seeks his food from the earth, sometimes digging it, but oftener picking it up. His manner on the ground is much like the robin’s : he lowers the head, runs a few steps rapidly, then erects himself very straight for a moment. But he adds to this familiar performance a peculiar and beautiful movement, the object of which I have been unable to discover. At the end of a run he lifts his wings, opening them wide, displaying their whole breadth, which makes him look like a gigantic butterfly, then instantly lowers his head and runs again, generally picking up something as he stops. A correspondent in South Carolina, familiar with the ways of the bird, suggests that his object is to startle the grasshoppers, or, as he expresses it, to “ flush his game.” I watched very closely, and could not fix upon any theory more plausible, though it seemed to be weakened by the fact that the nestlings, as mentioned above, did the same thing before they thought of looking for food. The custom is not invariable ; sometimes it is done, and sometimes not.
The mocking-bird cannot be said to possess a gentle disposition, especially during the time of nesting. He does not seem malicious, but rather mischievous, and his actions resemble the naughty though not wicked pranks of an active child. At that time he does, it must be admitted, lay claim to a rather large territory, considering his size, and enforces his rights with many a hot chase and noisy dispute, as remarked above. Any mocking-bird who dares to flirt a feather over the border of the ground he chooses to consider his own has to battle with him. A quarrel is a curious operation, usually a chase, and the warcry is so peculiar and apparently so incongruous that it is fairly laughable. It is a rough breathing, like the “huff ” of an angry cat, and a serious dispute between the birds reminds one of nothing but a disagreement in the feline family.
If the stranger does not take the hint, and retire at the first huff, he is chased, over and under trees and through branches, so violently that leaves rustle and twigs are thrust aside, as long as the patience or wind holds out. On one occasion the defender of his homestead kept up a lively singing all through the furious flight, which lasted six or eight minutes, — a remarkable thing.
To others than his own kind the mocker seems usually indifferent, with the single exception of the crow. So long as this bird kept over the saltmarsh, or flew quite high, or even held his mouth shut, he was not noticed; but let him fly low over the lawn, and above all let him “caw,” and the hot-headed owner of the place was upon him. He did not seem to have any special plan of attack, like the king-bird or the oriole ; his aim appeared to be merely to worry the enemy, and in this he was untiring, flying madly and without pause around a perching crow until he took flight, and then attempting to rise above him. In this he was not always successful, not being particularly expert on the wing, though I have two or three times seen the smaller bird actually rest on the back of the foe for three or four seconds at a time.
The song of the free mocking-bird! With it ringing in my ear at this moment, after having feasted upon it and gloried in it day and night for many weeks, how can I criticise it! How can I do otherwise than fall into rhapsody, as does almost every one who knows it and delights in it, as I do ! It is something for which one might pine and long, as the Switzer for the Ranz-des-Vaches, and the more one hears it the more he loves it, I think there will never come a May in my life when I shall not long to fold my tent and take up my abode in the home of the mocking-bird, and yet I cannot say what many do. For variety, glibness, and execution the song is marvelous. It is a brilliant, bewildering exhibition, and one listens in a sort of ecstasy almost equal to the bird’s own, for this, it seems to me, is the secret of the power of his music : he so enjoys it himself, he throws his whole soul into it, and he is so magnetic that he charms a listener into belief that nothing can be like it. His manner also lends enchantment ; he is seldom still. If he begins in a cedar - tree, he soon flies to the fence, singing as he goes, thence takes his way to a roof, and so on, changing his place every few minutes, but never losing a note. His favorite perch is the top spire of a pointed tree, low cedar or young pine, where he can bound into the air as already described, spread his wings, and float down, never omitting a quaver. It seems like pure ecstasy; and however critical one may be, he cannot help feeling deep sympathy with the joyous soul that thus expresses itself. With all the wonderful power and variety, the bewitching charm, there is not the “ feeling,”the heavenly melody, of the wood thrush. As an imitator, I think he is much overrated. I cannot agree with Lanier that
and that the birds are jealous of his song, as Wilson says, I cannot believe. On the contrary, I do not think they recognize the counterfeit. The tufted titmouse called as loudly and constantly all day as though no mocking-bird shouted his peculiar and easily imitated call from the house-top ; the cardinal grosbeak sang every day in the grove, though the mocker copied him more closely than any other bird. He repeats the notes, rattles out the call, but be cannot put the cardinal’s soul into them. The song of every bird seems to me the expression of himself; it is a perfect whole of its kind, given with proper inflections and pauses, and never hurried ; whereas, when the mocker delivers it, it is simply one more note added to his repertory, uttered in his rapid staccato, in his loud, clear voice, interpolated between incongruous sounds, without expression, and lacking in every way the beauty and attraction of the original.
The song consists entirely of short staccato phrases, each phrase repeated several times, perhaps twice, possibly five or six times. If he has a list of twenty or thirty, — and I think he has more, — he can make almost unlimited changes and variety, and can sing for two hours or longer, holding his listener spell-hound and almost without consciousness that he has repeated anything.
So winning and so lasting is the charm with which this bird enthralls his lovers that scarcely had I left his enchanted neighborhood before everything else was forgotten, and there remain of that idyllic month only beautiful pictures and delightful memories. “ O thou heavenly bird ! ”
Olive Thorne Miller.