A Woodland Intimate
IT is one of the enjoyable features of bird study, as in truth it is of life in general, that so many of its pleasantest experiences have not to be sought after, but befall us by the way ; like rare and beautiful flowers, which are never more welcome than when they smile upon us unexpectedly from the roadside.
One May morning I had spent an hour in a small wood where I am accustomed to saunter, and, coming out into the road on my way home again, fell in with a friend. “ Would n’t you like to see an oven-bird’s nest?” I inquired. He assented, and, turning back, I piloted him to the spot. The little mother sat motionless, just within the door of her comfortable, roofed house, watching us intently, but all unconscious, it is to be feared, of our admiring comments upon her ingenuity and courage. Seeing her thus devoted to her charge, I wondered anew whether she could be so innocent as not to know that one of the eggs on which she brooded with such assiduity was not her own, but had been foisted upon her by a faithless cow-bird. To me, I must confess, it is inexplicable that any bird should be either so unobservant as not to recognize a foreign egg at sight, or so easy-tempered as not to insist on straightway being rid of it; though this is no more inscrutable, it may be, than for another bird persistently, and as it were on principle, to cast her own offspring upon the protection of strangers; while this, in turn, is not more mysterious than ten thousand every-day occurrences all about us. After all, it is a wise man that knows what to wonder at; and the wiser he grows the stronger is likely to become his conviction that, little as may be known, nothing is absolutely unknowable; that in the world, as in its Author, there is probably “no darkness at all,” save as daylight is dark to owls and bats. I did not see the oven-bird’s eggs at this time, however, my tender-hearted companion protesting that their faithful custodian should not be disturbed for the gratification of his curiosity. So we bade her adieu, and went in pursuit of a solitary vireo, just then overheard singing not far off. A few paces brought him into sight, and as we came nearer and nearer he stood quite still on a dead bough, in full view, singing all the while. When my friend had looked him over to his satisfaction, — never having met with such a specimen before, — I set myself to examine the lower branches of the adjacent trees, feeling no doubt, from the bird s significant behavior, that his nest must be somewhere in the immediate neighborhood. Sure enough, it was soon discovered, hanging from near the end of an oak limb; a typical vireo cup, suspended within the angle of two horizontal twigs, with bits of newspaper wrought into its structure, and trimmed outwardly with some kind of white silky substance. The female was in it (this, too, we might have foreseen with reasonable certainty) ; but when she flew off, it appeared that as yet no eggs were laid. The couple manifested scarce any uneasiness at our investigations, and we soon came away ; stopping, as we left the wood, to spy out the nest of a scarlet tanager, the feminine builder of which was just then busy with giving it some finishing touches.
It had been a pleasant stroll, I thought, — nothing more ; but it proved to be the beginning of an adventure which, to me at least, was in the highest degree novel and interesting.
I ought, perhaps, to premise that the solitary vireo (called also the blue-headed vireo, and the blue-headed greenlet) is strictly a bird of the woods. It belongs to a distinctively American family, and is one of five species which are more or less abundant as summer residents in Eastern Massachusetts, being itself in most places the least numerous of the five, and, with the possible exception of the white-eye, the most retiring. My own hunting-grounds happen to be one of its favorite resorts (there is none better in the State, I suspect), so that I am pretty certain of having two or three pairs under my eye every season, within a radius of half a mile. I have found a number of nests, also, but till this year had never observed any marked peculiarity of the birds as to timidity or fearlessness. Nor do I now imagine that any such strong race peculiarity exists. What I am to describe I suppose to be nothing more than an accidental and unaccountable idiosyncrasy of the particular bird in question. Such freaks of temperament are more or less familiar to all field naturalists, and may be taken as extreme developments of that individuality which seems to be the birthright of every living creature, no matter how humble. At this very moment I recall a white-throated sparrow, overtaken some years ago in an unfrequented road, whose tameness was entirely unusual, and, indeed, little short of ridiculous.
Three or four days after the walk just now mentioned I was again in the same wood, and went past the vireos’ nest, paying no attention to it beyond noting that one of the birds, presumed to be the female, was on duty. But the next morning, as I saw her again, it occurred to me to make an experiment. So, quitting the path suddenly, I walked as rapidly as possible straight up to the nest, a distance of perhaps three rods, giving her no chance to slip off, with the hope of escaping unperceived. The plan worked to a charm, or so I flattered myself. When I came to a standstill my eyes were within a foot or two of hers ; in fact, I could get no nearer without running my head against the branch ; yet she sat quiet, apparently without a thought of being driven from her post, turning her head this way and that, but making no sound, and showing not the least sign of anything like distress. A mosquito buzzed about my face, and I brushed it off. Still she sat undisturbed. Then I placed my hand against the bottom of the nest. At this she half rose to her feet, craning her neck to see what was going on, but the moment I let go she settled back upon her charge. Surprised and delighted, I had no heart to pursue the matter further, and turned away; declaring to myself that, notwithstanding I had half promised a scientific friend the privilege of “ taking ” the nest, such a thing should now never be done with my consent. Before I could betray a confidence like this, I must be a more zealous ornithologist or a more unfeeling man, — or both at once. Science ought to be encouraged, of course, but not to the outraging of honor and common decency.
On the following day, after repeating such amenities as I had previously indulged in, I put forth my hand as if to stroke the bird’s plumage ; seeing which, she raised her beak threateningly and emitted a very faint deprecatory note, which would have been inaudible at the distance of a few yards. At the same time she opened and shut her bill, not snappishly, but slowly, — a nervous action, simply, it seemed to me.
Twenty-four hours later I called again, and was so favorably received that, besides taking hold of the nest, as before, I brushed her tail feathers softly. Then I put my hand to her head, on which she pecked my finger in an extremely pretty, gentle way, — more like kissing than biting, — and made use of the low murmuring sounds just now spoken of. Her curiosity was plainly wide awake. She stretched her neck to the utmost to look under the nest, getting upon her feet for the purpose, till I expected every moment to see her slip away ; but presently she grew quiet again, and I withdrew, leaving her in possession.
By this time a daily interview had come to be counted upon as a matter of course, by me certainly, and, for aught I know, by the vireo as well. On my next visit I stroked the back of her head, allowed her to nibble the tip of my finger, and was greatly pleased with the matter-of-fact manner in which she captured an insect from the side of the nest, while leaning out to oversee my manœuvres. Finally, on my offering to lay my left hand upon her, she quit her seat, and perched upon a twig, fronting me ; and when I put my finger to her bill she flew off. Even now she made no outcry, however, but fell immediately to singing in tones of absolute good-humor, and before I had gone four rods from the tree was back again upon the eggs. Of these, I should have said, there were four, — the regular complement, — all her own. Expert as cow-birds are at running a blockade, it would have puzzled the shrewdest of them to smuggle anything into a nest so sedulously guarded.
Walking homeward, I bethought myself how foolish I had been not to offer my little protégée something to eat. Accordingly, in the morning, before starting out, I filled a small box with leaves from the garden rose-bush, which, as usual, had plenty of plant-lice upon it. Armed in this manner, — as perhaps no ornithologist ever went armed before, — I approached the nest, and to my delight saw it still unharmed (I never came in sight of it without dreading to find it pillaged) ; but just as I was putting my hand into my pocket for the box, off started the bird. Here was a disappointment indeed ; but in the next breath I assured myself that the recreant must be the male, who for once had been spelling his companion. So I fell back a little, and in a minute or less one of the pair went on to brood. This was the mother, without question, and I again drew near. True enough, she welcomed me with all her customary politeness. No matter what her husband might say, she knew better than to distrust an inoffensive, kind-hearted gentleman like myself. Had I not proved myself such time and again ? So I imagined her to be reasoning. At all events, she sat quiet and unconcerned; apparently more unconcerned than her visitor, for, to tell the truth, I was so anxious for the success of this crowning experiment that I actually found myself trembling. However, I opened my store of dainties, wet the tip of my little finger, took up an insect, and held it to her mandibles. For a moment she seemed not to know what it was, but soon she picked it off and swallowed it. The second one she seized promptly, and the third she reached out to anticipate, exactly as a tame canary might have done. Before I could pass her the fourth she stepped out of the nest, and took a position upon the branch beside it; but she accepted the morsel, none the less. And an extremely pretty sight it was, — a wild wood bird perched upon a twig and feeding from a man’s finger !
She would not stay for more, but flew to another bough ; whereupon I resumed my ramble, and, as usual, she covered the eggs again before I could get out of sight. When I returned, in half an hour or thereabouts, I proffered her a mosquito, which I had saved for that purpose. She took it, but presently let it drop. It was not to her taste, probably, for shortly afterward she caught one herself, as it came fluttering near, and discarded that also ; but she ate the remainder of my rose-bush parasites, though I was compelled to coax her a little. Seemingly, she felt that our proceedings were more or less irregular, if not positively out of character. Not that she betrayed any symptoms of nervousness or apprehension, but she repeatedly turned away her head, as if determined to refuse all further overtures. In the end, nevertheless, as I have said, she ate the very last insect I had to give her.
During the meal she did something which as a display of nonchalance was really amazing. The eggs got misplaced, in the course of her twisting about, and after vainly endeavoring to rearrange them with her feet, as I had seen her do on several occasions, she ducked her head into the nest, clean out of sight under her feathers, and set matters to rights with her beak. I was as near to her as I could well be, without having her actually in my hand, yet she deliberately put herself entirely off guard, apparently without the slightest misgiving !
Fresh from this adventure, and all aglow with pleasurable excitement, I met a friend in the city, a naturalist of repute, and one of the founders of the American Ornithologists’ Union. Of course I regaled him with an account of my wonderful vireo (he was the man to whom I had half promised the nest) ; and on his expressing a wish to see her, I invited him out for the purpose that very afternoon. I smile to remember how full of fears I was, as he promptly accepted the invitation. The bird, I declared to myself, would be like the ordinary baby, who, as everybody knows, is never so stupid as when its fond mother would make a show of it before company. Yesterday it was so bright and cunning ! Never was baby like it. Yesterday it did such and such unheardof things ; but to-day, alas, it will do nothing at all. However, I put on a bold face, filled my pen-box with roseleaves, exchanged my light-colored hat for the black one in which my pet had hitherto seen me, furnished my friend with a field-glass, and started with him for the wood. The nest was occupied (I believe I never found it otherwise), and, stationing my associate in a favorable position, I marched up to it, when, lo, the bird at once took wing. This was nothing to be disconcerted about, the very promptness of the action making it certain that the sitter must have been the male. The pair were both in sight, and the female would doubtless soon fill the place which her less courageous lord had deserted. So it turned out, and within a minute everything was in readiness for a second essay. This proved successful. The first insect was instantly laid hold of, whereupon I heard a suppressed exclamation from behind the field-glass. When I rejoined my friend, having exhausted my supplies, nothing would do but he must try something of the kind himself. Accordingly, seizing my hat, which dropped down well over his ears, he made up to the tree. The bird pecked his finger familiarly, and before long he came rushing back to the path, exclaiming that he must find something with which to feed her. After overturning two or three stones he uncovered an ant’s nest, and, moistening his forefinger, thrust it into a mass of eggs. With these he hastened to the vireo. She helped herself to them eagerly, and I could hear him counting, " One, two, three, four,” and so on, as she ate mouthful after mouthful.
Now, then, he wished to examine the contents of the nest, especially as it was the first of its kind which he had ever seen out-of-doors. But the owner was set upon not giving him the opportunity. He stroked her head, brushed her wings, and, as my note-book puts it, “ poked her generally ; ” and still she kept her place. Finally, as he stood on one side of her and I on the other, we pushed the branch down, down, till she was fairly under our noses. Then she stepped off; but even now, it was only to alight on the very next twig, and face us calmly ; and we had barely started away before we saw her again on duty. Brave bird! My friend was exceedingly pleased, and I not less so ; though the fact of her making no difference between us was something of a shock to my self-conceit, endeavor as I might to believe that she had welcomed him, if not in my stead, yet at least as my friend. What an odd pair we must have looked in her eyes ! Possibly she had heard of the new movement for the protection of American song-birds, and took us for representatives of the Audubon Society.
Desiring to make some fresh experiment, I set out the next morning with a little water and a teaspoon, in addition to my ordinary outfit of rose-leaves. The mother bird was at home, and without hesitation dipped her bill into the water, — the very first solitary vireo, I dare be bound, that ever drank out of a silver spoon ! Afterwards I gave her the insects, of which she swallowed twenty-four as fast as I could pick them up. Evidently she was hungry, and appreciated my attentions. There was nothing whatever of the coquettishness which she had sometimes displayed. On the contrary, she leaned forward to welcome the tidbits, one by one, quite as if it were the most natural thing in the world for birds to be waited upon in this fashion by their human admirers. Toward the end, however, a squirrel across the way set up a loud bark, and she grew nervous ; so that when it came to the twenty-fifth louse, which was the last I could find, she was too much preoccupied to care for it.
At this point a mosquito stung my neck, and, killing it, I held it before her. She snapped at it in a twinkling, but retained it between her mandibles. Whether she would finally have swallowed it I am not able to say (and so must leave undecided a very interesting and important question in economic ornithology), for just then I remembered a piece of banana with which I had been meaning to tempt her. Of this she tasted at once, and, as I thought, found it good ; for she transfixed it with her hill, and, quitting her seat, carried it away and deposited it on a branch. But instead of eating it, as I expected to see her do, she fell to fly-catching, while her mate promptly appeared, and as soon as opportunity offered took his turn at brooding. My eyes, meanwhile, had not kept the two distinct, and, supposing that the mother had returned, I stepped up to offer her another drink, but had no sooner filled the spoon than the fellow took flight. At this the female came to the rescue again, and unhesitatingly entered the nest. It was a noble reproof, I thought; well deserved, and very handsomely administered. “ Oh, you cowardly dear,” I fancied her saying, " he ’ll not hurt you. See me, now ! I’m not afraid. He ’s queer, I know ; but he means well.”
I should have mentioned that while the squirrel was barking she uttered some very pretty sotto voce notes of two kinds, — one like what I have often heard, and one entirely novel.
A man ought to have lived with such a creature, year in and out, and seen it under every variety of mood and condition, before imagining himself possessed of its entire vocabulary. For who doubts that birds, also, have their more sacred and intimate feelings, their esoteric doctrines and experiences, which are not proclaimed upon the tree-top, but spoken under breath, in all but inaudible twitters ? Certainly this pet of mine on sundry occasions whispered into my ear things which I had never heard before, and as to the purport of which, in my ignorance of the vireonian tongue, I could only conjecture. For my own part, I am through with thinking that I have mastered all the notes of any bird, even the commonest.
I wondered, by the bye, whether my speech was as unintelligible to the greenlet as hers was to me. I trust, at all events, that she divined a meaning in the tones, however she may have missed the words ; for I never called without telling her how much I admired her spirit. She was all that a bird ought to be, I assured her, good, brave, and handsome; and should never suffer harm, if I could help it. Alas ! although, as the apostle says, I loved “ not in word, but in deed and in truth,” yet when the pinch came I was somewhere else, and all my promises went for nothing.
Our intercourse was nearing its end. It was already the 10th of June, and on the 12th I was booked for a journey. During my last visit but one it gratified me not a little to perceive that the wife’s example and reproof had begun to tell upon her mate. He happened to be in the nest as I came up, and sat so unconcerned while I made ready to feed him that I took it for granted I was dealing with the female, till at the last moment he slipped away. I stepped aside for perhaps fifteen feet, and waited briefly, both birds in sight. Then the lady took her turn at sitting, and I proceeded to try again. She behaved like herself, made free with a number of insects, and then, all at once, for no reason that I could guess at, she sprang out of the nest, and alighted on the ground within two yards of my feet, and almost before I could realize what had occurred was up in the tree. I had my eyes upon her, determined, if possible, to keep the pair distinct, and succeeded, as I believed, in so doing. Pretty soon the male (unless I was badly deceived) went to the nest with a large insect in his bill, and stood for some time beside it, eating and chattering. Finally he dropped upon the eggs, and, seeing him grown thus unsuspicious, I thought best to test him once more. This time he kept his seat, and with great condescension ate two of my plant-lice. But there he made an end. Again and again I put the third one to his mouth ; but he settled back obstinately into the nest, and would have none of it. For once, as it seemed, he could be brave ; but he was not to be coddled, or treated like a baby, — or a female. There were good reasons, of course, for his being less hungry than his mate, and consequently less appreciative of such favors as I had to bestow ; but it was very amusing to see how tightly he shut his bill, as if his mind were made up, and no power on earth should shake it.
If any inquisitive person raises the question whether I am absolutely certain of this bird’s being the male, I must answer in the negative. The couple were dressed alike, as far as I could make out, save that the female was much the more brightly washed with yellow on the sides of the body; and my present discrimination of them was based upon close attention to this point, as well as upon my careful and apparently successful effort not to confuse the two, after the one which I knew to be the female (the one, that is, which had done most of the sitting, and had all along been so very familiar), had joined the other among the branches. I had no downright proof, it must be acknowledged, nor could I have had any without killing and dissecting the bird ; but my own Strong conviction was and is that the male had grown fearless by observing my treatment of his spouse, but from some difference of taste, or, more probably, for lack of appetite, found himself less taken than she had commonly been with my rather meagre bill of fare.
This persuasion, it cannot be denied, was considerably shaken the next morning, when I paid my friends a parting call. The father bird, forgetful of his own good example of the day before, and mindless of all the proprieties of such a farewell occasion, slipped incontinently from the eggs just as I was removing the cover from my pen-box. Well, he missed the last opportunity he was likely ever to have of breakfasting from a human finger. So ignorant are birds, no less than men, of the day of their visitation! Before I could get away, — while I was yet within two yards of the nest, — the other bird hastened to occupy the vacant place. She knew what was due to so considerate and well-tried a friend, if her partner did not. The little darling! As soon as she was well in position I stepped to her side, opened my treasures, and gave her, one by one, twenty-six insects (all I had), which she took with avidity, reaching forward again and again to anticipate my motions. Then I stole a last look at the four pretty eggs, having almost to force her from the nest for that purpose, bade her good-by, and came away, sorry enough to leave her; forecasting, as I could not help doing, the slight probability of finding her again on my return, and picturing to myself all the winsome, motherly ways which she would be certain to develop as soon as the little ones were hatched.
Within an hour I was speeding toward the Green Mountains. There, in those ancient Vermont forests, I saw and heard other solitary vireos, but none that treated me as my Melrose pair had done. Noble and gentle spirits ! though I were to live a hundred years, I should never see their like again.
The remainder of the story is, unhappily, soon told. I was absent a fortnight, and on getting back went at once to the sacred oak. Alas! there was nothing but a severed branch to show where the vireos’ nest had hung. The cut looked recent; I was thankful for that. Perhaps the “ collector,” whoever he was, had been kind enough to wait till the owners of the house were done with it, before he carried it away. Let us hope so, at all events, for the peace of his own soul, as well as for the sake of the birds.