The "Wise Bluebird"
Puts in his little heavenly word.”
THE characteristic air and expression of the bluebird, and his enchanting little warble, could not be better described in a page of writing than the poet has here done it in a couplet.
Who has not seen him in his favorite resting place, the lowest branch of an apple-tree, standing up very straight, crown feathers erected, honest little countenance squarely facing one, motionless and silent, looking the embodiment of wisdom !
A pair of bluebirds lived in my house for nearly a year, and the calm, imposing manner of the male I have never seen disturbed. In the presence of birds much larger than himself, he never lost his equanimity, paid not the slightest attention to any one, went about his daily duties and pleasures exactly as though there were not another bird, except his mate, in the room. Quite otherwise was his little spouse : quick, nervous, easily frightened, yet assuming the responsibility of everything, even her lord’s comfort and safety. Her very attitude was different : she held her body horizontal, never perpendicular, as he did; and she was more lively in movement. She was a brave little soul, too. Even when greatly annoyed by a larger bird, she never failed to stand upon the defensive, open her mouth, and sometimes remonstrate in low, gentle talk. Nor did she — after she felt at home — allow a stranger to enter her door. She boldly faced the largest bird in the room, and always forced him to retire, while her mate stood calm, and cool, and “wise,” on the upper perch. More than this, she seemed to feel it part of her duty to defend and protect his lordship, as though he were too fragile to come into contact with the rough side of life. Nothing could be droller than to see her stand guard while he bathed in the common dish on the table, and fly furiously at the grosbeak, or any bird coming too near her precious idol, who meanwhile placidly proceeded with his bath in the most matter-of-fact manner, as though expecting to be protected. I have seen similar conduct in a wild pair : the female defending her nestlings against some fancied danger, scolding, flying around the intruder, and taking the whole care upon herself ; while her spouse occupied the topmost twig of the tree on which his family was in trouble, uttering at short intervals his musical cry of distress, one rich, loud note.
The pair in my room were a most affectionate and gentle couple ; no disputes, not even the smallest difference, arose between them. If one wished to bathe while the other was using the bathtub, he stood on the edge till his turn came. In the same way one usually waited for the other to finish a lunch before going down himself, though on rare occasions they descended together for a social meal. If she were alarmed, and went to the floor, as at first sometimes happened, he at once appeared in the door, looking anxiously after her, and calling tenderly. If she did not return, he flew down himself, ran about till he found her, and, after talking in a low tone for some time, started for home, when she followed him, showing that she was reassured. They always sat on the same perch, and on cool days as near each other as possible, first one and then the other “ hitching ” a little nearer. After bathing they sunned themselves together, even when in the cage, where the sunshine came only into one corner, and they crowded so closely that there was not room to spread out. Even that discomfort never elicited a harsh word, though he enjoyed spreading himself very completely, bending his legs, resting his breast on the floor, and opening his wings to their full extent.
This bird’s anxiety when his mate was out of his sight did not, however, compare with her unrest in his absence, for her affection seemed to be of the motherly or protecting sort. Before they became familiar with the room, and learned that, though unseen, the partner was not lost, the moment he disappeared from view she began running around the cage excitedly, looking everywhere, and calling loudly. At first he answered, but, deciding to try his wings, he swept around the room, came — as some birds do — against the window, and fell to the floor, when instantly both were perfectly silent. She looked out apprehensively, and as soon as he recovered breath he flew to the top of their own cage. Then her solicitude turned to annoyance : she went to the top perch, and gently nipped his toes (which she never did to strangers) as a slight reproof. He became accustomed to going out and in sooner than his mate, for she was shy and inclined to stay at home, and she suffered much anxiety ; before long she too grew accustomed to freedom, and expressed no further fears when he was out.
Making arrangements for the night was an interesting event in bluebird life. They always selected the highest perch in the darkest end of the cage, and placed themselves so close together that they looked like a very wide ball, or two balls that had been almost pressed into one when in a very soft state. In the morning the feathers on the side next the mate were crushed flat, requiring much shaking and dressing to give them their ordinary appearance. What was curious, the female took the outside, no doubt with the motherly motive of taking care of him. To see them settle themselves was pleasing. Being more quiet and less nervous than his spouse, the singer generally retired first, some time before she was ready, and composed himself in a moment in his corner, for they were never restless at evening ; she followed when she chose. Occasionally, however, she went first, taking her place about as far as usual from the wires, and leaving space for him. But if he went to his place, there was not room to turn around, facing the middle of the cage, as was their custom ; and he seemed to appreciate the difficulty, for he hopped up on the outside, or the wrong side of her. Instantly she jumped to a lower perch, when he sidled up to his regular place, and she at once returned, and took her regular place beside him. One night something startled them, and both flew wildly around the cage. I produced a light to show them the perches, so they might quiet themselves again. The male readily did so, but she remained on the lower perch. I went close to the wires, and began to speak soothingly, to calm her, and induce her to resume her place, when, to my surprise, she began to reply to me, every time I spoke, standing less than a foot from me. She stared me full in the face, not at all disturbed, and answered every word I said with her musical call, in a low tone, as if to tell me the story of the fright. We kept up the queer little talk for several minutes, and she did not return to his side that night.
One advantage of studying two birds of a kind at the same time is to observe the talk between them, which has great interest for me. This pair were exceedingly talkative at first, uttering not only the usual musical three-syllable warble or call, which Lanier aptly calls the “ heavenly word,” but often a soft twittering talk, of varying inflection and irregular length, which was certainly the most interesting bird talk I ever heard. When they could not see me they indulged in it more freely, with changing tones at different times, and after they became accustomed to the room and its inhabitants it was neither so frequent nor so earnest. Often at night, when one — perhaps in a dream — fell off the perch, I heard much low, tender talk, almost in a whisper, before all was quiet again ; and when another bird flew wildly around the room, there was always a remark or two in an interested tone. The male did most of the talking, carrying on, often for a long time, a constant flow of what sounded marvelously like comments and criticisms, while his mate replied occasionally with the usual call. Certain notes plainly had a specific meaning, even to the others in the room. One in particular was peculiar and low, but upon its utterance every bird became instantly silent and looked at the cage, while the bluebirds themselves were so absorbed, gazing apparently into blank space, that I could easily put my hands on them before they observed me. For several minutes this low note would be repeated, and all the birds stare at nothing, till I began to feel almost uncomfortable, as I have done at similar staring at nothing on the part of animals. One can hardly resist the feeling that these creatures see something too intangible for our eyes. On one occasion, when the male uttered this note, the female was just about to eat; she stood as if petrified, with head half-way down to the food, for two or three minutes.
What I have called talk was a very low twitter in a conversational tone, on one note, not at all in a singing tone, like the usual warble or call. I have also heard it from wild bluebirds, when I could get near enough. From the first, as said above, the male did most of the talking, and the habit grew upon him, till he became a regular babbler, standing on the top perch, and keeping it up persistently all day long. I think it arose from the fact that the greater number of birds in the room were thrushes, who sang very softly, without opening the mouth. With this gentle ripple of song the bluebird’s talk harmonized perfectly, and he almost entirely discontinued his lovely song, and indulged himself in talk by the hour. Strange to say, I very soon noticed that his mate did not approve of it, and would not stand on the perch beside him while he persisted in it. At first she turned sharply towards him, and he showed that he understood her wishes by ceasing for awhile; but as the habit grew, and he was not so easily silenced, she more and more deserted his side, and after two or three weeks I heard occasionally a gentle remonstrance from her. I do not believe a really harsh tone can come from a bluebird throat. One day they were taking their usual midday nap on the same perch, when a thrush across the window began his low song. That started up the bluebird, and he added his talk, which awakened his mate. She endured it for about five seconds, and then she suddenly stretched the wing nearest him so far that he was obliged to move away, when she instantly hopped down herself.
The two bluebirds differed in intelligence. The female was quicker to take an idea, but the male sooner conquered his fear. The first time I offered mealworms to them, she was so lively as to secure more than her share; but he learned in a day or two that worms were to be had outside, especially on my desk, when he at once flew over to me and demanded them, in the funniest little defiant way, looking at me most significantly, and wiping his bill ostentatiously, then jerking himself with great show of impatience. Words could not be plainer. Neither of them had difficulty in telling me their food - dish was empty : they stood on the edge and looked at me, then scraped the bill several times, making much noise about it, then looked at me again. I knew in a moment, the first time, what they wanted. When the male found out that another bird alighted on a stick I held out to him, and was carried off upon it, he seemed to be seized with curiosity, and the next time I offered it he jumped up on it beside the other, and allowed himself to be lifted to the desk. At one time, in flying around, he caught his feet in the coarse net curtains I hung before the windows to keep strange birds from trying to fly out. I went at once to him, and took him off. He scolded, fluttered, and pecked, and, when I had released him, flew directly against another curtain and caught again. I went over to him, and this time he understood that I was helping him; he neither struggled nor pecked, and flew quietly when I set him free.
The bluebird never showed any curiosity about the room or the world outside the windows, but sat on his door perch for hours, with a sharp eye to the worm supply. The appearance of the cup that held them was a signal for him to come down and beg for them, but his little mate never dared trust herself on the desk, though when I threw a worm on the floor she invariably secured it. So fond was she of this delicacy that she once played a saucy trick upon a scarlet tanager. Having received a worm, he went into the first open door he saw, — which happened to be the bluebird’s, — to find a place to manipulate the morsel, which he never swallowed whole. Madam stood on the perch just above the entrance, and as he came in she leaned over and snatched it out of his mouth, swallowed it, wiped her bill, and turned to him, ready for another. His stare of blank amazement was amusing to see, but he quickly made up his mind that it was not a safe place to eat, and when I gave him another he went to the roof of the same cage. She instantly mounted the top perch, put up her bill and seized the worm; but he held on, dragged it away, and then retired to his own cage with it. She positively could not resist this temptation, and even from her own cherished spouse she would sometimes snatch the desired tidbit.
The bluebirds’ method of bathing differed from any I have noticed. They put the head under water, and held it there, while spattering vigorously with wings and tail. On leaving the bath the female fanned herself dry, holding tightly to the perch and beating her wings with violence, while dancing back and forth the whole length of the perch, in a bewitching manner. Her mate fanned himself, also, adding a very pretty lateral shake of the wings, and raising the feathers on the crown and throat till he looked twice as big as usual. But he was very fond of sunning himself dry, in the attitude already spoken of. That position, by the way, was a not unusual one with him; he often hopped three feet across in front of a blind which stood against the wall, his legs bent, head nearly touching the floor, and tail thrust almost straight up. A droll figure he made. After hopping to the end of the blind, he would dash around behind it, as if he expected or hoped to find something.
After moulting, the birds feathered out beautifully, and their spirits rose in proportion. They delighted in flight, making long, sweeping circles around the room, again and again, without stopping. A few weeks later, as spring approached, they grew somewhat belligerent towards the other inhabitants of the place; driving every bird away from their cage, even following them to their chosen resting-places, insisting on their right to every perch in the room. Then, too, began signs of courtship between the lovely pair. The first thing I noticed was at worm-feeding time. One day I had given each of them their portion. The female swallowed hers instantly, and I turned to another cage, when I heard a low, coaxing cry, many times repeated. I looked around. The male stood on the upper perch, still holding his worm, which he usually dispatched as quickly as his mate did hers; and she was on a lower perch, looking up at him, mouth open, wings fluttering, asking for it. While I looked, he hopped down beside her, she opened her mouth wide, and he fed her as if she were a nestling, He was more amiable than a wild bluebird I once saw, who had brought up a long earth-worm, and was beating it on the top of a post, preparatory to swallowing it, when his little spouse — who was sitting at the time — came to the fence rail below him, and asked in the same way for a bit. So far from sharing it with her, this greedy bird simply took a fresh hold of his prize, flew to a tree, and gobbled it down with difficulty himself. Not so my generous captive. The next day he complied with her request again, and after that it was he who did the tender coaxing, begging her to accept the slight offering of his love. Soon, too, she grew coquettish in manner, often turned a cold shoulder to him, opened her mouth at him, and scolded in the sweetest and softest voice ; and one night, after they had settled on their perch, I heard gentle talk, and saw a little peck or two on her part. He did the talking, and she delivered the playful peck or push as reply. Now, too, in his desire to manifest his affection, he could not always wait for worms, but picked dainty bits from the food-dish, and tendered them in the same pretty way. She always accepted, though often she went at once to the food-dish and ate for herself; for with all this sentiment and love-making her appetite did not fail. Once she was outside and he inside the cage, when he began to call and offer her something out of his mouth. She did not wish to go in, so she flew to a perch that ran through the cage, and stood close to the wires, while he went to the same perch inside, and fed her through the wires.
About this time, too, the bluebird talk nearly ceased, and instead of it the lovely song of three notes was heard all day, and a little change they made in it — throwing in a “ grace note ” between the second and third — greatly added to its charm. Now, too, spring had really come, and I waited only for warm days to let them go and set up their homestead in freedom. The first mild day in May the window was opened for them. The female flew first, to a tree in front of the house, where she was greeted in the rudest manner by the bird-tramps which infest our streets, — the house-sparrows. They began to assemble around her, no doubt prepared for attack, when she gave a loud cry of distress, and out flew her valiant knight to her aid. After a moment’s pause by her side, they both flew and we saw the gentle pair no more.
This true chronicle began with a quotation from Lanier; it shall end with one from Harriet Prescott Spofford : —
When earth seemed heaven with bees and
South wind, and sunshine, and perfume ;
And morning’ were not morn without him.
Winging, springing, always flinging,
Flinging’ music all about him. ”