The Babes in the Wood
THE little home in the wood was well hidden. About its door were no signs of life, no chips from its building, no birds lingering near, no external indication whatever. In silence the tenants came and went; neither calls, songs, nor indiscreet tapping gave hint of the presence of woodpeckers in the neighborhood, and food was sought out of sight and hearing of the carefully secluded spot. No one would have suspected what treasures were concealed within the rough trunk of that old oak but for an accident.
Madam herself was the culprit. In carrying out an eggshell, broken at one end and of no further use, she dropped it near the foot of the tree. To her this was doubtless a disaster, but to me it was a treasure-trove, for it told her well-kept secret. The hint was taken, the home soon found in the heart of an oak, with entrance twenty feet from the ground, and close watching from a distance revealed the Owner, a goldenwinged woodpecker.
The tree selected by the shy young pair for their nursery stood in a pleasant bit of woods, left wild, on the shore of the Great South Bay,"where precious qualities of silence haunt,” and the delicious breath of the sea mingled with the fragrance of pines. One must be an enthusiast to spy out the secrets of a bird’s life, and this pair of golden-wings made more than common demand on the patience of the student, so silent, so wary, so wisely chosen, their sanctum. Before the door hung a friendly oak branch, heavy with leaves, that swayed and swung with every breeze. Now it hid the entrance from the east, now from the west, and with every change of the vagrant wind the observer must choose a new point of view.
Then the birds ! Was ever a pair so quiet ? Without a sound they came, on level path, to the nest, dropped softly to the trunk, slipped quickly in, and, after staying about one minute inside, departed as noiselessly as they came. Their color, too! One would think a bird of that size, of golden-brown mottled with black, with yellow feather-shafts and a brilliant scarlet head-band, must be conspicuous. But so perfectly did the soft colors harmonize with the rough, suntouclied bark, so misleading were the shadows of the leaves moving in the breeze, and so motionless was the bird flattened against the trunk, that one might look directly at it and not see it.
For a few days the woodpeckers were so timid that I was unable to secure a good look at them. The marked difference of manner, however, convinced me that both parents were engaged in attending upon the young family; and as they grew less vigilant and I learned to distinguish them, I discovered that it was so. The only dissimilarity in dress between the lord and lady of the goldenwing family is a small black patch deseending from the beak of the male, answering very well to the mustache of bigger “ lords of creation.” In coming to the nest, one of the pair flew swiftly, just touched for an instant the threshold, and disappeared within; this I found to be the head of the household. The other, the mother, as it proved, being more cautious, alighted at the door, paused, thrust her head in, withdrew it, as if undecided whether to venture in the presence of a stranger, and, after two or three such movements, darted in. Always in one minute the bird reappeared, flew at once out of the wood, at about the height of the nest, and did not come down till it reached, on one side, an old garden run to waste, or, on the other, far over the water, a cultivated field. At that tender age, the young flickers received their rations about twice in an hour.
Although the golden-wings were silent, the wood around them was lively from morning till night. Blackbirds and cuckoos flew over; orioles, both orchard and Baltimore, sang and foraged among the trees; song-sparrows and chippies trilled from the fence at one side ; bluebird and thrasher searched the ground, and paid in music for the privilege; pewees and kingbirds made war upon insects; and from afar came the notes of redwing and meadow-lark. Others there were, casual visitors, and of course it did not escape the squawks and squabbles of the English sparrow,
The robins, who one sometimes wishes, with Lanier’s owl, ” had more to think and less to say,” were not so self-assertive as they usually are; in fact, they were quite subdued. They came and went freely, but they never questioned my actions, as they are sure to do where they lead society. Now and then one perched on the fence and regarded me, with flick of wing and tail that meant a good deal, but he expressed no opinion. With kingbirds on one side, pewees on the other, and the great crested fly-catcher a daily caller, this was eminently a fly-catcher grove, and the robin plainly felt that he was not responsible for its good order. Indeed, after fly-catcher households were set up, he had his hands full to maintain his right to be there at all.
Whatever went on, the woodpeckers took no part in it. Back and forth they passed, almost stealthily, caring not who ruled the grove so that their precious secret was not discovered. Neither of them stayed to watch the nest, nor did they come and go together. The birds in the neighborhood might be inquisitive, — there was no one to resent it; blackbirds scrambled over the oak. robins perched on the screening branch, and no one about the silent entrance disputed their right.
In the first flush of dismay at finding themselves watched, the golden-wings, as I said, redoubled their cautiousness. They tried to keep the position of the nest secret by coming from the back, gliding around on the trunk, and stealing in at the door, or by alighting quietly high up in the body of the tree, and coming down backward, — that is, tail first. But by remaining absolutely without motion or sound while they were present, I gradually won their toleration, and had my reward. The birds ceased to regard me as an enemy, and, though they always looked at me, no longer tried to keep out of sight, or to hide the object of their visits. During the first day of watching I had the good fortune to see a second empty shell brought out of the nest, and dropped a little farther off than the first had been; and I feel safe in assuming that these two were the birthdays of the babes in the wood.
Thirteen days were devoted to the study of the manners and customs of the parents before the hidden subjects of their solicitude gave any signs of life visible from below. Though visits were about half an hour apart, and flicker babies have very good appetites, they did not go hungry, for on every occasion they had a hearty meal instead of the single mouthful that many young birds receive. This fact was guessed at on the thirteenth day, when the concealed little ones came out of the darkness up to the door, and the parents’ movements in feeding could be seen; but the whole curious process was plain two days later, when a young goldenwing appeared at the opening and met his supplies half-way. The food-bearer clung to the bark beside the entrance, leaned over, turned his head on one side, and thrust his beak within the slightly opened beak of his offspring. In this position he gave eight or ten quick little jerks of his head, which doubtless represented so many mouthfuls; then, drawing back his head, he made a motion of the throat, as though swallowing, which was, presumably, raising instead, for he leaned over again and repeated the operation in the waiting mouth. This performance was gone through with as many as three or four times in succession before one flicker baby was satisfied. After the nestlings came up to the door the parents went no more inside, as a rule, and housekeeping took care of itself.
On the fifteenth day of his life, as said above, the eldest scion of the golden-wing family made his appearance at the portal of his home. The sight and the sound of him came together, for he burst out at once with a cry. It was not very loud, but it meant something, and the practice of a day or two gave it all the strength that was desirable. In fact, it became clamorous to a degree that made further attempts at concealment useless, and no one was quicker to recognize it than the parents. The baby cry was the utterance familiar from the grown - up birds as “ wick-a ! wick-a ! wick-a ! ” From this day, when one of the elders drew near the tree, it was met at the opening by an eager little face and a begging call; but it was several days before the recluse showed interest in anything except the food supply. Meals were now nearly an hour apart, and the moment one was over the well-fed youngster in the tree fell back out of sight, probably to sleep, after the fashion of babies the world over. But all this soon came to an end. The young flicker began to linger a few minutes after he had been fed, and to thrust his beak out in a tentative way, as if wondering what the big out-of-doors was like, any way.
Matters were going on thus prosperously, when a party of English sparrows, newly fledged came to haunt the wood in a small flock of eighteen or twenty; to meddle, in sparrow style, with everybody’s business ; and to profane the sweet stillness of the place with harsh squawks. The mistress of the little home in the oak, who had conducted her domestic affairs so discreetly, one day found herself the centre of a mob ; for these birds early learn the power of combination. She came to her nest followed by the impertinent sparrows, who flew as close as possible, none of them more than a foot from her. They alighted as near as they could find perches, crowded nearer, stretched up, flew over, and tried in every way, with an air of the deepest interest, to see what she could be doing in that hole. When she left, — which she did soon, for she was annoyed, — the crowd did not go with her ; they were bound to explore the mystery of that opening. They flew past it; they hovered before it; they craned their necks to peer in ; they perched on a bare twig that grew over it, as many as could get footing, and leaned far over to see within. The young flicker retired before his inquisitive visitors, and was seen no more till the mother came again ; and then she had to go in out of sight to find him.
As the days went on, the babe in the wood became more used to the sunlight and the bird-sounds about him. Evidently he was of a meditative turn, for he did not scramble out, and rudely rush upon his fate ; he deliberated ; he studied, with the air of a philosopher ; he weighed the attractions of a cool and breezy world against the comforts and delightful obscurity of home. Perhaps, also, there entered into his calculations the annoyance of a reporter meeting him on the threshold of life, tearing the veil away from his private affairs. What would one give to know the thoughts in that little brown head, on its first look at life! Whatever the reason, he plainly concluded not to take the risk that day, for he disappeared again behind a door that no reporter, however glib or plausible, could pass. Sometimes he vanished with a suddenness that was not natural. Did his heart fail him, or, perchance, his footing give way ? For whether he clung to the walls, or made stepping-stones of his brothers and sisters (as do many of his betters, or at least his biggers), who can tell? Often beside this eldest-born, after the first day, appeared a second little head, spying eagerly, if a little less bravely, on the world, and as days passed he frequently contested the position of vantage with his brother, but he was always second.
Mother Nature is kind to woodpeckers. She fits them out for life before they leave the seclusion of the nursery. There is no callow, immature period in the face of the world, no " green ” age for the gibes or superior airs of elders. A woodpecker out of the nest is a woodpecker in the dress and with the bearing of his fathers, — dignified, serene, and grown up.
As the sweet June days advanced, the young bird in the oak-tree grew bolder. He no longer darted in when a saucy sparrow came near, and when the parent arrived with food the cries became so loud that all the world could know that here were young woodpeckers at dinner. Now, too, he began to spend much time in dressing his plumage, in preparation for the grand début. Usually, when a young bird begins to dally with the temptation to fly, so rapid is growth among birds, he may be expected out in a few hours. In this deliberate family it is different; indeed, taking flight must be a greater step for a woodpecker than for a bird from an open nest.
Three days the youngster had been debating whether it were “ to be or not to be, and more and more he lingered in the doorway, sitting far enough out to show his black necklace. His was no longer the wondering gaze of infancy, to which all things are equally strange ; it was a discriminating look, — the head turned quickly, and passing objects drew his attention. On the third day, too, he uttered his first genuine woodpecker cry of “ pe-auk ! ” He had not the least embarrassment before me. I think he regarded me as a part of the landscape, — the eccentric development of a tree trunk, perhaps ; for while he never looked at me nor put the smallest restraint upon his infant passions, let another person come into the wood, and he was at once silent and on his guard. All this time he had become more and more fascinated with the view without his door ; one could fairly see the love of the world grow upon him. He picked at the bark about him ; he began to get ideas about ants, and ran out a long tongue and helped himself to many a tidbit.
When the young golden - wing had passed four days in this manner, he grew impatient. The hour-long intervals between meals were not to his mind, and he began to express himself fluently. He leaned far out, and delivered the adult cry with great vigor and new pathos; he then bowed violently many times, moved his mouth as if eating, and struggled farther and still farther out, until it seemed that he could not keep within another minute. When one of the parents came he forgot his grown-up manner, and returned to the baby cry, loud and urgent, as if he were starved.
He was fed, and again left; and now he scrambled up with his feet on the edge. He was silent; he was considering an important move, a plunge into the world. He wanted to come, — he longed to fly. Outside were sunshine, sweet air, trees, food, — inside only darkness. The smallest coaxing would bring him out; but coaxing he was not to have. He must decide for himself; the impulse must he from within.
The next morning opened with a severe northeast gale.
The birds felt the depressing influence of the day. The robins perched on the fence, wings hanging, each feather like a bare stick, and not a sound escaping the throat; and when robins are discouraged, it is dismal weather indeed. The bluebirds came about, draggled almost beyond recognition. Even the swallows sailed over silently, their merry chatter hushed.
But life must go on, whatever the weather; and fearing the young woodpecker might select this day to make his entry into the big world, his faithful watcher donned rainy-day costume, and went out to assist in the operation. The storm did not beat upon his side of the tree, and the youngster still hung out of his hole in the trunk, calling and crying, apparently without the least intention of exposing his brand-new feathers to the rain.
Very early the following morning, before the human world was astir, loud golden-wing cries, and calls, and " laughs ” were heard about the wood. This abandonment of restraint proclaimed that something had happened ; and so, indeed, I discovered, for in hastening to my post I found an ominous silence about the oak-tree. The young wise-head, whose struggles and temptations I had watched so closely, had chosen to go in the magical morning hours, when the world belongs entirely to birds and beasts. The home in the wood looked deserted.
I sat down in silence and waited, for I knew the young flicker could not long be still. Sure enough, I soon heard his cry, but how far off ! I followed it to an oak-tree on the farther edge of the grove. I searched the tree, and there I saw him, quiet now as I approached, and plainly full of joy in his freedom and his wings.
I returned to my place, hoping that all had not gone. There must be more than two, though only two had been up to the door, I was sure. I waited. Some hours later, the parents came to their home in the wood, one after the other. Each one alighted beside the door, glanced in, in a casual way, but did not put the head in, and then flew to a neighboring tree, uttering what sounded marvelously like a chuckling laugh, and in a moment left the grove. Did, then, the daughters of the house meekly fly, without preliminary study of the world from the door? Were there, perchance, no daughters ? Indeed, had more than one infant reached maturity ? All these questions I asked myself, but not one shall I ever be able to answer.
I waited several hours. Many birds sang and called among the trees, but no sound came from the oak-tree household, and to me the wood was deserted.
Olive Thorne Miller.