A Chronicle of Three Little Kings


“ Riot of roses and babble of birds,
All the world in a whirl of delight,”

when the three baby kingbirds opened their eyes to the June sunlight. Three weeks I had watched, if I had not assisted at, the rocking of their cradle, followed day by day the patient brooding, and carefully noted the manners and customs of the owners thereof. At last my long vigil was rewarded. It was near the end of a lovely June day, when June days were nearly over, that there appeared a gentle excitement in the kingbird family. The faithful sitter arose, with a peculiar cry that brought her mate at once to her side, and both looked eagerly together into the nest that held their hopes. Once or twice the little dame leaned over and made some arrangements within, and then suddenly she slipped back into her place, and her spouse flew away. But something had happened, it was plain to see ; for from that moment she did not sit so closely, her mate showed unusual interest in the nest, and both of them often stood upon the edge at the same time.

That day was doubtless the birthday of the first little king.

To be sure, the careful mother still sat on the nest part of every day, but that she continued to do, with everlengthening intervals, till every infant had grown up and left the homestead forever.

All through the sitting the work of the head of the family had been confined to encouraging his partner with an early morning song and his cheerful presence during the day, and to guarding the nest while she sought her food ; but now that her most fatiguing labor was over, his began. At first he took entire charge of the provision supply, while she kept her nurslings warm and quiet, which every mother, little or big, knows is of great importance. When the young father arrived with food, which he did frequently, his spouse stepped to the nearest twig and looked on with interest, while he leaned over and filled one little mouth, or at any rate administered one significant poke which must be thus interpreted. He did not stay long ; indeed, he had not time, for this way of supplying the needs of a family is slow business ; and although there were but three mouths to fill, three excursions and three hunts were required to fill them. In the early morning he seemed to have more leisure; at that time, the happy young couple stood one each side of the nest, and the silent listener would hear the gentle murmurs of what Victor Hugo calls “the airy dialogues of the nest.” Ah, that our dull ears could understand!

For some days the homestead was never left alone, and the summer breezes

“ Softly rocked the babies three,
Nestled under the mother’s wing,”

almost as closely as before they came out of the egg. But much of the time she sat on the edge, while her partner came and went, always lingering a moment to look in. It was pretty to see him making up his mind where to put the morsel, so small that it did not show in the beak. He turned his head one side and then the other, considered, decided, and at last thrust it in the selected mouth.

The resting-time of the newly made matron was short; for when those youngsters were four days old — so fast do birdlings grow — the labor of both parents was required to keep them fed. Every ten minutes of the day one of the pair came to the nest: the father invariably alighted, deliberated, fed, and then flew; while the mother administered her mouthful, and then either slipped into the nest, covering her bantlings completely, or rested upon the edge for several minutes. There was always a marked difference in the conduct of the pair.

Six days the kingbird babies were unseen from below; but on the seventh day of their life two downy gray caps were lifted above the edge of the dwelling, accompanied by two small yellow beaks, half open for what goods the gods might provide. Alter that event, whenever the tender mother sat on her nest, two — and later three — little heads showed plainly against her satiny white breast, as if they were resting there, making a lovely picture of motherhood.

Not for many days lasted the openmouth baby stage in these rapidly developing youngsters. Very soon they were pert and wide awake, looking upon the green world about them with calm eyes, and opening mouths only when food was to be expected. Mouthfuls, too, were no longer of the minute order ; they were large enough for the parents themselves, and of course plain to be seen. Sometimes, indeed, as in the case of a big dragon-fly, the father was obliged to hold on, while the young hopeful pulled off piece after piece, until it was small enough for him to manage ; occasionally, too, when the morsel was particularly hard, the little king passed it back to the giver, who stood waiting, and received it again when it had been apparently crushed or otherwise prepared, so that he could swallow it.

Midsummer was at hand. The voices of young birds were heard on every side. The young thrasher and the robin chirped in the grove; sweet bluebird and pewee baby cries came from the shrubbery; the golden-wing leaned far out of his oaken walls, and called from morning to night. Hard-working parents rushed hither and thither, snatching, digging, or dragging their prey from every imaginable hiding-place. It was woful times in the insect world, so many new hungry mouths to be filled. All this life seemed to stir the young kings: they grew restless; they were late. Their three little heads, growing darker every day, bobbed this way and that; they changed places in the nest; they thrust out small wings ; above all and through all, they violently preened themselves. In fact, this elaborate dressing of feathers was their constant business for so long a time that I thought it no wonder the grown-up kingbird pays little attention to his dress; he does enough pluming in the nursery to last a lifetime.

On the twelfth day of their life, the young birds added their voices to the grand world-chorus in a faint, low “ cheup,” delivered with a kingbird accent; then, also, they began to sit up calmly, and look over the edge of the nest at what went on below, quite in the manner of their fathers. Two days later, the first little king mounted the walls of his castle, fluttered his wings, and apparently meditated the grand plunge into the world outside of home. So absorbed was he in his new emotions that he did not see the arrival of something to eat, and put in a claim for his share, as usual. I thought he was about to bid farewell to his birthplace. But I did not know him. Not till the youngest of the family was ready to go did he step out of the nest, — the three were inseparable. While I waited, expecting every moment to see him fly, there was a sudden change in the air, and very shortly broke over us a furious storm of wind and rain. Instantly every young bird subsided into the nest, out of sight; and in a few minutes their mother came, and gave them the protection of her presence.

Several days were spent by the oaktree household in shaking out the wings, taking observations of the world, dressing the feathers, and partaking of luncheon every few minutes. Such a nestful of restlessness I never saw; the constant wonder was that they managed not to fall out. Often the three sat up side by side on the edge, white breasts shining in the sun, and heads turning every way with evident interest. The dress was now almost exactly like the parents’. No speckled bib, like the bluebird or robin infant’s, defaces the snowy breast; no ugly gray coat, like the redwing baby’s, obscures the beauty of the little kingbird’s attire. He enters society in full dress.

But each day, now, the trio grew in size, in repose of manner, and in strength of voice ; and before long they sat up hours at a time, patient, silent, and ludicrously resembling the

“ Three wise men of Gotham ”
Who “went to sea in a bowl.”

In spite of their grown-up looks and manners, they did not lose their appetite ; and from breakfast, at the unnatural hour of half past four in the morning, till a late supper, when so dark that I could see only the movement of feeding like a silhouette against the white clouds, all through the day, food came to the nest every two minutes or less. Think of the work of those two birds! Every mouthful brought during those fifteen and a half hours required a separate hunt. They usually flew out to a strip of low land, where the grass was thick and high. Over this they hovered with beautiful motion, and occasionally dropped an instant into the grass. The capture made, they started at once for the nest, resting scarcely a moment. There were thus between three and four hundred trips a day, and of course that number of insects were destroyed. Even after the salt bath, which one bird took always about eleven in the morning, and the other about four in the afternoon, they did not stop to dry their plumage ; simply passed the wing feathers through the beak, but paid no attention to the breast feathers, which often hung in locks, showing the dark part next the body, and so disguising the birds that I scarcely knew them when they came to the nest.

The bath was interesting. The river, so called, was in fact an arm of the Great South Bay, and of course salt. To get a bath, the bird flew directly into the water, as if after a fish; then came to the fence to shake himself. Sometimes the dip was repeated once or twice, but more often bathing ended with a single plunge.

Two weeks had passed over their heads, and the three little kings had for several days dallied with temptation on the brink before one set foot outside the nest. Even then, on the fifteenth day, he merely reached the doorstep, as it were, the branch on which it rested. However, that was a great advance. He shook himself thoroughly, as if glad to have room to do so. This venturesome infant hopped about four inches from the walls of the cottage, looked upon the universe from that remote point, then hurried back to his brothers, evidently frightened at his own boldness.

On the day of this first adventure began a mysterious performance, the meaning of which I did not understand till later, when it became very familiar. It opened with a peculiar call, and its object was to rouse the young to follow. So remarkable was the effect upon them that I have no doubt a mob of kingbirds could be brought together by its means. It began, as I said, with a call, a low, prolonged cry, sounding, as nearly as letters can express it, like “ Kr-r-r-r ! Kr-r-r-r ! ” At the same moment, both parents flew in circles around the tree, a little above the nest, now and then almost touching it, and all the time uttering the strange cry. At the first sound, the three young kings mounted the edge, wildly excited, dressing their plumage in the most frantic manner, as if their lives depended on being off in an instant. It lasted but a few moments: the parents flew away; the youngsters calmed down.

In a short time all the nestlings were accustomed to going out upon the branch, where they clustered together in a little row, and called and plumed alternately; but one after another slipped back into the dear old home, which they apparently found it very hard to leave. Often, upon coming out of the house, after the imperative demands of luncheon or dinner had dragged me for a time away from my absorbing study, not a kingbird, old or young, could be seen. The oak was deserted, the nest perfectly silent.

“ They have flown ! ” I thought.

But no : in a few minutes small heads began to show above the battlements ; and in ten seconds after the three little kings were all in sight, chirping and arranging their dress with fresh vigor, after their nap.

Not one of the young family tried his wings till he was seventeen days old. The first one flew perhaps fifteen feet, to another branch of the native tree, caught at a cluster of leaves, held on a few seconds, then scrambled to a twig and stood up. The first flight accomplished ! After resting some minutes, he flew back home, alighting more easily this time, and no doubt considered himself a hero. Whatever his feelings, it was evident that he could fly, and he was so pleased with his success that he tried it again and again, always keeping within ten or fifteen feet of home. Soon his nest-fellows began to follow his example ; and then it was interesting to see them, now scattered about the broad old tree, and then, in a little time, all back in the nest, as if they had never left it. Alter each excursion came a long rest, and every time they went out they flew with more freedom. Never were young birds so loath to leave the nursery, and never were little folk so clannish. It looked as if they had resolved to make that homestead on the top branch their headquarters for life, and, above all, never to separate. That night, however, came the first break, and they slept in a droll little row, so close that they looked as if welded into one, and about six feet from home. For some time after they had settled themselves the mother sat by them, as if she intended to stay ; but when it had grown quite dark, her mate sailed out over the tree, calling; and she — well, the babies were grown up enough to be out in the world — she went with her spouse to the poplar-tree.

Progress was somewhat more rapid after this experience, and in a day or two the little kings were flying freely, by short flights, all about the grove, which came quite up to the fence. Now I saw the working of the strange migrating call above mentioned. Whenever the old birds began the cries and the circling flight, the young were thrown into a fever of excitement. One after another flew out, calling and moving in circles as long as he could keep it up. For five minutes the air was full of kingbird cries, both old and young, and then fell a sudden silence. Each young bird dropped to a perch, and the elders betook themselves to their hunting-ground as calmly as if they had not been stirring up a rout in the family. Usually, at the end of the affair, the youngsters found themselves widely apart; for they had not yet learned to fly together, and to be apart was, above all things, repugnant to the three. They began calling ; and the sound was potent to reunite them. From this side and that, by easy stages, came a little kingbird, each flight bringing them nearer each other; and before two minutes had passed they were nestled side by side, as close as ever. There they sat an hour or two and uttered their cries, and there they were hunted up and fed by the parents. There, I almost believe, they would have stayed till doomsday, but for the periodical stirring up by the mysterious call. No matter how far they wandered, — and each day it was farther and farther, — seven o’clock always found them moving ; and all three came back to the native tree for the night, though never to the nest again.

No characteristic of the young kingbirds was more winning than their confiding and unsuspicious reception of strangers, for so soon as they began to frequent other trees than the one the paternal vigilance had made comparatively sacred to them, they were the subjects of attention. The English sparrow was first, as usual, to inquire into their right to be out of their own tree. He came near them, alighted, and began to hop still closer. Not in the least startled by his threatening manner, the nearest youngster looked at him, and began to flutter his wings, to call, and to move toward him, as if expecting to be fed. This was too much even for a sparrow ; he departed.

Another curious visitor was a redeyed vireo, who, being received in the same innocent and childlike way, also took his leave. But this bird appeared to feel insulted, and in a few minutes stole back, and took revenge in a most peculiar way : he hovered under the twig on which the three were sitting, their dumpy tails banging down in a row, and actually twitched the feathers of those tails! Even that did not frighten the little ones; they leaned far over and stared at their assailant, but nothing more. I looked carefully to see if the vireo had a nest on that tree, so strange a thing it seemed for a bird to do. The tree was quite tall, with few branches, an oak grown in a close grove, and I am sure there was no vireo nest on it; so that it was an absolutely gratuitous insult.

In addition to supplying the constantly growing appetites of the family, the male kingbird did not forget to keep a sharp lookout for intruders ; for, until the youngsters could take care of themselves, he was bound to protect them. One day a young robin alighted nearer to the little group than he considered altogether proper, and he started, full tilt, toward him. As he drew near, the alarmed robin uttered his baby cry, when instantly the kingbird wheeled and left ; nor did he notice the stranger again, although he stayed there a long time. But when an old robin came to attend to his wants, that was a different matter: the kingbird went at once for the grown-up bird, thus proving that he spared the first one because of its babyhood.

It was not till they were three weeks old that the little kings began to fly any lower than about the level of their nest. Then one came to the fcnce, and the others to the top of a grape-trellis. I hoped to see some indication of looking for food, and I did; but it was all looking up and calling on the parents; not an eye was turned earthward. Now the young ones began to fly more nearly together, and one could see that a few days’ more practice would enable them to fly in a compact little flock. Shortly before this they had ceased to come to the native tree at night, and by day extended their wanderings so far that sometimes they were not heard for hours. Regularly, however, as night drew near, the migrating cry sounded in the grove, and upon going out I always found them together, — three

“Silver brown little birds,
Sitting close in the branches.'’

These interesting bantlings were twenty-four days old when it became necessary for me to leave them, as they had already left me. It was a warm morning, near the end of July, and about half an hour before I must go I went out to take my last look at them. Their calls were still loud and frequent, and I had no difficulty in tracing them to a dead twig near the top of a pine-tree, where they sat close together, as usual, with faces to the west; lacking only in length of tail of being as big as their parents, yet still calling for food, and still, to all appearances, without the smallest notion that they could ever help themselves.

Thus I left them.

Olive Thorne Miller.