THE best place I have found for spying upon the habits of birds is behind a blind. If one can command a window with outside blinds, looking upon a spot attractive to the feathered world, he will be sure, sooner or later, to see every bird of the vicinity. If he will keep the blinds closed and look only through the opened slats, he will witness more of their unconstrained free ways than can possibly be seen by a person within their sight, though he assume the attitude and the stolidity of a wooden figure. Says our nature-poet, Emerson :
To see what singer piped the strain.
Seek not, and the little eremite
Flies forth and gayly sings in sight.”
And the bird student can testify to the truth of the verse.
Many times, after having spent the morning in wandering about in the bird haunts of a neighborhood, I have returned to my room to write up my notebook, and have seen more of birds and bird life in an hour from my window than during the whole morning’s stroll.
One of my windows, last summer, looked out upon an ideal bird corner: a bit of grass, uncut till very late, with a group of trees and shrubs at the lower boundary, and an old board fence, half buried in luxuriant wild raspberry bushes, running along one side. It was a neglected spot, the side yard of a farmhouse; and I was careful not to enter it myself so often as to suggest to the birds that they were likely to see people. It had the further advantage of being so near the woods surrounding the house that the shy forest birds were attracted to it.
No sooner would I seat myself, pen in hand, than chirps and twitters would come from the trees, a bird would alight on the fence, or a squirrel come out to sun himself. Of course the pen gave way to the opera-glass in a moment, and often not a line of the notebook got itself written till birds and squirrels had gone to bed with the sun.
The group of trees which bounded my view at the end of this outdoor study I called the “locust group.” It consisted of a locust or two, surrounded by a small but close growth of lesser trees and shrubs that made a heavy mass of foliage. There were a few young ashes, two or three half-grown maples, a shadberry bush, and wild raspberry vines to carry the varied foliage to the ground. Inside this beautiful tangle of Nature’s own arranging was a perfect tent, so thickly grown near the ground that a person could hardly penetrate it without an axe, but open and roomy above, with branches and twigs enough to accommodate an army of birds. Behind that waving green curtain of leaves took place many dramas I longed to see ; but I knew that my appearance there would be a signal for the whole scene to vanish, and with flit of wings the dramatis personæ to make their exit. So I tried to possess my soul in patience, and to content myself with the flashes and glimpses I could catch through an opening here and there in the leafy drapery.
At one corner of the group stood a small dead tree. This was the phæbe’s customary perch, and on those bare branches — first or last — every visitor was sure to appear. On the lower branch the robin paused, with worm in mouth, on the way to his two-story nest under the eaves of the barn. On the top spire the warbler baby sat and stared at the world about it, till its anxious parent could coax it to a more secluded perch. From a side branch the veery poured his wonderful song, and the cheery little song sparrow uttered his message of good will for all to hear and heed. Here the red-headed woodpecker waited, with low “ kr-r-r-r ” and many bows to the universe in general, to see if the way were clear for him to go to the fence. Nothing is so good to bring birds into sight as an old fence or a dead tree. On the single leafless branch at the top of an old apple-tree the student will generally see, at one time or another, every bird in an orchard.
This dead tree of the locust group was the regular perch of “ the loneliest of its kind,” the phæbe, whose big chuckle-head and high shoulders gave him the look of an old man, bent with age. His outline one could never mistake, even though he were but a silhouette against the sky. One of these birds could nearly always be seen on the lowest branch pursuing his business of flycatcher, and I learned more of the singularly reserved creature than I ever knew before. I found, contrary to my expectation, that he had a great deal to say for himself, aside from the professional performance at the peak of the barn roof which gives him his name.
In plaintive cadence o’er and o’er,”
sings the poet, but he had not so close acquaintance with him as I enjoyed behind my blind. There were two mud cottages in the neighborhood, and two pairs of birds to occupy them, and no phæbe of spirit will tolerate in silence another of his kind near him. Sparrows of all sorts might come about; juncos and chickadees, thrushes and warblers, might alight on his chosen tree, — rarely a word would he say; but let a phæbe appear, and there began at once a war of words. It might be mere friendly talk, but it sounded very much like vituperation and “ calling names,” and I noticed that it ended in a chase and the disappearance of one of them.
Again, whenever a phæbe alighted on the fence he made a low but distinct remark that sounded marvelously like “ cheese-it,” and several times the mysterious bird treated me to a very singular performance. He hovered like a humming-bird close before a nest, looking into it and uttering a loud strange cry, like the last note of “ phæbe ” repeated rapidly, as “ be-be-be.” Was it derision, complaint, or a mere neighborly call ? This was not for the benefit of his own family, for he did it before the robin’s nest. I thought at first he meant mischief to the young robins, but although he approached very near he did not actually touch them.
The loudest note this bird uttered was, of course, his well-known “ phæbe,” which he delivered from the peak of the barn (never from the dead tree) with an emphasis that proclaimed to all whom it might concern that he had something on his mind. It was plain that he was a person of cares ; indeed, his whole bearing was that of one with no nonsense about him, with serious duties to perform. I wonder if these birds are ever playful ! Even the babies are dignified and self-contained. Phæbes in a frolic would be a rare sight. Of the two nests whose owners I had to study, one was on a low beam in the cow-barn, where a person might look in ; the other under the eaves of a farm-building close by.
The special policeman of the group and its environs was a robin, who lived in a two-story nest under the eaves of the hay-barn. This bird, after the manner of his family, constituted himself regulator and dictator. He lived in peace with the ordinary residents, but took it upon himself to see that no stranger showed his head near the spot. He chased the crow blackbird who happened to fly over on business of his own, and by calls for help brought the whole robin population about the ears of the intruder. He also headed the mob of redbreasts that descended one morning upon a meek-looking half - grown kitten, who chanced to cast its innocent eyes upon a robin baby under the trees on another side of the house. The youngster could fly with ease, but he preferred to stay on the ground, for he quickly returned there when I put him on a low branch; and when a robin makes up his mind, arguments are useless. The same robin bullied the red-headed woodpecker, and flew at the kingbird when he brought his young family up to taste the raspberries.
One visitor there was, however, to the fence and the locusts whom Master Robin did not molest. When a prolonged, incisive “pu-eep” in the martial and inspiring tone of the great-crested flycatcher broke the silence, I observed that the robin always had plenty of his own business to attend to. I admire this beautiful bird, perhaps because he is the inveterate enemy of the house sparrow, and almost the only one who actually keeps that little bully in his proper place. There is to me something pleasing in the bearing of the great-crest, who, though of few inches, carries himself in a manner worthy of an eagle. Even the play of a pair of them on the tops of the tallest dead trees in the woods, though merry enough with loud joyful cries, has a certain dignity and circumspection about it uncommon in so small a bird.
A pair of great-crests were frequent visitors to the fence, where they were usually very quiet. But one day his call, as the male flew over from the woods, was answered by a loud-voiced canary, whose cage hung all summer outside the kitchen door. The stranger alighted on a tree, apparently astonished to be challenged, but he replied at once. The canary, who was out of sight on the other side of the cottage, answered, and the droll conversation was kept up for some time; the woods bird turning his head this way and that, eager to see his social neighbor, but unable, of course, to do so.
A little later in the season, when baby birds began to fly about, the locust group became even more attractive. Its nearness to the woods, as already mentioned, made it convenient for forest birds, and its seclusion and supply of food were charms they could not resist. First of the fledgelings to appear were a family of crow blackbirds, four of them with their parents. These are the least interesting feathered young people I know, but the parents are among the most devoted. They keep their little flock together, and work hard to fill their mouths. The low cry is husky, but insistent, and they flutter their wings with great energy, holding them out level with the back.
After berries began to ripen, the woodpeckers came to call on us. In my walk in the woods in the morning, I frequently brought home a branch of elder with two or three clusters of berries, which I hung in the small dead tree. In that way I drew some of the woods birds about. The downy woodpecker was one of my first callers. He, came with a sharp “ chit-it-it,” hung upon the clusters, occasionally head down, and picked and ate as long as he liked. The vigilant robin would sometimes fly at him, and he would leave; but in a moment back lie came, and went on with his repast. When the care of an infant fell to him, he brought his charge to the source of supplies. A farm wagon happened to stand near the dead tree, and on this the young woodpecker alighted, and stood humped up and quiet, while his parent went to the berries, picked several for himself, and then proceeded to feed him. This young person was very circumspect in his behavior. He did not flutter nor cry, in the usual bird-baby manner, but received his food with perfect composure. Berries, however, seemed to be new to him, and he did not appear to relish them, for after tasting two or three he flew away. In spite of this he came again the next day, and then he flew over to a cluster himself, and hung, back down, while he ate. He was charming with his sweet low chatter, and very lovely in plumage, white as snow, with dark markings clear and soft.
One of the prettiest of our guests was a young chestnut-sided warbler. He looked much bigger than his papa, as warbler babies often do; but that is probably because the young bird is not accustomed to his suit of feathers, and does not know how to manage them. Some of them appear like a child in his grandfather’s coat. The chestnut-sided warbler was himself an attractive little fellow, with a generous desire to help in the world’s work pleasant to see in bird or man. After becoming greatly interested in one we had seen in the woods, who insisted on helping a widowed redstart feed her youngster, and had almost to fight the little dame to do so, we found another chestnut-sided warbler engaged in helping his fellows. Whether it were the same bird we could not tell ; we certainly discovered him in the same corner of the woods. This little fellow was absorbed in the care of an infant more than twice as big as himself. “ A cowbird baby ! ” will exclaim every one who knows the habit — shameful from our point of view—of the cowbird to impose her infants on her neighbors to hatch and bring up. But this baby, unfortunately for the “wisdom of the wise,” did not resemble the cowbird family.
We saw the strange pair several times in the woods, and then one day, as I sat at my window trying to write, I heard a new cry, and saw a strange bird fly to the fence. He was very restless, ran along the top board, then flew to another fence, scrambled along a few feet, raising and lowering his tail, and all the time uttering a husky two-note baby-cry. While I was struggling to keep him in the field of my glass long enough to note his points, he went to the dead tree, and the philosophical phæbe sitting there took his case in hand, and made a dash for him. The stranger flew straight over the house, with his assailant in close chase. But in a moment I heard the baby-cry in a maple beside the cottage, while the phæbe calmly returned to his post and gave his mind again to his flycatching. The young bird was not in range from the window, but when, a few seconds later, I heard the feeding-cry, I could no longer resist the desire to see him.
I forgot my caution, and rushed out of the house, for I suspected that this uneasy visitor was the chestnut-sided’s adopted charge. So I found it. There stood the infant, big and clumsy by comparison, calling, calling, forever calling ; and stretching up on tiptoe, as it were, to reach him was the poor little warbler, trying to stop his mouth by stuffing him. The foster-parent lingered as if he were weary, and his plumage looked as if he had not dressed it for a week. But the insatiate beggar gave him no peace; with the swallowing of the last morsel began his cry for more. Again, standing within ten feet of him, I noticed the young bird’s points, and again I was convinced that he was not a cowbird baby.
The curious antics of a solemn kingbird, who did not suspect his hidden observer, were droll to look upon. He seemed to be alone on the fence, though some silent spectator may have been hidden behind the leaves. He mounted suddenly straight up in the air, with cries, twenty feet or more, then soared down with a beautiful display of his plumage. This he did many times in succession, with an indescribably conscious air, and at last he dropped behind some tall grass in the pasture. It looked exceedingly like “ showing off,” and who could imagine a kingbird in that rôle !
But all flourishes were over when, somewhat later, he brought his lovely little family of three to the fence to be treated to berries. It was interesting to see a flycatcher take his fruit “ on the wing,” as it were; that is, fly at it, seize it. and jerk it off without alighting. The phæbe picked berries in the same way, when he occasionally condescended to investigate the attraction that brought so many strangers into his quiet corner.
The young kingbirds were sweet and chatty among themselves, and they decidedly approved the berries; but they never lost sight of each other, and kept close together, the little company of three, as I have seen other kingbirds do. One day they came in the rain, feathers all in locks, showing the dark color next the skin, and looking like beggars in “ rags and tags,” but they were as cheerful and as clannish as ever.
To the locust group, too, came the red-headed woodpeckers: at first the parents, who talked to each other in whispered “ kr-r-r-r’s,” and carried off many a sweet morsel to their family in the woods; later, one youngster, who took possession of the fence with the calm assurance of his race, and when I left the place had apparently established himself there for the season.
Many others alighted on the fence : the junco, with his pretty brown bantling and his charming little trilling song; the crow baby, with its funny ways and queer cry of “ ma-a-a ; ” the redstart, who
the flicker mamma, with her “ merry pitter-patter ” and her baby as big as herself. Even the sap-sucker from the lawn had somehow heard the news that a feast was spread near the locusts, and came over to see.
Birds were not the only frequenters of the fence and the berry bushes. There were squirrels, gray and red, and chipmunks who sat up pertly on a post, with two little paws laid upon their heart in theatrical attitude, as who should say, “ Be still my heart,” while they looked the country over to see if any lurking member of the human family were about. The red squirrels were the most amusing, for they were very frolicsome, indulging in mad chases over and under the fence, through the trees, around the trunks, so rapidly that they resembled a red streak more than little beasts.
One squirrel adopted the fence as his regular highway, and the high post of the farm gate as his watch-tower. He often sunned himself, lying on his face, with his legs and his tail spread out as flat as if he had been smashed. His presence scared the birds from the neighborhood, and I undertook to discourage him. I went out one day when I saw him near the fence. The squirrel made up his mind to pass over the gate and get into the locust, but I posted myself quite near, and he did not like to pass me. Giving up his plan is no part of a squirrel’s intention, however, and every moment he would scramble up a few feet one side of me, with the design of running past me. As soon as his sharp black eyes showed above the top board I cried “ Shoo! ” He understood my motion, and doubtless would if I had said “ Scat! ” or “ Get out! ” (What should one say to a squirrel ?)
He dashed behind his barricade and disappeared. But he did not “ stay put; ” in two seconds he tried it again, and again his discouraging reception drove him back. He grew wary, however, and pretty soon I began to notice that every time he made his dash to the top he was a few inches nearer the gate, which stretched like a bridge from the fence to the locust-tree, and of course so much nearer me. At last, advancing thus inch by inch, he came up close to the gate, so near I could have put my hand on him, — that is, I could have put my hand on the place he occupied, for he did not stay to be caressed ; he flew across the gate, sprang three or four feet into the tree, and was out of sight before I could lift a finger. This passage having been successfully made, he felt that he was safe, and could afford to be saucy. He began the usual scold. Then I tossed a little stick up toward him, as a reminder that human power is not limited by the length of an arm, and he subsided.
Once when he came up to the fence top, before his grand dash, I laughed at him. Strange to say, this made him furious. He reviled me vehemently. No doubt, if I had understood his language, I should have been covered with confusion, for I confess that he could make a very good point against me. What business had I, an interloper in his dominion, to interfere with his rights, or to say whether he should dine off birds or berries ?
Olive Thorne Miller.