At Four O'Clock in the Morning
FOUR o’clock in the morning is the magical hour of the day. I do not offer this sentiment as original, nor have I the slightest hope of converting any one to my opinion ; I merely state the fact.
For years I had known it perfectly well; and, fortified by my knowledge, and bristling with good resolutions, I went out every June determined to rise at that unnatural hour. Nothing is easier than to get up at four o’clock — the night before ; but when morning comes, the point of view is changed, and all the arguments that arise in the mind are on the other side ; sleep is the one thing desirable. The case appeared hopeless. Appeals from Philip drunk (with sleep) to Philip sober did not seem to avail; for whatever the latter decreed, the former would surely disobey.
But last June I found my spur ; last summer I learned to get up with eagerness, and stay up with delight. This was effected by means of an alarm, set by the evening’s wakefulness that had no mercy on the morning’s sleepiness. The secret is — a present interest. What may be going on somewhere out of sight and hearing in the world is a matter of perfect indifference ; what is heard and seen at the moment is an argument that no one can resist.
Having got my hint by the accident of some shelled corn being left on the ground before my window, and so attracting a four-o’clock party, consisting of blackbirds, blue jays, and doves, I waited, after the corn was gone, several days, till these birds ceased to expect anything, and so came no more, and then I spread a fresh breakfast table for more interesting guests, whose manners and customs I studied for weeks.
I was wakened by the light at exactly four o’clock ; and just as I was sleepily concluding that no one could be up yet, and I would draw down my shades, I was invariably startled wide awake by a bird note, and sprang up, to see at one glance that
The lark and the thrush, and the swallow free,”
and that my party was already assembled : one or two cardinals — or redbirds, as they are often called — on the grass, with the usual attendance of English sparrows, and the red-headed woodpecker in the elm, surveying the lawn, and considering which of the trespassers he should fall upon. It was the work of one minute to get into my wraps and seat myself, with opera glass, at the wide-open window.
My first discovery was that four o’clock is the most lovely part of the day. All the dust of human affairs having settled during the hours of sleep, the air is fresh and sweet, as if just made; and generally, just before sunrise, the foliage is at perfect rest,—the repose of night still lingering, the world of nature as well as of men still sleeping.
The first thing one naturally looks for, as birds begin to waken, is a morning chorus of song. True bird lovers, indeed, long for it with a longing that cannot be told. But alas, every year the chorus is withdrawing more and more to the woods, every year it is harder to find a place where English sparrows are not in possession ; and it is one of the most grievous sins of that bird that he spoils the song, even when he does not succeed in driving out the singer. A running accompaniment of harsh and interminable squawks overpowers the music of meadow lark and robin, and the glorious song of the thrush is fairly murdered by it. One could almost forgive the sparrow his other crimes, if he would only lie abed in the morning ; if he would occasionally listen, and not forever break the peace of the opening day with his vulgar brawling. But the subject of English sparrows is maddening to a lover of native birds ; let us not defile the magic hour by considering it.
The most obvious resident of the neighborhood, at four o’clock in the morning, was always the golden-winged woodpecker, or flicker. Though he scorned the breakfast I offered, having no vegetarian proclivities, he did not refuse me his presence. I found him a character and an amusing study, and I never saw his tribe so numerous and so much at home.
Though largest in size of my fouro’clock birds, and most fully represented (always excepting the English sparrows), the golden-wing was not in command. The autocrat of the hour, the reigning power, was quite a different personage, although belonging to the woodpecker family. It was a red-headed woodpecker who assumed to own the lawn and be master of the feast. This individual was marked by a defect in plumage, and had been a regular caller since the morning of my arrival. During the blackbird supremacy over the corn supply he had been hardly more than a spectator, coming to the trunk of the elm, and surveying the assembly of blue jays, doves, blackbirds, and sparrows with interest, as one looks down upon a herd with whom he has nothing in common. But when those birds departed, and the visitors were of a different character, mostly cardinals, with an occasional blue jay, he at once took the place he felt belonged to him. — that of dictator.
The Virginia cardinal, a genuine F. F. V., and a regular attendant at my corn breakfast, was a subject of special study with me ; indeed, it was largely on his account that I had set up my tent in that part of the world. I had all my life known him as a tenant of cages, and it struck me at first as very odd to see him flying about freely, like other wild birds. No one, it seemed to me, ever looked so out of place as this fellow of elegant manners, aristocratic crest, and brilliant dress, hopping about on the ground with his exaggerated little hops, tail held stiffly up out of harm’s way, and uttering sharp “ tsips.” One could not help the feeling that he was altogether too fine for this common workaday existence; that he was intended for show; and that a gilded cage was his proper abiding-place, with a retinue of human servants to minister to his comfort. Yet he was modest and unassuming, and appeared really to enjoy his life of hard work ; varying his struggles with a kernel of hard corn on the ground, where his color shone out like a flower against the green, with a rest on a sprucetree, where
and when he had finished his frugal meal, departing, if nothing hurried him, with a graceful, loitering flight, in which each wing-beat seemed to carry him but a few inches forward, and leave his body poised an infinitesimal second for another beat. With much noise of fluttering wings he would start for some point, but appear not to care much whether he got there. He was never in haste unless there was something to hurry him, in which he differed greatly from some of the fidgety, restless personages I have known among the feathered folk.
The woodpecker’s way of making himself disagreeable to this distinguished guest was to keep watch from his tree (an elm overlooking the supply of corn) till he came to eat, and then fly down, aiming for exactly the spot occupied by the bird on the ground. No one, however brave, could help “getting out from under,” when he saw this tri-colored whirlwind descending upon him. The cardinal always jumped aside, then drew himself up, crest erect, tail held at an angle of forty-five degrees, and faced the woodpecker, calm, but prepared to stand up for his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of his breakfast. Sometimes they had a little set-to, with beaks not more than three inches apart, the woodpecker making feints of rushing upon his vis-à-vis, and the cardinal jumping up ready to clinch, if a fight became necessary. It never went quite so far as that, though they glared at each other, and the cardinal uttered a little whispered “ ha ! ” every time he sprang up.
The Virginian’s deliberate manner of eating made peace important to him. He took a grain of hard corn in his mouth, lengthwise ; then working his sharp-edged beak, he soon succeeded in cutting the shell of the kernel through its whole length. From this he went on turning it with his tongue, and still cutting with his beak, till the whole shell rolled out of the side of his mouth in one long piece, completely cleared from its savory contents.
The red-head, on the contrary, took his grain of corn to a branch, or sometimes to the trunk of a tree, where he sought a suitable crevice in the bark or in a crotch, placed his kernel, hammered it well in till firm and safe, and then proceeded to pick off pieces and eat them daintily, one by one. Sometimes he left a kernel there, and I saw how firmly it was wedged in, when the English sparrow discovered his store, fell upon it, and dug it out. It was a good deal of work for a strong-billed, persistent sparrow to dislodge a grain thus placed. But of course he never gave up till he could carry it off, probably because he saw that some one valued it; for since he was unable to crack a grain that was whole, it must have been useless to him. Sometimes the woodpecker wedged the kernel into a crevice in the bark of the trunk, then broke it up, and packed the pieces away in other niches ; and I have seen an English sparrow go carefully over the trunk picking out and eating these tidbits. That, or something else, has taught sparrows to climb tree trunks, which they do, in the neighborhood I speak of, with as much ease as a woodpecker. I have repeatedly seen them go the whole length of a tall elm trunk; proceeding by little hops, aided by the wings, and using the tail for support almost as handily as a woodpecker himself.
The red-head’s assumption of being monarch of all he surveyed did not end with the breakfast table; he seemed to consider himself guardian and protector of the whole place. One evening I was drawn far down on the lawn by a peculiar cry of his. It began with a singular performance which he had indulged in on a previous occasion, a loud, rapid “ chit-it-it-it-it,” increasing in volume and rising in pitch, as though he were working himself up to some deed of desperation. In a few minutes, however, he appeared to get his feelings under control, and dropped to a single-note cry, often repeated. It differed widely from his loud call, “ wok ! wok! wok ! ” still more from the husky tones of his conversation with others of his kind ; neither was it like the war cries with which he intimated to another bird that he was not invited to breakfast. I thought there must be trouble brewing, especially as mingled with it was an occasional excited “ pe-auk ! ” of a flicker. When I reached the spot, I found a curious party, consisting of two doves and three flickers assembled on one small tree, with the woodpecker on an upper branch, as though addressing his remarks to them.
As I drew near the scene of the excitement, the doves flew, and then the golden-wings ; but the red-head held his ground, though he stopped his cries when he saw help coming. In vain I looked about for the cause of the row ; everything was serene. It was a beautiful quiet evening, and not a child nor a dog nor anything in sight to make trouble. The tree stood quite by itself, in the midst of grass that knew not the clatter of the lawn mower.
I stood still and waited; and I had my reward, for after a few minutes’ silence I saw a pair of ears, and then a head, cautiously lifted above the grass, about fifteen feet from the tree. The mystery was solved : it was a cat, whom all birds know as a creature who will bear watching, when prowling around the haunts of bird families. I am fond of pussy, but I deprecate her taste for game, as I do that of some other hunters, wiser, if not better, than she. I invited her to leave this place, where she plainly was unwelcome, by an emphatic “ scat! ” and a stick tossed her way. She instantly dropped into the grass and was lost to view; and as the woodpecker, whose eyes were sharper and his position better than mine, said no more, I concluded she had taken the hint and departed.
When the little redbirds began to visit the lawn, there were exciting times. At first they ventured only to the trees overlooking it ; and the gayly dressed father who had them in charge reminded me of nothing so much as a fussy young mother. He was alert to the tips of his toes, and excited, as if the whole world was thirsting for the life of those frowzy-headed youngsters in the maple. His manner intimated that nobody ever had birdlings before ; indeed, that there never had been, or could be, just such a production as that young family behind the leaves. While they were there, he flirted his tail, jerked himself around, crest standing sharply up, and in every way showed his sense of importance and responsibility.
As for the young ones, after they had been hopping about the branches a week or so, and papa had grown less madly anxious if one looked at them, they appeared bright and spirited, dressed in the subdued and tasteful hues of their mother, with pert little crests and dark beaks. They were not allowed on the grass, and they waited patiently on the tree while their provider shelled a kernel and took it up to them. The cardinal baby I found to be a self-respecting individual, who generally waits in patience his parents’ pleasure, though he is not too often fed. He is not bumptious nor self-assertive, like many others ; he rarely teases, and is altogether a well-mannered and proper young person. After a while, as the youngsters learned strength and speed on the wing, they came to the table with the grown-ups, and then I saw there were three spruce young redbirds, all under the care of their gorgeous papa.
No sooner did they appear on the ground than trouble began with the English-sparrow tribe. The grievance of these birds was that they could not manage the tough kernels. They were just as hungry as anybody, and just as well disposed toward corn, but they had not sufficient strength of beak to break it. They did not, however, go without corn, for all that. Their game was the not uncommon one of availing themselves of the labor of others; they invited themselves to everybody’s breakfast table, though, to be sure, they had to watch their chances in order to secure a morsel and escape the wrath of the owner thereof.
The cardinal was at first a specially easy victim to this plot. He took the whole matter most solemnly, and was so absorbed in the work that if a bit dropped, in the process of separating it from the shell, as often happened, he did not concern himself about it till he had finished what he had in his mouth, and then he turned one great eye on the ground for the fragments which had long before been snatched by sparrows and gone down sparrow throats. The surprise, and the solemn stare with which he " could hardly believe his eyes,” were exceedingly droll. After a while he saw through their little game, and took to watching; and when a sparrow appeared too much interested in his operations, he made a feint of going for him, which warned the gamin that he would better look out for himself.
It did not take these sharp fellows long to discover that the young redbird was the easier prey, and soon every youngster on the ground was attended by a sparrow or two, ready to seize upon any fragment that fell. The parent’s way of feeding was to shell a kernel, and then give it to one of the little ones, who broke it up and ate it. From waiting for fallen bits, the sparrows, never being repulsed, grew bolder, and finally went so far as actually to snatch the corn out of the young cardinals’ beaks. Again and again did I see this performance : a sparrow grab and run (or fly), leaving the baby astonished and dazed, looking as if he did not know exactly what had happened, but sure he was in some way bereaved.
One day, while the cardinal family were eating on the grass, the mother of the brood came to a tree near by. At once her gallant spouse flew up there, and offered her the mouthful he had just prepared ; then returned to his duties. She was rarely seen on the lawn, and I judged that she was sitting again.
Sometimes, when the youngsters were alone on the ground, I heard a little snatch of song, two or three notes, a musical word or two of very sweet quality. The woodpecker, autocrat though he assumed to be, did not at first interfere with the young birds; but as they became more and more independent and grown up, he began to consider them fair game, and to come down on them with a rush that scattered them ; not far, however ; they were brave little fellows.
At last, after four weeks of close attention, the cardinal made up his mind that his young folk were babies no longer, and that they were able to feed themselves. I was interested to see his manner of intimating to his young hopefuls that they had reached their majority. When one begged of him, in his gentle way, the parent turned suddenly and gave him a slight push. The urchin understood, and moved a little farther off ; but perhaps the next time he asked he would be fed. They learned the lesson, however, and in less than two days from the first hint they became almost entirely independent.
One morning the whole family happened to meet at table. The mother came first, and then the three young ones, all of whom were trying their best to feed themselves. At last came their “ natural provider ; ” and one of the juveniles, who found the grains almost unmanageable, could not help begging of him. He gently but firmly drove the pleader away, as if he said, “My son, you are big enough to feed yourself.” The little one turned, but did not go; he stood with his back toward his parent, and wings still fluttering. Then papa flew to a low branch of the sprucetree, and instantly the infant followed him, still begging with quivering wings. Suddenly the elder turned, and I expected to see him annihilate that beggar, but, to my surprise, he fed him! He could not hold out against him ! He had been playing the stern parent, but could not keep it up. It was a pretty and very human-looking performance.
A day or two after the family had learned to take care of themselves, the original pair, the parents of the pretty brood, came and went together to the field, while the younglings appeared sometimes in a little flock, and sometimes one alone ; and from that time they were to be rated as grown-up and educated cardinals. A brighter or prettier trio I have not seen. I am almost positive there was but one family of cardinals on the place ; and if I am right, those youngsters had been four weeks out of the nest before they took charge of their own food supply. From what I have seen in the case of other young birds, I have no doubt that is the fact.
While I had been studying fouro’clock manners, grave and gay, other things had happened. Most delightful, perhaps, was my acquaintance with a cardinal family at home. From the first I had looked for a nest, and had suffered two or three disappointments. One pair flaunted their intentions by appearing on a tree before my window, “ tsipping ” with all their might: she with her beak full of hay from the lawn, below ; he, eager and devoted, assisting by his presence. The important and consequential manner of a bird with building material in mouth is amusing. She has no doubt that what she is about to do is the very most momentous fact in the “Sublime Now ” (as some college youth has it). Of course I dropped everything and tried to follow the pair, at a distance great enough not to disturb them, yet to keep in sight at least the direction they took ; for they are shy birds, and do not like to be spied upon. But I could not have gauged my distance properly; for, though I thought I knew the exact cedar-tree she had chosen, I found, to my dismay and regret afterward, that no sign of a nest was there or thereabout.
Another pair went further, and held out even more delusive hopes ; they actually built a nest in a neighbor’s yard, the family in the house maintaining an appearance of the utmost indifference, so as not to alarm the birds till they were committed to that nest. For so little does madam regard the labor of building, and so fickle is she in her fancies, that she thinks nothing of preparing at least two nests before she settles on one. The nest was made on a big branch of cedar, perhaps seven feet from the ground, — a rough affair, as this bird always makes. In it she even placed an egg, and then, for some undiscovered reason, it was abandoned, and they took their domestic joys and sorrows elsewhere.
But now, at last, word came to me of an occupied nest to be seen at a certain house, and I started at once for it. It was up a shady country lane, with a meadow-lark field on one side, and a bobolink meadow on the other. The lark mounted the fence and delivered his strange sputtering cry, — the first I had ever heard from him (or her, for I believe this is the female’s utterance). But the dear little bobolink soared around my head and let fall his happy trills; then suddenly, as Lowell delightfully pictures him, —
Just ere be sweeps o’er rapture’s tremulous brink,
And ‘twixt the winrows most demurely drops,
A decorous bird of business, who provides
For his brown mate and fledgelings six besides,
And looks from right to left, a farmer ‘mid his crop.”
Nothing loss attractive than a cardinal family could draw me away from these rival allurements, but I went on.
The cardinal’s bower was the prettiest of the summer, built in a climbing rose which ran riot over a trellis beside a kitchen door. The vine was loaded with buds just beginning to unfold their green wraps to flood the place with beauty and fragrance, and the nest was so carefully tucked away behind the leaves that it could not be seen from the front. Whether from confidence in tlie two or three residents of the cottage, or because the house was alone so many hours of the day, — the occupants being students, and absent most of tlie time, — the birds had taken no account of a window which opened almost behind them. From that window one could look into, and touch, if he desired, the little family. But no one who lived there did desire (though I wish to record that one was a boy of twelve or fourteen, who had been taught respect for the lives even of birds), and these birds became so accustomed to their human observers that they paid no attention to them.
The female cardinal is so dainty in looks and maimer, so delicate in all her ways, that one naturally expects her to build at least a neat and comely nest, and I was surprised to see a rough-looking affair, similar to the one already mentioned. This might be, in her case, because it was the third nest she had built that summer. One had been used for the first brood. The second had been seized, and appropriated to their own use, by another pair of birds. (As this was told me, and I cannot vouch for it, I shall not name the alleged thief.) This, the third, was made of twigs and fibres of bark, — or what looked like that, — and was strongly stayed to the rose stems, the largest of which was not bigger than my little finger, and most of them much smaller.
On my second visit I was invited into the kitchen to see the family in the rosebush. It appeared that this was “ coming off ” day, and one little cardinal had already taken his fate in his hands, when I arrived, soon after breakfast. He had progressed on the journey of life about one foot; and a mere dot of a fellow he looked beside his parents, with a downy fuzz on his head, which surrounded it like a halo, and no sign of a crest. The three nestlings still at home were very restless, crowding, and almost pushing each other out. They could well spare their elder brother, for before he left he had walked all over them at his pleasure ; and how he could help it in those close quarters I do not see.
While I looked on, papa came with provisions. At one time the food consisted of green worms about twice as large as a common knitting needle. Three or four of them he held crosswise of his beak, and gave one to each nestling. The next course was a big white grub, which he did not divide, but gave to one, who had considerable difficulty in swallowing it.
I said the birds did not notice the family, but they very quickly recognized me as a stranger. They stood and glared at me in the cardinal way, and uttered some sharp remonstrance ; but business was pressing, and I was unobtrusive, so they concluded to ignore me.
The advent of the first redbird baby seemed to give much pleasure, for the head of the family sang a good deal in the intervals of feeding; and both of the pair appeared very happy over it, often alighting beside the wanderer, evidently to encourage him, for they did not always feed. The youngster, after an hour, perhaps, flew about ten feet to a peach-tree, where he struggled violently, and nearly fell, before he secured a hold on a twig. Both parents flew to his assistance ; but he did not fall, and soon after he flew to a grape trellis, and, after a little clambering, to a stem of the vine, where he seemed pleased to stay, — perhaps because this overlooked the garden whence came all his food.
I stayed two or three hours with the little family, and then left them; and when I appeared the next morning all were gone from the nest. I heard the gentle cries of young redbirds all around, but did not try to look them up, both because I did not want to worry the parents, and because I had already made acquaintance with young cardinals in my four-o’clock studies.
The place this discerning pair of birds had selected in which to establish themselves was one of the most charming nooks in the vicinity. Kept free from English sparrows (by persistently destroying their nests), and having but a small and quiet family, it was the delight of cardinals and catbirds. Without taking pains to look for them, one might see the nests of two catbirds, two wood doves, a robin or two, and others : and there were, beside, thickets, the delight of many birds, and a row of spruces so close that a whole flock might have nested there in security. In that spot “ the quaintly discontinuous lays ” of the catbird were in perfection ; one song especially was the best I ever heard, being louder and more clear than catbirds usually sing.
As I turned to leave the grounds, the relieved parent, who had not relished my interest in his little folk, mounted a branch, and,
In the dark foliage of the cedar-tree,
Shone out and sang for me.”
And thus I left him.
Olive Thorne Miller.