JUNE was drawing to a close : hermit thrushes and veeries had turned their energies to seeking food for hungry young mouths ; rose-breasted grosbeaks and golden orioles, as well as their more humbly clad fellow-creatures, were passing their days near the ground, in the same absorbing work ; treetops were deserted, and singing was nearly over.
It was well, then, that I should leave my beloved woods, and betake myself to a barren country road where, in a lonely thorn-tree, a bird of another sort than these had set up late housekeeping.
The reputation of this bird of solitary tastes is not attractive. He is quarrelsome and unfriendly with his kind, and aggressive and malicious toward others, says the Oracle. His pleasure is to torture and destroy; no sweet or tender sentiment may cling about his life ; in fact, he is altogether unlovely. So declare the books, and so, with additions and exaggerations, says nearly every one who takes birds for his theme. He is branded everywhere as the “ butcher-bird,” and it seems to be the aim of each writer to discover in his conduct something a little more sanguinary, a shade more depraved, than any predecessor has done.
Now, if the truth is what we are seeking, is it not desirable to see for ourselves, or, as Emerson puts it, “ leave others’ eyes, and bring your own ” ? If one can give to the task patient observation, with a loving spirit, a desire to interpret faithfully and to see the best instead of the worst, may he not perchance find that the bird is not the monster he is pictured ? And though the story be not so sensational, is it not better to clear up than to blacken the reputation of a fellow-creature, even a very small one in feathers ?
This thing it had long been in my heart to do, — to see with my own eyes what enormities the beautiful butcherbird is guilty of. I left hermits and veeries, I said adieu to sandpipers and grosbeaks, and went to the village to abide with the shrike family. No more delightful mornings in the blessed woods ; no more long, dreamy twilights filled with the music of thrushes and the singing brook ; no more charming views of the near Green Mountains, gray in the morning light, glorious rosy purple under the setting sun ; no more solitary communion with helpful and healing nature. My household gods must now be set up among people, with their cares and troubles, where the immense tragedy of human life is constantly forced into notice ; and in no place in the wide world is there more tragedy in every-day life than in peaceful and pious New England.
Change of residence was not so simple an affair with me as it is with the birds; would that it were ! I had to spend half a day packing, and another half undoing the work. I had to secure another temporary home, where certain conveniences to which we human beings are slaves should not be lacking, and with a family one could endure under the same roof. All this must needs be settled before I could call on my new neighbors. Time and patience accomplished everything, although the mercury was soaring aloft among the nineties all the time ; and at last came the morning when I seated myself before the household I proposed to interview for the benefit of the readers of our day, who demand (say the newspaper authorities) facts and details of daily lives that were of old considered private matters.
On these lines, therefore, I proceeded to study my shrikes. What I discovered by watching early and late, by peeping at them before breakfast and spying upon them after supper, — what they eat and drink, how they behave to one another and their neighbors, what they have to say or to sing, in fact their whole story so far as it was revealed to me, — I shall set down, nothing extenuating. Other observers may have seen very different things, but that only proves what I am constantly asserting : that birds are individuals : that because one shrike does a certain thing is no sign that another will do the same; it is not safe to judge the species en masse. This, therefore, is the true chronicle of what I saw of one pair of loggerhead shrikes (Lanins ludovicianus), in the northern extremity of Vermont, about the first of July, 1894.
The discovery of the nest in the thorntree was not my own. A friend and fellow bird-lover, driving one evening up this road, startled a bird from the nest, and, checking her horse, looked on in amazement while, one after another, six full-grown shrikes emerged from the tree and flew away. Pondering this strange circumstance she drove on, and when returning looked sharply out for the thorn-tree. This time one bird flew from the nest, which seemed to settle the question of ownership. The next day and the next this experience was repeated, and then the news was brought to me in the woods.
It was a lonely road, leading to nothing except a pasture and a distant farm or two, and the presence of a member of the human race was almost as rare as in the forest itself. On one side stretched a pasture with high rail fence ; on the other, a meadow guarded by barbed wire. A traveler over this uninviting way soon left the last house in the village behind, and then the only human dwellings in sight were some deserted farm buildings on a hill a mile or more away. Not a tree offered grateful shade, and not a bush relieved the bare monotony of this No Thoroughfare.
But it had its full share of feathered residents. Just beyond the last house, a wren, bubbling over with joy, always poured out his enchanting little song as I passed. Under the deep grass of the meadow dwelt bobolinks and meadow larks; from the pasture rose the silver threadlike song of the savanna sparrow and the martial note of the kingbird. Occasionally I had a call from a family of flickers, or goldenwings, from the woods beyond the pasture : the four young ones naive and imperative in their manners, bowing vehemently, with emphatic “ peauk ” that seemed to demand the reason of my presence in their world ; while the more experienced elders uttered their low “ka-ka-ka,” whether of warning to the young or of pride in their spirit one could only guess. A hard-working oriole papa, with a peremptory youngster in tow, now and then appeared in the pasture, and swallows, both barn and eaves, came in merry, chattering flocks from their homes at the edge of the village.
About the middle of the long stretch of road was a solitary maple-tree, and about thirty feet from it, and just within the pasture fence, the thorn, and the nest of my hopes. Approaching quietly on that first morning, I unfolded my camp-chair and sat down in the shade of the maple. The thorn-tree before me was perhaps fifteen feet high. It divided near the ground into two branches, which drew apart, bent over, and became nearly horizontal at their extremities. On one of these main stems, near the end, where it was not more than an inch and a half in diameter, with neither cross-branch nor twig to make it secure, was placed the nest. It was a large structure, at least twice the size of a robin’s nest, made apparently of coarse twigs and roots, with what looked like bits of turf or moss showing through the sides, and why it did not fall off in the first strong wind was a mystery. Parallel with the limb on which it rested, and only a few inches above it, was another branch, that must, one would think, be seriously in the way of the coming and going, the feeding and care-taking, inseparable from life in the nest.
From my post of observation, the thorn-tree was silhouetted against the sky, for it stood on the edge of a slight descent. Every twig and leaf was distinctly visible, while the openings in the foliage were so numerous that not a wing could flit by without my seeing it. The nest itself was partially veiled by a bunch of leaves. What the view might be from the other side I did not investigate that morning ; I preferred to leave the birds the slight screen afforded by the foliage, for since there could be no pretense of hiding myself from them, my desire was to let them fancy themselves hidden from me, and so feel free from constraint and be natural in their actions. I hoped, by approaching quietly and unobtrusively, by being careful never to frighten or disturb them in any way, to convince them that I was harmless, and to induce them to forget, or at least ignore, my silent presence. And it seemed possible that I might be gratified, for I had been seated but a few minutes when a shrike flew up from the ground and entered the nest, and, I was pleased to see, with no apparent concern about me.
For the next three hours I took my eyes off the nest only to follow the movements of the owners thereof ; and I learned that sitting had begun, and that the brooding bird was fed by her mate. He came, always from a distance, directly to the nest, alighted on the edge, leaned over and gave one poke downward, while low yearning or pleading cries reached my ears. Without lingering an instant he flew to a perch a foot above, stood there half a minute, and then went to the ground. Not more than thirty seconds elapsed before he returned to his mate, the cries greeted him, the mouthful was administered, and he took his leave in exactly the same way as before. He was a personage of methodical habits. This little performance of seeking food on the ground and carrying it to his partner on the nest was repeated five or six times in close succession, and then he rose higher than his tree and took flight for a distant hill, looking, as he flew, like a fluttering bit of black-and-white patchwork. On further acquaintance, I found this to be the regular habit of the bird: to come to his nest and feed his mate thoroughly, and then to take himself away for about half an hour, though later he fell to lingering and watching me.
Left thus alone and well fed, madam was quiet for some time, perhaps ten minutes, and then she went out for exercise or for lunch ; flying directly to the ground near the tree, and returning in a few minutes to her place.
On one occasion I saw what sort of food the shrike collected. He had alighted on the wire fence, apparently to inquire into my business, when his eyes fell upon something desirable — from his point of view. Instantly he dropped to the road, picked up a black object, worm or beetle, an inch long, and took it at once to his mate. Sometimes he carried his prey to a post, and beat it awhile before presenting it to her; and one evening, somewhat later than usual, he was found industriously gleaning food from the hosts of the air flying up in the manner of a flycatcher, and to all appearance with perfect success.
The loggerhead shrike is one of our most beautiful birds, clear bluegray above, and snowy white below. His black wings are elegantly marked with white, and his black tail, when spread like a fan, as he wheels to alight, showing broad tips and outer feathers of white, is one of his most striking marks. He is a little smaller than a robin, and his mate is of the same size, and as finely dressed as he. The resemblance he is said to bear to the mocking-bird I have never been able to see. His form, his size, his coloring, and his movements are, to my sight, in every way different from those of the Southern bird.
The manners of the shrike are as fine as one would expect from so distinguished-looking a personage, dignified, reposeful, and unusually silent. I have seen him, once or twice, flirt his halfopened tail and jerk his wings, but he rarely showed even so much impatience or restlessness. He sat on the fence and regarded me, or he drove away an intrusive neighbor, with the same calm and serious air with which he did everything. I have heard of pranks and fantastic performances, of strange, uncouth, and absurd cries, and of course it is impossible to say what vagaries he might have indulged in if he had thought himself unobserved, but in many hours and days of close study of this bird I saw nothing of the kind. The only utterance I heard from him, excepting his song, of which I shall speak presently, was a rattling cry with which he pursued an intruder, and a soft, coaxing “ yeap ” when he came to the nest and found his mate absent.
One of the most prominent traits of this bird, as we find him depicted in the books and the popular writings, is his quarrelsome and cruel disposition ; and “ brigand,” “ assassin,” “ murderer,” and “ butcher ” are names commonly applied to him.
I watched the shrike several hours daily for weeks, and from the first I was every moment on the alert for the slightest manifestation of these characteristics ; and what did I find out ? First as to his quarrelsome disposition, his unfriendliness with his own species. I have already spoken of the amicable association, in the very nesting-tree, of half a dozen of the birds, as reported by a trustworthy and experienced observer. On one occasion, somewhat later, I saw an exhibition of a similar friendliness among four adult shrikes. They were frolicking about another thorn-tree in the same pasture, in the most peaceful manner ; and while I looked, one of them picked up a tidbit from the ground and flew to the nest I was watching, thus proving that the nesting-bird was one of the group. At least twice afterward, when silently approaching the nest, I found two other shrikes hopping about with the one I was studying, on the ground, almost under the tree. On my appearance the strangers flew, and the nest-owner went up to his mate with an offering. We do not think of calling the robin or bluebird particularly quarrelsome, yet fancy one of these birds allowing another of his species to come to his home-tree! Every close observer of bird-ways knows that it is apparently the first article in the avian creed to keep every other bird away from the nest.
And how did the terrible “ brigand ” treat his neighbors ? The robin, indeed, he drove away, but meadow larks sang and “ sputtered ” at their pleasure, not only beside him on the fence, but on his own small tree ; goldfinches flew over, singing and calling, and no notice was taken of them ; sparrows hopped about among the branches of the thorn at their discretion; a chickadee one day made searching examination of nearly every twig and leaf, going close to and over the nest, where the sitting bird must have seen him, yet not a peep arose. Sometimes, when madam left her nest for refreshment, she would sweep by a bird who happened to he on the tree, thus making him fly, but she never followed or showed any special interest in him. Whatever other shrikes may be or do, at least this pair, and the three or four others who visited them, were amiable with their neighbors, small as well as great.
If bravery is a virtue, — and why is it not, in feathers us well as in broadcloth? — the shrike should stand high in our estimation, for he does not hesitate to attack and make his prey animals which few birds of his size dare touch ; not only mice, hut creatures as well armed as gophers and others.
X was particularly desirous to hear the song of the shrike. He is not classed with singing birds, and is not, I think, usually credited with being musical. But Thoreau speaks of his song, and others mention it. John Burroughs tells of a shrike singing in his vicinity in winter. “ a crude broken warble,” — “saluting the sun as a robin might have done.' Winter, indeed, seems to be his chosen time for singing, and an ornithologist in St. Albans says that in that season he sings by the hour in the streets of the town.
Therefore did I sit unobtrusively on the near side of the thron-tree, leaving the birds their screen, to encourage them to sing; and at last I had my reward. One very hot day I did not reach my place under the maple till after nine o’clock, and I found the shrike, as I frequently did, on the fence, on guard. In a few moments, when I had become quiet, he went to the nest, and sitting there on the edge, hidden from my distinct view, he condescended to sing, a low, sweet song, truly musical, though simple in construction, being merely a single clear note followed by a trill several tones higher. After delivering this attractive little aria a dozen or more times, he flew out of the tree and over my head, and sang no more.
My curiosity about his song being thus gratified, I decided to seek a better post of observation ; for I hoped every day to find that sitting was over, and the young had appeared. I therefore walked farther up the road, quite past the tree, and took my seat beside the fence, where I could see the whole nest perfectly. The birds at once recognized that all hope of concealment was over, and became much more wary. The singer came less frequently, and was received in silence. Also he took me under strict surveillance, perching on a dead branch of the mapletree, and sitting there half an hour at a time, motionless but wide awake ; ready, no doubt, to defend the nest if I made hostile demonstrations toward it.
For a long time I had my lonely road to myself, almost the sole passer-by being a boy who drove the village cows back and forth, and whom I had taken pains to interest in the safety of the little family. But such a state of things could not last. One morning, as I sat in my usual place, I noticed a party of girls starting out with baskets and pails after berries. They scattered over the meadow, and while I trembled for meadow lark and bobolink babies, I hoped they would not see me ; but one of them came directly to the thorn-tree. As she approached I turned away, as if I had no particular interest in the tree, but, unfortunately, just as she was passing, the bird flew off the nest. The girl looked up, and instantly shouted to me, Oh, here’s a bird’s-nest! ” “ Yes,” I replied, knowing that my best policy was to claim it. “ that’s the nest I am watching.” After a sharp look at the tree she went on ; but I was much disturbed, for I regard a nest discovered almost the same as a nest robbed. Would she tell ? Should I some day find the nest broken up or destroyed ? Every morning, after that, I took my long, lonely walk with misgivings, and did not feel easy till I had seen the birds.
One very notorious habit of the shrike I had been especially desirous of investigating, — that of impaling his prey. Judging from what has been written about him, it must be a common performance, his daily business, and I confidently expected to see his thorn-tree adorned, from roots to topmost twig, with grasshoppers and beetles, not to mention small birds and animals. Early in my visits to him I looked the tree over carefully, and, not content with my own eyes, called in the aid of a friend. Moreover, we together made diligent search in the only other thorn-tree in the vicinity, one spoken of above. Not a sign could we discover in either tree of any such use of a thorn, though thorns were there in abundance. Again, one day I saw the bird very busy about the barbed-wire fence, and remembering to have seen the statement that shrikes in the West, where thorn - trees are absent, impale their grasshoppers on the barbs, I thought, “ Now I have surely caught you at it! ” I did not disturb him, and he worked at that spot some time. But when he had gone I hastened over to see what beetle or bird he had laid up, when behold, the barbs were us empty as the thorns. In fact, I was never able to find the smallest evidence that the bird ever does impale anything, and the St. Albans ornithologist spoken of adds as his testimony that he has often examined the haunts of this bird, but has never found anything impaled.
The same was true in another case where I had opportunity to study the habits of a family of shrikes, both parents and full-grown young ones. I not only watched them closely, but, with the help of other eyes beside my own, I diligently searched the only thorn-tree in the neighborhood, without discovering a trace of its having been used as a larder. Their common diet was insects gathered from a cultivated field, the wire fence of which was their constant perch, and once I saw a young one feasting upon a field mouse.
All this, of course, does not prove that the shrike never impales his prey, but it does prove that be does not spend all his time at the work; and while I have no doubt be has the habit, I believe the accounts of it are very much exaggerated.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, a cool, and in that remote part of the world a delightfully quiet day, I felt an unaccountable disinclination to make my usual visit to the shrikes. Refusing, however, to yield to that feeling, I forced myself to take the long walk, and seat myself in my usual place. But I could not feel much surprise when, after more than an hour’s close watching, the birds failed to appear, and I became convinced that they were gone. Whether shot by man or boy, robbed by beast or bird or human, it was plain I had seen the last of the thorn-tree family ; for I knew positively that in that hour no one had gone to or come from the nest, and I was sure, from my knowledge of her, that the sitting bird would not remain an hour without eating, even if her mate had stayed away so long. Of course, 1 concluded, that girl had told her discovery, and some boy had heard, and broken up the home. I looked carefully on every side. The nest seemed undisturbed, but not a sign of life appeared about it, and sadly enough I folded my chair and went back to the village.
Six days passed, in which I avoided going up the lonely road, the scene of my disappointment, but I turned my attention to bird affairs in the town. One case which interested me greatly was of “ pauperizing ” a bird. It was a least flycatcher, and her undoing was her acceptance of nesting material, which her human friend, the oft-mentioned local bird-lover, supplied. To secure a unique nest for herself, when the flycatcher babies should have abandoned it, this wily personage, who was the accepted providence of half the birds in the vicinity, and on terms of great familiarity with some of them, threw out narrow strips of cloth of various colors, to tempt the small nest-builder. At first the wise little madam refused to use the gayer pieces, but being beguiled by the device of sewing a bright one between two of duller hue, her scruples were overcome ; and after that, her fall into total dependence was easy and complete. She accepted the most brilliant pieces that were offered, and built her nest therewith.
But alas, from the moment of yielding to her vanity or her love of ease, troubles began in the flycatcher family. The robin nesting in an adjoining tree reproved her by tugging at the gay strings that hung out ; the English sparrow across the way set herself up as a conservator of morals, and, to teach Madam Chebek modesty becoming her size, tried to pull the whole to pieces. Then when Chebek, who is no coward, had succeeded in putting an end to neighborly interference, the nest began to show a deplorable disinclination to u stay put.” Whether the material could not be properly fastened, or whether the bird was so demoralized as to shirk ordinary precautions, the fact is that every breeze shook the little structure, and four completed nests of this unnatural sort fell, one after another, in ruins to the ground. Then motherly instinct came to the rescue : she refused further aid, removed herself to a distance, built a new nest, after the accredited flycatcher fashion, and it is supposed brought out her brood safely, if rather late. So hard it is, in the bird world as in the human, to help, and not hurt.
More interesting, even, than this flycatcher episode was an adventure one evening when I walked far out on a road, one side of which was deep woods, while the other was bordered by pasture and meadows. My object in going was to hear a white-throated sparrow, who often sang in that vicinity.
I had been resting on my camp-stool very quietly for half an hour, and was just thinking it time to return home, when a strange sort of clacking cry startled me. At first I thought it was made by a frog with a bad cold; but it grew louder, and changed in quality, till it became a whining sound that might be made either by a baby or by some small animal. I looked very carefully up the road whence the sound seemed to come, but saw nothing excepting a robin, who, perched on the highest post of a fence, was looking and listening with great apparent interest, but without making a sound himself, — a very unusual proceeding on the part of this bird, who always has a great deal to say about everything.
The cries increased in volume and frequency, and I started slowly up the road, uncertain whether I should come upon a young fox or other wild beast, but determined to solve the mystery. As I drew near, I began to be conscious of a knocking sound in the woods beside the road. It was like a light tapping on hollow wood, and it regularly followed each cry. I was at once reassured. It must be a woodpecker, I thought, — they do make some strange noises ; and there was a large one, the pileated, said to inhabit these woods, though I had never been able to see him. I went on more confidently then, for I must see what woodpecker baby could utter such cries. As I continued to advance, though I could still see nothing, I noticed that the tapping grew louder every moment.
Suddenly there was a movement at the edge of a thick clump of ferns, and my eyes fell upon what I thought was, after all, a big toad or frog. It hopped like one of these reptiles, and as it was growing dusky, feathers and fur and bare skin looked much alike. But being anxious to know positively, I went on, and when I reached it I saw that it was a young bird, nearly as big as a robin just out of the nest. Then I dropped all impedimenta, and gave myself unreservedly to the catching of that bird. He fled under the ferns, which were like a thick mat, and I stooped and parted them, he flying ever ahead till he reached the end and came out in sight. Then I pounced upon him, and had him in my hands.
Such a shriek as he gave! while he struggled and bit, and proved himself very savage indeed. More startling, however, than his protest was a cry of anguish that answered it from the woods, a heart-rending, terrible cry, the wail of a mother about to be bereaved. I looked up, and lo! in plain sight, in her agony forgetting her danger, and begging by every art in her power, a cuckoo. Her distress went to my heart; I could not resist her pleading. One instant I held that vociferous cuckoo baby, to have a good look at him, speaking soothingly to the mother the while, and then opened my hand, when he half flew, half scrambled, to the other side of the road, and set up another cry, more like that of his mother. Seeing her infant at liberty, she slipped back into the woods and resumed the calls, which sounded so remarkably like tapping, while he started up the road, answering; and thus I left them.
Several times after that, I heard from the woods — for
“The cuckoo delights in the cool leafy shadows Where the nest and its treasures are rocked by the breeze ” — the same strange calling of a cuckoo mother, a weird, unearthly, knocking sound, not in the least like the ordinary “ kuk! kuk ! ” of the bird. I should never have suspected that it was anything but the tap of an unusually cautious woodpecker, if I had not caught her at it that night.
On the sixth evening after I had thought myself bereaved of the shrikes I went out for a walk with my friend, and we turned our steps into the lonely road. As we approached the thorn, what was my surprise to see the shrike in his old place on the fence, and, after waiting a few minutes, to see his mate go to the ground for her lunch, as if nothing had happened!
Then they had not deserted ! But how and why all life about the nest had been suspended for one hour on the Fourth of July is a puzzle to this day. However it may have happened, I was delighted to find the birds safe, and at once resumed my study; going out the next morning as usual, staying some hours, and again toward night for another visit.
Now I was sure it must be time for the young to be out, for I knew positively that the bird had been sitting fourteen days, and twenty-one days had passed since she was frightened off her nest twice in one day.
I redoubled my vigilance, but I saw no change in the manners of the pair till the morning of July 12th. All night there had been a heavy downpour, and the morning broke dismally, with strong wind and a drizzling rain. I knew the lonely road would be most unattractive, but no vagaries of wind or weather could keep me away at this crisis. I found it all that I had anticipated — and more. The clay soil was cut up from fence to fence by cows’ feet, and whether it presented an unbroken puddle or a succession of small ones made by the hoof-prints, it was everywhere so slippery that retaining one’s footing was no slight task, and of course there was no pretense of a sidewalk. Add to this the difficulty of holding an umbrella against the fierce gusts, and it may be imagined that my pathway that morning was not “ strewn with roses.”
In some fashion, however, I did at last reach the thorn-tree, planted my chair in the least wet spot I could find, and, tucking my garments up from the ground, sat down. At first I discarded my unmanageable umbrella, till the raindrops obscuring my opera - glass forced me to open it again. And all these preliminaries had to be settled before I could so much as look at the nest.
Something had happened, as I saw at once ; the manners of the birds were very different from what they had been all these days I had been studying them. Both of them were at the nest when I looked, but in a moment one flew, and the other slipped into her old seat, though not so entirely into it as usual. Heretofore she had been able to hide herself so completely that it was impossible to tell whether she were there or not. Even the tail, which in most birds is the unconcealable banner that proclaims to the birdstudent that the sitter is at home, even this unruly member she had been able to hide in some way, but this morning it remained visible.
In a minute the shrike returned and fed somebody, —I suppose his mate, since she did not move aside ; and again in another minute he repeated the operation. So he went on bringing food perhaps a dozen times in close succession. Then he rested a few minutes, when she who through the long days of sitting had been so calm and quiet seemed all at once as restless as any warbler. She rose on the edge of the nest, and uttered the low, yearning cry I had heard from him, then flew to the ground, returned, perched on the edge, leaned over, and gave three pokes as if feeding. Then she flew to another part of the tree, thence to a fence post, then back again to the edge of the nest. In a moment the uneasy bird slipped into her old place, but, apparently too restless to stay, was out again in a few seconds, when she stood up in the nest and began calling, — a loud but musical two-note call, the second tone a third higher than the first, and different from anything I had heard from her before. If it were a call to her mate, he did not at once appear, and she relieved her feelings by flying to the maple and perching a few minutes, though so great was the attraction at home that she could stay away but a short time.
Of course I concluded from all this that the young shrikes were out, and I longed with all my heart to stay and watch the charming process of changing from the ungainly creatures they were at that moment to the full-grown and feathered beauties they would be when they appeared on the tree; to see them getting their education, learning to follow their parents about, and finally seeking their own food, still keeping together in a family party, as I had seen them once before, elsewhere, — lovely, innocent younglings whom surely no one could find it in his heart to call “ butchers ” or “ assassins.” Then, too, I wanted to see the head of the family, who in the character of spouse had shown himself so devoted, so above reproach, in the new role of father and teacher, in which I had no doubt he would be equally admirable.
But dearly as I love birds, there are other ties still dearer, and just then there came a call that made me leave the pair with their new joy pack my trunks, and speed, night and day, halfway across the continent, beyond the Great Divide, to a certain cosy valley in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
Before I left, however, I committed the little family in the thorn-tree to the care of my friend the bird-lover ; and a few weeks later there came over the mountains to me this conclusion to the story, written by Mrs. Nelly Hart Woodworth, of St. Albans : —
“ I was at the shrikes’ nest Thursday last. [This was nine days after my final visit.] I sat down on the knoll beyond the nest, and waited quietly for fifteen minutes. No signs of life in nest or neighborhood, save the yearning cry of the lark as it alighted on the top of the thorn-tree. After I was convinced that, in some unaccountable manner, the shrikes had been spirited away before they were half big enough, I changed my place to the other side of the tree, out of sight from the nest. When I had been there for a long time, I heard distinctly a low whispering in the nest, and lo ! the butcher babies had become sentient beings and were talking very softly and sweetly among themselves. They had evidently miscalculated about my departure. Then two or three little heads stuck out above the edge, and the soft stirring of baby wings was apparent. They cuddled and nestled and turned themselves, and one little butcher hoisted himself upon the upper side of the nest, stood upright briefly and beat his wings, then sank into the nest, which was full of life and movement. So much for that day.
“ Friday one stood upon the edge of the nest, and others looked out, but no feeding bird came while I was there.
“ Saturday I was in fortune, as I met in the vicinity the boy who drives the village cows. Two heads only were visible over the edge. But the boy, with a boy’s genius for investigation, brought a fence rail, put it under the branch, and shook them up a little. They only huddled closer. At my suggestion he gave a more vigorous shake, and a baby climbed from the nest, a foot or two above, then flew as well as anybody clear up into the top of the tree. Such a pretty baby ! breast white as snow, lovely black crescent through the eyes, and the dearest little tail imaginable, half an inch long, and flirted up and down continually.
“ The other bird — for there were but two —ran up the twigs for two feet, but quickly returned to the nest, and would not leave it again, though we could see its wondering eyes look out and peer at us. Both were gone the next day (twelve days old). And thus endeth the butcher episode.”
Now also must end— for a time — my study of this interesting bird. But I shall not forget it, and I shall seek occasion to study it again and again, till I have proved, if I find it true, that the shrike deserves better of us than the character we have given him ; that he is not nearly “ so black as he is painted.”
Olive Thorne Miller.