The "Bird of the Musical Wing"
MR. BRADFORD TORREY has started an inquiry into the conduct of the ruby-throated humming-bird, who is said, contrary to the habits of the feathered world in general, to absent himself from his family during the time that his mate is brooding and rearing the young. The question of interest to settle is his motive in so doing. Does he consider his brilliant ruby dangerous to the safety of the nest, and so deny himself the pleasure as well as the pain of family life ? Does he selfishly desert outright, and return to bachelor ways, when his mate settles herself to her domestic duties ? Or does the pugnacious little creature herself decline not only his advice and counsel, but even his presence ?
This problem in the life of the bird has lent new interest to its study, and I was greatly pleased, last summer, when the bursting into bloom of a trumpet creeper, which clad with beauty the branches of an old locust-tree, attracted to the door of my temporary home this
Bird of the musical wing.”
No sooner did the great red trumpets begin to open than their winged admirers appeared, and the special object of my interest — whether by right of discovery or by force of will I could not determine— asserted her claim to the vine and its vicinity, and at once proceeded to evict every pretender to any share of the treasure. Nor was it a difficult task ; for though the smallest of our birds, the rubythroat is perhaps the most spirited. No bird, not even the mighty eagle, standard-bearer of the republic, is too big for this midget to attack, and none fails to retire before his rapier-like beak. Madam of the vine lacked none of the courage and self-assertion of her race, and a few lively skirmishes convinced the neighbors, with one exception, that this particular crop of blossoms was preëmpted and no trespassing allowed. That matter happily arranged, she settled down in peace to enjoy her estate, and I followed her example.
July was nearly half gone when blossoms began to unclose on the vine and my lady took possession. The world about the house and orchard was full of melody, for goldfinches were just celebrating their nuptials, and birds have to furnish their own wedding music. Though a march may express the pomp and ceremony of human marriage, a rhapsody is more in harmony with joyous bird unions, and the air rang with their raptures. The marriage hymn of the humming-bird — if any there were — was not for human ears ; indeed, most of the life, certainly all of the wedded life of this bird, is shrouded in mystery, perhaps never to be unraveled till we understand bird language, and can subject him to an “ interview.”
The first thing that surprised me in my little neighbor was her volubility, for I had never found her kin talkative. She made remarks to herself, doubtless both witty and wise, but sounding to her dull-eared hearers, it must be confessed, like squeaky twitters ; and somewhat later, when she recognized me as an admirer, as I fully believe she did, she even addressed some conversation to me, going out of her way to fly over my head as she did so.
Nothing could be more dainty than her way of exploring the flowers on her vine. Poising herself on wing before a blossom, she first gazed earnestly into its rosy depths, to judge of its quality, — or possibly of its tenants; for it was not nectar alone that she sought. If it pleased her, she dashed upon it, seized the lower rim with her tiny claws, and folded her wings. Then drawing her head far back, she thrust her beak, her head, and sometimes her whole body into the flower tube, her plump little form completely filling it; and there she hung motionless for a few seconds, while I struggled with the temptation to inclose blossom and bird in my hand. If the flower chanced to be an old one, her roughness sometimes detached it, when she hastily backed out, protesting indignantly, and looking over to see it fall.
Atom though the hummer was, hardly more than a pinch of feathers, she was a decided character, with notions and ways of her own. One of her fancies was to open the honey-pots for herself. When she found a bud beginning to unclose, a lobe or two unfolded, she at once took it in hand and vigorously proceeded to aid the process with her needlelike beak, and the instant it was accomplished rushed in to secure her spoils in their first freshness. She never appeared to have patience to wait for anything, and sometimes even tried to hurry up dilatory buds. She did succeed, as such vehemence must, in breaking in the back way, as it were, through a hole in the corolla tube, and rifling the bud before it had a chance to become a blossom. I could not decide positively whether she pierced the tubes, or availed herself of the labors of an oriole I had seen splitting them by inserting his beak and then opening it wide to enlarge the hole.
One quality that my little friend most woefully lacked was repose. Not only were her motions jerky and exasperating in the extreme, but during my whole acquaintance with her I never saw her for a moment absolutely still. On the rare occasions when her body was at rest, her head turned from side to side as though moved by machinery, like the mandarin dolls of the toy-shops, and I had doubts whether she ever slept. I was really concerned about her. Nervous prostration seemed the only thing she could look forward to ; and later I found that Bradford Torrey had suffered similar anxiety about one of her kind, as related in his charming story A Widow and Twins.
There was one exception, as I said, to the complete success of the little lady in green in establishing her claim to the vine. The individual who refused to be convinced interested me greatly. He looked a guileless and innocent youth; his tender age being indicated by a purer white on the breast, and a not fully grown tail. Moreover, he was not so deft in movement as the experienced matron he defied ; he was almost clumsy, in fact, having some difficulty in manœuvring his unwieldy beak and getting his head into the tube, and being much disconcerted by the swaying of the blossoms in the breeze. Youth and innocence were shown, too, in the manner of the little stranger toward my lady. He approached her in a confiding way, as if expecting a welcome, and was plainly astonished at being attacked instead. Indeed, he apparently could not believe his repulse was serious, for he soon returned in the most friendly spirit, and utterly refused to be driven away.
After making myself well acquainted with the manners and ways of Madam Rubythroat, and noting that she always took her departure in exactly the same direction and at quite regular intervals, I began to suspect that she had important business somewhere; probably a nest, possibly a pair of twin babies. Should I undertake the hopeless task of seeking that tiny lichen-covered cradle, so nearly resembling a thousand knots and other protuberances that one might as easily find the proverbial needle in a haystack, or should I turn my attention to other inviting quarters on the place ? While I hesitated, balancing the attractions, madam herself chanced to give me a hint. One morning, as I was watching her steady flight across the lawn, I caught a decided upward swerve of the gleaming line, and instantly resolved to take the hint, if such it were. I went quietly to a pear-tree on her course, and waited for the next point, if she chose to give it. She did ; she was most obliging, — may I venture to say friendly? Almost immediately she passed me, and alighted on one of a row of tall trees that lined the road. There she hovered for a moment, giving sharp digs at one spot, as though detaching something, and then flew straight along the line to an immense silver poplar.
Here at last the bird settled, and a wild hope sprang up in my heart. Stealing nearer to the tree without taking my eyes from the spot; ignoring the danger of pitfalls in my path, of holes to fall into and rocks to fall over, of briers to scratch and snakes to bite, I drew as near as I dared, and then cautiously raised my glass to my eyes, and behold ! the nest with my lady upon it! The thrill of that moment none but a fellow bird lover can understand. What now was the most beguiling of chats; what the danger of dislocating my neck ; what the dread of neighborhood wonder ; what the annoyance of mosquitoes, or clogs, or small boys, or loose cattle, or anything ? There was the nest. (I am obliged to admit, parenthetically, that nearly all these calamities befell me during my devotion to that nest, but I never faltered in my attentions, and I never regretted.)
At the moment of discovery, however, I was too excited to watch. First carefully locating the tiny object by means of a dead branch, —for I knew I should have to seek it again if I lost it then, and the luck of finding it so easily could not fall to me twice, — I rushed to the house to share my enthusiasm with a sympathizer.
My lady rubythroat was a canny bird ; she had selected her position with judgment. The silver poplar of her choice was covered with knobs so exactly copied by the nest that no one would have suspected it of being anything different. It was on a dead branch, so that foliage could not trouble her, while leafy twigs grew near enough for protection. No large limb afforded rest for a human foe, and it was at the neck-breaking height of twenty feet from the ground. Neckbreaking indeed I found it, after a trial of twenty minutes’ duration, which, judging from my sensations, might have been a century.
But whether my head ever recovered its natural pose or not, I was happy ; for I saw the humming-bird shaping her snug domicile to her tidy form, turning around and around in it, pressing with breast and bend of the wing, as I was certain, from the similarity of her attitude and motions to those of a robin I had closely watched at the same work. During the time I watched her she made ten trips between the poplar and the vine, and at every visit worked at shaping the nest and adjusting the outside material. She did not care for my distant and inoffensive presence on the earth below, and she probably did not suspect the power of my glass to spy upon her secrets, for she showed no discomfiture at my frequent visits. Indeed, she took pains to let me know that she had her eye upon me, for twice when she left the nest she swerved from her course to swoop down over my head, squeaking most volubly as she passed.
While sitting at my post of observation, my neck sometimes refused to retain its unnatural position a moment longer, and then I refreshed myself with other objects around; for, after some search, I had found a charming place for study. It was beside a rocky ledge which ran through the middle of a bit of meadow-land, and happily defied being cultivated, although it supported a flourishing crop of wildings, — scattering elm, oak, and pine trees, with sumac, goldenrod, and other sweet things to fill up the tangle. Under a low-spreading tree I placed my seat: at my back the screening rocks, in front a strip of meadow waiting for the mower. Along the side where I entered ran a stone wall, but before me was a stretch of delightfully dilapidated old board and pole fence. It had been reinforced and made available for keeping out undesirables by barbed wire, but at my distance that was inconspicuous and did not disturb me. The fence had never been painted, the wind and weather of many years had toned it down to the hue of a treetrunk, and it was so thoroughly decorated with lichens that it had come to look almost like a bit of Nature’s work, — if Nature could have made anything so ugly. I believe the birds regarded it as a special arrangement for their benefit. Certainly they used it freely.
But beyond the fence was a genuine bit of Nature’s handiwork in which man had no part : an extended and luxuriant tangle, bordering the river, of alder and other bushes, with here and there a young tree, elm, apple, cedar, or wild cherry ; and winding through it a bewitching path, made by cows in their unconventional and meandering style and for their own convenience, penetrating every charming nook in the shrubbery, and so unnoticeable at its entrance that one might pass it and not suspect its presence. In this path bushes met over their heads, often not high enough for ours, wild roses perfumed the air. and meadow-sweet lingered long after it was gone from haunts less cool and shaded. Every turn offered a new and fascinating picture, and a stroll through the irresistible way always began or ended my day’s study.
For several days following my happy discovery I spent much time watching domestic affairs in the poplar-tree. The little matron was not a steady sitter. From two to four minutes, at intervals of about the same length, was as long as she could possibly remain in one place ; and even then she entertained herself by rearranging the materials composing her nest, till I began to fear she would have it pulled to pieces before the birdlings appeared. Beautiful beyond words was her manner of entering and leaving her snug home. On departing, she simply spread her wings and floated off, as if lifted by the rising tide of an invisible element; and on returning, she sank from a height of ten or twelve inches, as if by the subsidence of the same tide.
This corner of my small world, however enchanting with its rocky ledge, its cow-path, and its nest, did not absorb me entirely. Life about the trumpetvine was far more stirring and eventful. It was there that madam spent half her time, for at that point, as well as at the nest, were duties to be performed, her larder to he defended, intruders to be banished, and crops to be gathered ; there, too, in the intervals, her toilet to be made. That a creature so tiny should make a toilet at all was wonderful to think of, and to see her do it was charming. Each minute feather on gossamer wing or widespread tail was passed carefully through her beak ; from all soft plumage, the satin white of the breast and the burnished green of the back, every particle of dust was removed and every disarrangement was set right. Her long white tongue, looking like a bristle, was often thrust out far beyond the beak, and the beak itself received an extra amount of care, being scraped and polished its whole length by a tiny claw, which was used also for combing the head feathers.
At the vine, too, was war ; for the youngster already mentioned persisted in denying the matron’s right to the whole, and many a sharp tussle they had, when for an hour at a time there would not be a shadow of peace for anybody. Occasionally madam would relax her opposition to the intruder and let him remain on the vine ; but, with the proverbial ingratitude of beneficiaries, he then assumed to own it himself, and flew at her when she returned from a visit to her nest, as if she had no right there. His advantage lay in having nothing else to do, and thus being able to spend all his time on the ground.
The energy of the little mother was wonderful. In spite of the unrest of her life, of continual struggles, and work over the nest, she frequently indulged in marvelous aerial evolutions, dashing into the air and marking it off into zigzag lines and angles, as if either she did not know her own mind for two seconds at a time, or was forced to take this way to work off surplus vitality. During all this time I was hoping to see her mate. But if he appeared at all, as several times a ruby-throated individual did, she promptly sent him about his business.
It was the 19th of July when I decided that sitting had finally begun on the poplar-tree nest, madam controlling her restlessness sometimes for the great space of ten minutes, and working no more on the structure. Now I redoubled my vigilance, going out from the breakfast-table, and spending my day under the rocky ledge, leaving matters at the trumpet-vine to take care of themselves. On the 28th I started out as usual. There had been a heavy fog all night and not a breath of wind stirring, and I found the whole world loaded with waterdrops. When I reached the stone wall which bounded my delightsome field, and slipped through my private gate, I stopped in amazement at the sight before me. The fine meadowgrass was bowed down with its weight of treasure, as if a strong wind had laid it low, and every stem strung its whole length with minute crystals. Purpleflowering grasses turned the infinitesimal gems that adorned every angle into richest amethysts, and looked like jeweled sprays fit for the queen of fairies. Every spider’s web was glorified into a net of pearls of many sizes, all threatening, if touched, to mass themselves and run down the tunnel, at the bottom of which, it is to be presumed, sat Madam Arachne waiting for far other prey.
I looked on all this magnificence with admiration and dismay. Should I wade through that sea of gems, which at the touch of my garments would resolve themselves, like the diamonds of the fairy tales, not into harmless dead leaves, but into mere vulgar wet ? The hummer flew by to her nest, goldfinches called from the ledge. I hesitated — and went on. Making a path before me with my stick, stepping with care, to disturb no drop unnecessarily, and leaving to every spider her net full of pearls, I reached my usual place, and seated myself in a sea of jewels such as no empress ever wore. And behold, the old fence too was transfigured with strange hieroglyphics, into which dampness had changed the lichens, and one half-dead old tree, under the same subtle influence, had clad its bare and battered branches in royal velvet, of varied tints of green, white, and black.
At last I turned lingeringly from all this beauty to the nest. Ah ! something had happened there too ! Madam sat on the edge, leaned over, and made some movements within. At my distance I could not be positive, but I could guess — and I did, and subsequent events confirmed me — that birdlings were out. Like other bird mammas she sat on those infants as steadily as she had sat on the eggs, and it was a day or two later before I saw her feed. This was the murderous - looking fashion in which that dainty sprite administered nourishment to her babies : she clung to the edge of the nest, and appeared to address herself to the task of charging an old-fashioned muzzle-loading gun, using her beak for a ramrod, and sending it well home, violently enough, one would suppose, to disintegrate the nestling on whom she operated. If I had not read Mr. Torrey’s description of humming-bird feeding. I should have thought the green-clad dame was destroying her offspring, instead of tenderly ministering to their wants.
Bird babies grow apace. Appetites waxed stronger, and the trumpet - vine had dropped its blossoms. The little mother had to seek new fields, and she settled on a patch of jewelweed for her supplies. Now, if ever, was needed the help of her mate, but not once did he show himself. Was he loitering — as the books hint — at a distance, and did she go to him now and then, on her many journeys, to tell him how the young folk progressed ? I cannot tell; I was busy watching the business partner ; I had no time to hunt up absentees. But I have a “ theory,” which may or may not explain his apparent indifference. It is that the small dame, so intolerant of neighbors even on her feeding-ground, simply cannot endure any one about her, and prefers to do all her building and bringing-up herself, with no one to “bother.” Have we not seen her prototype in the human world ?
The young hummers had been out of their shells for two weeks before I saw them, and then the sight was unsatisfactory, — only the flutter of a tiny wing, and two sharp beaks thrust up above the edge. But after this day beaks were nearly always to be seen, and sometimes a small round head, or a glistening white tongue, or the point of a wing appeared to encourage me. Baby days were now fast passing away ; the mother fed industriously, and the “ pair of twins, waxed strong and pert, sat up higher in the nest, and began the unceasing wag of the head from side to side, like their mother. What a fairylike world was this they were now getting acquainted with! What to them was the presence of human beings, with their interests, their anxieties, and their cares, passing far below on the road, or what even the solitary bird student, sitting hour after hour by the rocks in silence, turning inquisitive eyes upon them ? The green tree was their world, and their mother was queen. Valiantly did this indefatigable personage drive away every intrader, bravely facing the chickadee who happened to alight in passing, even showing fight to the wasps that buzzed about her castle in the air. I shall always think she really knew me, and had a not unfriendly feeling toward me ; for when I met her about the place, even away from the nest, she frequently greeted me with what one would not wish to be so disrespectful as to call a squeaking twitter.
As the end of the three weeks reported to be necessary to fit baby hummers for life drew near. I rarely left the rocky ledge for an hour of daylight, so anxious was I to see a nestling try his wings. The mother herself seemed to be in a state of expectancy, and would often, after feeding, linger about the little home, as if inviting or expecting a youngster to come out to her. At the last I could not stay in my bed in the morning, but rushed out before sunrise, remembering how momentous are the early morning hours in the bird world. But it was noon of the twenty-first day of his life when the first baby flew. He had just been fed, and he sat on the edge of the nest beating his wings, when all at once away he went, floating off like a bit of thistledown, up and out of sight. Though expecting it and looking for it, I was greatly startled when the moment came.
The last act in the little drama was a pretty scene in the bushes. I was wandering about in the hope of one more interview, when suddenly my lady and a young one alighted on a twig before me. She appeared to feed the youth, hovered about him an instant, and with the tip of her beak touched him gently on the forehead. Then, with a farewell twitter, both flew away over my head, so closely they almost swept me with their wings. And so the pretty story of the nest was ended.
Olive Thorne Miller.