THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
I USED to love the birds, and to await eagerly their coming in the spring. The gleam of blue wing or of ruddy breast has always been the best tonic in the world after the long winter waiting, though, even through the whitest months, the caw of the crow has sounded with unextinguishable courage, and the splendid jay has taunted our pale skies with his tropical coloring. In many a waving meadow of long grass I have listened with joy to many a bobolink; in more than one dark, sequestered spot in the woods I have harkened with reverence to the incomparable note of the hermit thrush, which archangels might envy. The companionship of silent wing, and of alert watching eyes, I have shared gladly in many a solitude. I used to love the birds, but now I think I hate them.
This sorry change in me is the work of the Bird Fiend. Do not be alarmed. My title does not allude to any newly discovered existing species, nor have I unearthed the bones of any pre-historic fowl with cruel beak and unimaginable talons. The genus to which I allude is to be found sitting quietly on any modest hotel piazza in the mountains, on any summer afternoon, or meandering innocently through the forest. It is very numerous; it is far from fierce, and, though it multiplies with fearful rapidity, it does small harm to crops or trees. Many a pretty bit of scientific description could be written of the different varieties, perhaps as follows; —
Male: slender, dull-colored, with mild blue eye, no plumage on the top of head. Habits, migratory. Mountains in summer, lecture or school-room in winter.
Female: short, bustling, somewhat grayish; plumage slightly draggled; keeps up a constant twitter; is seldom known to pair. Summer haunts, the hotels of New England.
Seriously, have not you, too, grown to dread those people of despotic minds and unwearied muscles who are finding out all about the birds ? As for me, I have followed up baking mountain-sides, and down into slippery valleys at their beck and call; through many a luncheon or dinner I have listened with an aimless smile to minute disquisitions, when in reality I did not care whether the bird in question went on two legs or four; I have tired my eyes in study of bird books, where my old friends appear in horrible chromos, their delicate tints dyed to impossible combinations of crimson and magenta. When I am out of doors the beat of a swift wing, which used to bring me always a thrill of pleasure, makes me nervous. If an unknown note sounds over my head, I glance stealthily at my companions, hoping that they have not heard. Always I tiptoe lightly in forest and meadow, lest some new species start up. I dislike the song sparrow, turn my back upon the scarlet tanager, and shun the Baltimore oriole. I could almost assist at that crime which is hinted of modern Italy as something worthy of the land of the Borgias, — I could almost eat a nightingale. I cannot help recalling something which I heard once in a Southern pulpit, where an eloquent clergyman was preaching in early spring; and there are times when I would that what he said were true. He meant to say, “The buds are bursting on the trees,” but, to his chagrin, he twisted it into, “The birds are busting on the trees.” A second attempt succeeded no better, and I can still hear the angry assertiveness of his third statement: “The birds are busting on the trees.”
As apology for this vindictiveness I can only say that it is not caused by mere physical weariness, but also by dislike of mental dissipation resulting from this passion. How often are you nearing the most interesting point in a conversation when, hist! it is broken off, while your companion, finger on lip, crouches earthward or strains heavenward, silently absorbed, or whispering in the noisy quiet of the lady scientist. Now, as every one knows, ideas are far more shy even than birds, and many a choice flock of them have I known frightened away forever in the chase for more tangible wild fowl.
I object, too, to the mercenary nature of the interest. This emulation in regard to the mere number of birds seen seems to me no noble one. They show, these pseudo-scientists, a passion for higher figures which would shame a stock exchange. I have known rival parties to rise at dawn and plunge into wet wood or meadow, to see which could boast the longest list of birds seen in a given season; and I have heard reluctant confessions of having counted the ever-present crow and the domestic rooster in order to swell the numbers.
I object to the absurd actions, as well as to the absurd ideas, of these enthusiasts. I once observed a whole piazza full of people peeping, whistling in imitation of different bird-notes; then, even the bell-boy falling into line, flying with flapping arms and hands. I could not help being reminded of certain mythological tales: the Children of Lir, changed into swans with golden chains about their necks; the wicked King Tereus, turned into a hawk, forever pursuing Philomela, become, for her sins, a nightingale; Procne, become a swallow; and I have wished that, if my contemporaries are to be changed into birds, the transformation, as in the earlier cases, could be immediate and complete.
After all, it is a prying, gossipy interest that these naturalists possess. They care only for the surface, not the soul of the bird; they are feather-brained all. I, who have loved the birds for their suggestiveness, their mystery, for their undiscovered routes of air, their long trail southward, their sure return, object to hearing so many unimportant bits of information. “Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom?” was divinely asked long ago, and never answered. It annoys me to know how many spots this species has upon the breast, how many bars that other species wears upon the tail. My mind is not a scrapbasket, and isolated facts worry me until they gain significance by falling into place. I live in perpetual apprehension of new discoveries, as of new inventions. Who knoweth the path of the wild fowl ? Alas! I fear that the answer will soon be, the Brothers Wright.