The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 5/The Birds of the Garden and Orchard
THE BIRDS OF THE GARDEN AND ORCHARD.
The singing-birds whose notes are familiar to us, in towns and villages and the suburbs of the city, are found in the breeding-season only in these places, and are strangers to the deep woods and solitary pastures. Most of our singing-birds follow in the wake of the pioneer of the wilderness, and increase in numbers with the clearing and settlement of the country,—not, probably, from any dependence on the protection of mankind, but on account of the increased abundance of the insect food upon which they subsist, consequent upon the tilling of the ground. It is well known that the labors of the husbandman cause an excessive multiplication of all those species of insects whose larvae are cherished in the soil, and of all that infest the orchard and garden. The farm is capable of supporting insects just in proportion to its capacity for producing corn and fruit. Insects will multiply with their means of subsistence in and upon the earth; and birds, if not destroyed by artificial methods, will increase in proportion to the multiplication of those insects which constitute their principal food.
These considerations will sufficiently account for the fact, which often excites a little astonishment, that more singing-birds are found in the suburbs of the city, and among the parks and gardens of the city, than in the deep forest, where, even in the singing-season, the silence is sometimes melancholy. It is still to be remarked, that the species which are thus familiar in their habits do not include all the singing-birds, but they include all that are well known to the majority of our people. These are the birds of the garden and orchard. There are many other species, wild and solitary in their habits, which are delightful songsters in uncultivated regions remote from the town. But even these are rare in the depths of the forest. They live on the edge of the wood and in the half-wooded pasture.
The birds of the garden and orchard have been frequently described, and their habits are very generally known; but in the usual descriptions little has been said of their powers and peculiarities of song. In the present sketches, I have given particular attention to the vocal powers of the different birds, and have endeavored to designate the parts which each one performs in the grand hymn of Nature. I shall first introduce the Song-Sparrow, (Fringilla melodia,) a little bird that is universally known and admired. The Song-Sparrow is the earliest visitant and the latest resident of the vocal tenants of the field. He is plain in his vesture, undistinguished from the female by any superiority of plumage, and comes forth in the spring and takes his departure in the autumn in the same suit of russet and gray by which he is always recognized.
In March, before the violet has ventured to peep out from the southern knoll of the pasture or the sunny brow of the hill, while the northern skies are liable to pour down at any hour a storm of sleet and snow, the Song-Sparrow, beguiled by southern winds, has already made his appearance, and, on still mornings, may be heard warbling his few merry notes, as if to make the earliest announcement of his arrival. He is, therefore, the true harbinger of spring, and, though not the sweetest songster of the woods, has the merit of bearing to man the earliest tidings of the opening year, and of declaring the first vernal promises of Nature. As the notes of those birds that sing only in the night come with a double charm to our ears, because they are harmonized by silence and hallowed by the hour that is sacred to repose—in like manner does the Song-Sparrow delight us in tenfold measure, because he sings the sweet prelude to the universal hymn of Nature.
His haunts are the pastures which have been half reduced to tillage, and are still partially filled with wild shrubbery; for he is not so familiar in his habits as the Hair-bird, that comes close up to our door-step, to find the crumbs that are swept from our tables. Though his voice is constantly heard in the garden and orchard, he selects a more retired spot for his nest, preferring not to trust his progeny to the doubtful mercy of the lords of creation. In some secure retreat, under a tussock of herbage or a tuft of shrubbery, the female sits upon her nest of soft dry grass, containing four or five eggs, of a greenish white ground, almost entirely covered with brownish specks. Commencing in April, she rears three broods of young during the season, and her mate prolongs his notes until the last brood has flown from the nest.
The notes of the Song-Sparrow would not entitle him to be ranked among our principal singing-birds, were it not for the remarkable variations of his song, in which respect he is equalled, I think, by no other bird. Of these variations there are seven or eight which may be distinctly recognized, and differing enough to be considered separate tunes. The bird does not warble these in regular succession; he is in the habit of repeating one several times, and then leaves it, and repeats another in a similar manner. Mr. Paine took note, on one occasion, of the number of times a Song-Sparrow sang each of the tunes, and the order of singing them. Of the tunes, as he had numbered them, the bird "sang No. 1, 27 times; No. 2, 36 times; No. 3, 23 times; No. 4, 19 times; No. 5, 21 times; No. 6, 32 times; No. 7, 18 times. Perhaps next he would sing No. 2, then perhaps No. 4, or 5, and so on." Mr. Paine adds, "Some males will sing each tune about fifty times, though seldom; some will only sing them from five to ten times. But as far as I have observed, each male has his seven songs. I have applied the rule to as many as a dozen different birds, and the result has been the same."
An individual will sometimes, for half a day, confine himself almost entirely to a few of these variations; but he will commonly sing each one more or less in the course of the day. I have observed also, that, when one principal singer takes up a particular tune, other birds in the vicinity will unite in the same. The several variations are mostly in triple time, a few in common time, and there is an occasional blending of both in the same tune, which consists usually of four bars or strains, sometimes five, though the song is frequently broken off at the end of the third strain. This habit of varying his notes through so many permutations, and the singularly fine intonations of many of them, entitle the Song-Sparrow to a very high rank as a singing-bird.
There is a manifest difference in the expression of these several tunes. The one which I have marked as No. 3 is particularly plaintive, and is usually in common time. No. 2 is the one which I think is most frequently sung. No. 5 is querulous and entirely unmusical. There is a remarkable precision in the song of this bird, and the finest singers are those which, in the language of musicians, have the least execution. There are some individuals that blend their notes together so promiscuously, and use so many flourishes, that it is difficult to identify their song, or to perceive its expression. Whether these tunes of the Song-Sparrow express to his mate, or to others of his species, different sentiments, and convey different messages, or whether the bird adopts them for his own amusement, I have not been able to determine. Neither have I learned whether a certain hour of the day or a certain state of the weather predisposes him to sing a particular tune. This point may, perhaps, be determined by some future observer; and it may be ascertained that the birds of this species have their matins and their vespers, their songs of rejoicing and of complaining, of courtship when in presence of their mate, and of encouragement and solace when she is sitting upon her nest. As Nature has a benevolent and a definite object in every instinct which she has established among her creatures, it is not probable that this habit of the Song-Sparrow is the mere result of accident. All the variations of his song are given, with the specimens, at the end of this article, and, though individuals differ in their singing, the notes will afford the reader a good general idea of the several tunes.
Soon after the arrival of the Song-Sparrow, when the spring-flowers have begun to be conspicuous in the meadow, we are greeted by the more fervent and lengthened notes of the Vesper-bird, (Fringilla graminea,) poured out with a peculiarly pensive modulation. This species closely resembles the former, but may be distinguished from it, when on the wing, by two white lateral feathers in the tail. The chirp of the Song-Sparrow is also louder, and pitched on a lower key, than that of the present species. By careless observers, these two Finches, on account of the similarity in their general appearance and habits, are considered identical. The Vesper-bird, however, is the least familiar of the two, and, when both are singing at the same time, will be found to occupy a position more remote from the house than the other. In several localities, these two species are distinguished by the names of Bush-Sparrow and Ground-Sparrow, from their supposed different habits of placing their nests, one in a bush and the other on the ground. But they do not in fact differ in this respect, as each species occasionally builds in both ways.
The Vesper-bird attracts more general attention to his notes than the Sparrow, because he sings a longer, though a more monotonous song, and warbles with more fervency. His notes bear considerable resemblance to those of the Canary-bird, but they are more subdued and plaintive, and have a peculiar reedy sound, which is never perceived in the notes of the Canary. This bird is periodical in his habits of song, confining his lays to particular hours of the day and conditions of the weather. The Song-Sparrow, on the contrary, sings about equally from morning to night, and but little more at one hour than another; and the different performers of this species do not seem to join in concert. This habit renders the latter more companionable, at the same time it causes his notes to be less regarded than those of the Vesper-bird, who pours them forth more sparingly, and at regular periods.
The Vesper-bird begins with all his kindred in a general concert at early dawn, after which they are comparatively silent until sunset, when they repeat their concert, with still greater zeal than they chanted in the morning. It is from this circumstance that it has obtained the name it bears—from its evening hymn, or vespers. I have heard this name applied to it only in one locality; but it is so precisely applicable to its habits, that I have thought it worthy of being retained as its distinguishing cognomen. There are particular states of the weather that frequently call out the birds of this species into a general concert at other periods of the day—as when rain is suddenly followed by sunshine, or when a clear sky is suddenly darkened by clouds, presenting to them a sort of occasional morn and occasional even. It may be remarked, that you seldom hear one of these birds singing alone; but when one begins, all others in the vicinity immediately join him.
The usual resorts of the Vesper-bird are the pastures and the hay-fields; hence the name of Grass-Finch, by which he is usually distinguished. His voice is heard frequently by the rustic roadsides, where he picks up a considerable portion of his subsistence. This is the little bird that so generally serenades us during our evening walks, at a little distance from the town, and not so far into the woods as the haunts of the Thrushes. When we go out into the country, on pleasant days in June or July, at nightfall, we hear multitudes of them singing sweetly from a hundred different points in the fields and farms.
Among the birds which are endowed by Nature with the gift of song in connection with gaudy plumage is the American Goldfinch, or Hemp-bird, (Fringilla tristis,) one of the most interesting and delicate of the feathered tribe. Of all our birds this bears the closest resemblance to the Canary, both in his plumage and in the notes of his song. He cannot be ranked with the finest of our songsters, being deficient in compass and variety. But he has great sweetness of tone, and is equalled by few birds in the rapidity of his execution. His note of complaint is exactly like that of the Canary, and is heard at almost all times of the year. He utters also, when flying, a very animated series of notes, during the repeated undulations of his night, and they seem to be uttered with each effort he makes to rise.
It is remarkable that this bird, though he often rears two broods in a season, does not begin to build his nest until July, after the first broods of the Robin and the Song-Sparrow have flown from their nests. Mr. Augustus Fowler is of opinion, from his observation of their habits of feeding their young, that the cause of this procrastination is, "that they would be unable to find, in the spring and early summer, those new and milky seeds which are the necessary food of their young," and takes occasion to allude to that beneficent law of Nature which provides that these birds "should not bring forth their young until the very time when those seeds used by them for food have passed into the milk, in which state they are easily dissolved by the stomach, and when an abundant supply may always be found."
The Hemp-birds are remarkable for associating at a certain season, and singing, as it were, in choirs. "During spring and summer," says Mr. Fowler, "they rove about in small flocks, and in July will assemble together in considerable numbers on a particular tree, seemingly for no other purpose than to sing. These concerts are held by them on the forenoon of each day, for a week or ten days, after which they soon commence building their nests. I am inclined to believe that this is their time of courtship, and that they have a purpose in these meetings beside that of singing. If perchance one is heard in the air, the males utter their call-note with great emphasis, particularly if the new-comer be a female; and while in her undulating flight she describes a circle, preparatory to alighting, they will stand almost erect, move their heads to the right and left, and burst simultaneously into song."
While engaged in these concerts, it would seem as if they were governed by some rule, that enabled them to time their voices, and to swell or diminish the volume of sound. Some of this effect is undoubtedly produced by the gradual manner in which the different voices join in harmony, beginning with one or two, and increasing in numbers in a sort of geometrical progression, until all are singing at once, and then in the same gradual manner becoming silent. This produces the effect of a perfect crescendo and diminuendo. Beginning, as it seems, at a distance, one voice leads on another, and the numbers multiply until they make a loud shout, which dies away gradually until one single voice winds up the chorus. These concerts are repeated at intervals, sometimes for an hour in duration.
Another peculiar habit of the Hemp-bird is that of building a nest, and then tearing it to pieces before any eggs have been deposited in it, and using the materials to make a new nest in another locality. In former years I have repeatedly watched this singular operation, in the Lombardy poplars that stood before my study-windows. I have thought that the male bird only was addicted to this practice, and that this might be his method of amusement while unprovided with a partner. The nest of the Hemp-bird is made of cotton, the down of the fern, and other soft materials, woven together with threads and the fibres of bark, and lined with thistle-down, if it be late enough to obtain it, and sometimes with cow's hair. It is commonly placed in the fork of the slender branches of a maple, linden, or poplar, and is fastened to them with singular ingenuity.
Among the earliest songsters of spring, occasionally tuning his voice before the arrival of the multitudinous choir, is the Crimson Finch or American Linnet (Fringilla purpurea). I have frequently heard his notes on warm days in March, and once, in a very mild season, I heard one warbling cheerily on the 18th of February. But the Linnet does not persevere like the Song-Sparrow, after he has once commenced. His voice is only occasionally heard, until the middle of April, after which he is a very constant singer.
The notes of this bird are very simple and melodious, and some individuals greatly excel others in their powers of song. It is generally believed that the young males are the best singers, and that age diminishes their vocal capacity. The greater number utter only a few strains, resembling the notes of the Warbling Fly-catcher, (Vireo gilvus,) and these are constantly repeated during the greater part of the day. His song consists of four or five bars or strains; but there are individuals that extend them ad libitum, varying their notes after the manner of the Canary. The latter, however, sings with more precision, and is louder and shriller in his tones. I have not observed that this bird is more prone to sing in the morning and evening than at noonday and at all hours.
I have alluded to the fact that the finest singing-birds build their nests and seek their food either on the ground or among the shrubbery and the lower branches of trees, and that, when singing, they are commonly perched rather low. The Linnet is an exception to this general habit of the singing-birds, and, in company with the Warbling Fly-catchers, he is commonly high up in an elm or some other tall tree, and almost entirely out of sight, when exercising himself in song. It is this preference for the higher branches of trees that enables these birds, as well as the Golden Robin, to be denizens of the city. Hence they may be heard singing as freely and melodiously from the trees on Boston Common as in the wild-wood or orchard in the country.
I have seen the Linnet frequently in confinement; but he does not sing so well in a cage as in a state of freedom. His finest and most prolonged strains are delivered while on the wing. On such occasions only does he sing with fervor. While perched on a tree, his song is short and not greatly varied. If you closely watch his movements when he is singing, he may be seen on a sudden to take flight, and, while poising himself in the air, though still advancing, he pours out a continued strain of melody, not surpassed by the notes of any other bird. On account of the infrequency of these occasions, it is seldom we have an opportunity to witness a full exhibition of the musical powers of the Linnet.
The male American Linnet is crimson on the head, neck, and throat, dusky on the upper part of its body, and beneath somewhat straw-colored. It is remarkable that a great many individuals are destitute of this color, being plainly clad, like the female. These are supposed to be old birds, and the loss of color is attributed to age. The same change takes place when the bird is confined.
The little bird whose notes serve more than those of any other species to enliven the summer noondays in our villages is the House-Wren (Troglodytes fulvus). It is said to reside and rear its young chiefly in the Middle States; but it is far from being uncommon in Massachusetts, and, as it extends its summer migrations to Labrador, it is probable that it breeds there also. It is evident, however, that its breeding-places are not confined to northern latitudes. It is a migratory bird, is never seen here in winter, but commonly arrives in May and returns south early in October. It builds in a hollow tree, like the Blue-bird, or in a box or other vessel provided for it, and by furnishing such accommodations we may easily entice one to make its home in our inclosures.
The Wren is a very active bird, and one of the most restless of the feathered tribe. He is continually in motion, and even when singing he is always flitting about and changing his position. We see him in almost all places, as it were, at the same moment of time,—now warbling in ecstasy from the roof of a shed, then, with his wings spread and feathers ruffled, scolding furiously at a Blue-bird or a Swallow that has alighted on his box, or driving a Robin from a cherry-tree that stands near his habitation. The next instant we observe him running along on a stone wall, and diving down and in and out, from one side to the other, through the openings between the stories, with all the nimbleness of a squirrel. He is on the ridge of the barn-roof, he is peeping into the dove-cote, he is in the garden under the currant-bushes, or chasing a spider or a moth under a cabbage-leaf; again he is on the roof of the shed, warbling vociferously; and all these manoeuvres and peregrinations have occupied hardly a minute, so rapid and incessant is he in his motions.
The notes of the Wren are very lively and garrulous, and, if not uttered more frequently during the heat of the day, are certainly more noticeable at this hour. There is a concert at noonday, as well as in the morning and evening, among the birds, and in the former the Wren is one of the principal musicians. After the full rays of the sun have silenced the early performers, the Song-Sparrow and the Red Thrush continue to sing, at intervals, the greater part of the day. The Wren is likewise heard at all hours; but when the languishing heat of noon has arrived, and most of the birds are silent, the few that continue to sing become more than usually vocal, and seem to form a select company. They appear, indeed, to prefer the noonday, because the general silence that prevails at this hour renders their voices more distinguishable than at other times. The birds which are thus, as it were, associated with the Wren, in this noonday concert, are the Bobolink, the Cat-bird, and the two Warbling Fly-catchers, occasionally joined by the few and simple notes of the Summer Yellow-bird. If we are in the vicinity of the deep woods, we may also hear, at this hour, the loud and shrill voice of the Golden-Crowned Thrush, a bird that is partial to the heat of noon.
Of all these, however, the Wren is the most remarkable, having a note that is singularly varied and animated. He exhibits great compass and power of execution, but wants variety in his tones. He begins very sharp and shrill, like a grasshopper, then suddenly falls to a series of low guttural notes, and ascends, like the rolling of a drum, to another series of high notes, rapidly trilled. Almost without a pause, he recommences with his querulous insect-chirp, and proceeds through the same trilling and demi-semiquavering as before. He is not particular about the part of the song which he makes his closing note, but will leave off right in the middle of a strain, when he appears to be in the height of ecstasy, to pick up a spider or a fly.
As the Wren raises two broods of young in a season, his notes are prolonged to a late period of the summer, being frequently heard in the second or third week in August. He leaves for a southern clime about the first of October. In his migratory habits he differs from the European Wren, which is a constant resident in his native regions.
Our American birds, like the American flowers, have not been celebrated in classic song. They are scarcely known, except to our own people, and they have not in general been exalted by praise above their real merits. We read, both in prose and verse, the praises of the European Lark, Linnet, and Nightingale, and the English Robin Redbreast has been immortalized in song. But the American Robin, (Turdus migratorius,) though surnamed Redbreast, is a bird of different species and different habits. Little has been written about him, and he enjoys but little celebrity; he has never been puffed and overpraised, and, though universally admired, the many who admire him are diffident all the while, lest they are mistaken in their judgment and are wasting their admiration upon an object that is unworthy of it, and whose true merits fall short of their own estimate.
I shall not ask pardon of those critics who are always canting about genius—and who would probably deny this gift to the Robin, because he cannot cry like a chicken or squall like a cat, and because with his charming strains he does not mingle all sorts of discords and incongruous sounds—for assigning to the Robin the highest rank as a singing-bird. Let them say of him, in the cant of modern criticism, that his performances cannot be great, because they are faultless; it is enough for me, that his mellow notes, heard at the earliest flush of morning, in the more busy hour of noon, or the quiet lull of evening, come upon the ear in a stream of unqualified melody, as if he had learned to sing under the direct instruction of that beautiful Dryad who taught the Lark and the Nightingale. The Robin is surpassed by certain birds in some particular qualities. The Mocking-bird has more power, the Red Thrush more variety, the Vesper-bird more execution, and the Bobolink more animation; but each of these birds has more faults than the Robin, and would be less esteemed as a constant companion, a vocalist for all hours, whose strains never tire and never offend.
There are thousands who admire the Mocking-bird, because, after pouring forth a continued stream of ridiculous and disagreeable sounds, or a series of two or three notes repeated more than a hundred times in uninterrupted and monotonous succession, he condescends to utter a single delightfully modulated strain. He often brings his tiresome extravaganzas to a magnificent climax of melody, and just as often concludes an inimitable chant with a most contemptible bathos. But the notes of the Robin are all melodious, all delightful,—loud without vociferation, mellow without monotony, fervent without ecstasy, and combining more of mellowness of tone, plaintiveness, cheerfulness, and propriety of execution, than those of any other bird.
The Robin is the Philomel of our spring and summer mornings in New England, and in all the country north and west of these States. Without his sweet notes, the mornings would be like a vernal landscape without flowers, or a summer-evening sky without tints. He is the chief performer in the delightful anthem that welcomes the rising day. Of the others, the best are but accompaniments of more or less importance. Remove the Robin from this woodland orchestra, and it would be left without a soprano. Over all the northern parts of this continent, wherever there are any human settlements, these birds are numerous and familiar. There is probably not an orchard in all New England that is not supplied with several of these musicians. When we consider the millions thus distributed over this broad country, we can imagine the sublimity of that chorus which, from the middle of April until the last of July, must daily ascend to heaven from the voices of these birds, not one male of which is silent, on any pleasant morning, from the earliest flush of dawn until sunrise.
In my boyhood, an early morning-walk was one of my favorite recreations, and never can I forget those delightful matins that awaited me at every turn. Even then I wondered that so little admiration was expressed for the song of the Robin, who seemed to me to be worthy of the highest regard. The Robin, when reared in confinement, is one of the most affectionate and interesting of birds. His powers of song are likewise susceptible of great improvement. Though not prone to imitation, he may be taught to sing tunes, and to imitate the notes of other birds. I have heard one whistle "Over the water to Charlie" as well as it could be played with a fife. Indeed, this bird is so tractable, that I believe any well-directed efforts would never fail of teaching him to sing any simple melody.
But what do we care about his power of learning artificial music? Even if he could be taught to perform like a maestro, this would not enhance his value as a minstrel of the woods. We are concerned with the birds only as they are in a state of nature. It is the simplicity of the songs of birds, as I have before remarked, that constitutes their principal charm; and were the Robins so changed in their nature as to relinquish their native notes, and sing only tunes hereafter, we should listen to them with as much indifference as to the whistling of boys in the streets.
In the elms on Boston Common, and in all the lofty trees in the suburbs as well as in the country villages, are two little birds whose songs are heard daily and hourly, from the middle of May until the latter part of summer. These are the Warbling Fly-catchers (Vireo gilvus and V. olivaceus). The first is commonly designated as the Warbling Vireo, the second as the Red-eyed Vireo. The former arrives about a week or ten days earlier than the other, and becomes silent likewise at a somewhat earlier period. Both species are very similar in their habits, frequenting the villages in preference to the woods, singing at all hours of the day, particularly at noon, taking all their insect prey from the leaves and branches of trees, or seizing it as it flits by their perch, and amusing themselves, while thus employed, with oft-repeated fragments of song. Each builds a pensile nest, or places it in the fork of the slender branches of a tree. I have seen a nest of the Warbling Vireo placed less than fifteen feet from the ground, on a pear-tree, directly opposite the window of a chamber that was constantly occupied; but the nests of both species are usually suspended at a considerable height from the ground.
The notes of the Warbling Vireo have been described by the words, "Brigadier, Brigadier, Bridget." They are few, simple, and melodious, and being often repeated, they form a very important part of the sylvan music of cultivated and thickly-settled places. It is difficult to obtain sight of this little warbler while he is singing, on account of his small size, the olive color of his plumage, and his habit of perching among the dense foliage of the trees.
The Red-eyed Vireo is more generally known by his note, because he is particularly vocal during the heat of the long summer-days, when other birds are comparatively silent. The modulation of his notes is similar to that of the common Robin, but his tones are sharper, and he sings in a very desultory manner, leaving off very frequently in the middle of a strain to seize a moth or a beetle. Singing, while he is engaged in song, never seems to be his sole employment. This is the little bird that warbles for us late in the summer, after almost all other birds have become silent, uttering his moderate notes, as if for his own amusement, during all the heat of the day, from the trees by the roadsides and in our inclosures. We might then suppose him to be repeating very moderately the words, "Do you hear me? Do you see me?" with the rising inflection of the voice, and with a pause after each sentence, as if he waited for an answer.
As soon as the cherry-tree is in blossom, and when the oak and the maple are beginning to unfold their plaited leaves, the loud and mellow notes of the Golden Robin (Icterus Baltimore) are heard for the first time in the year. I have never known the birds of this species to arrive before this date, and they seem to be governed by the supply of their insect food, which probably becomes abundant simultaneously with the flowering of the orchards. These birds may from that time be observed diligently hunting among the branches and foliage of the trees, and they appear to make a particular examination of the blossoms, from which they obtain a great variety of flies and beetles that are lodged in them. While thus employed, the bird frequently utters his brief, but loud and melodious notes; but he sings, like the Vireo, only while attending to the wants of life. Almost all remarkable singing-birds, when warbling, give themselves up entirely to song, and pay no regard to other demands upon their time until they have concluded. But the Golden Robin never relaxes from his industry, nor remains stationed upon the branch of a tree for the sole purpose of singing. He sings, like an industrious maid-of-all-work, only while employed in the ordinary concerns of life.
The Golden Robin is said to inhabit North America from Canada to Mexico; but there is reason to believe that the species is most abundant in the north-eastern parts of the continent, and that a greater number breed in the New England States than either south or west of this section. They are also more numerous in the suburbs of cities and towns than in the ruder and more primitive parts of the country. Their peculiar manner of protecting their pensile nests, by hanging them from the extremities of the lofty branches of an elm or other tall tree, enables the bird to rear its young with great security, even in the heart of the city. The only animals that are able to reach their nests are the smaller squirrels, which sometimes descend the long, slender branches upon which they are suspended, and devour the eggs.
This depredation I have never witnessed; but I have seen the Red Squirrel descend in this manner to devour the crysalis of a certain insect, which was rolled up in a leaf.
The ways and manners of the Golden Robin are very interesting. He is remarkable for his vivacity, and his bright plumage renders all his movements conspicuous. His plumage needs no description, since every one is familiar with its colors, as they are seen like flashes of fire among the trees. The bird derives its specific name (Baltimore) from the resemblance of its colors to the livery of Lord Baltimore of Maryland. The name of a bird ought to have either a sylvan or a poetic origin. This has neither. I prefer, therefore, the common and expressive name of Golden Robin.
This bird is supposed to possess considerable power of musical imitation. Still it may be observed that in all cases he gives the notes of those birds only whose voice resembles his own. Thus, he often repeats the song of the Red-bird, but in doing this he varies his own notes no more than he might do without meaning any imitation. Though he repeats but few notes, he utters them with great variety of modulation. Sometimes for several days he confines himself to a single strain, and afterwards for about an equal space of time he will adopt another strain. Sometimes he lengthens his brief notes into an extended melody, and sings in a sort of ecstasy, like the birds of the Finch tribe. Such musical paroxysms are exceedingly rare in his case, and seem to be occasioned by some momentary exultation.
The Golden Robin rears but one brood of young in this part of the country, and his cheerful notes are discontinued soon after the young have left their nest. The song of the old bird seems after this period hardly necessary to the offspring, who keep up an incessant chirping from the moment of leaving their nest until they are able to accompany the old ones to the woods, whither they retire in the latter part of the season. It is remarkable, that, after a perfect silence of two or three weeks after this time, the Golden Robins suddenly make their appearance again for a few days, uttering the same merry notes with which they hailed the arrival of summer. They soon disappear again, and before autumn arrives they make their annual journey to the South, where they pass the winter.
There is no singing-bird in New England that enjoys the notoriety of the Bobolink (Icterus agripennis). He is like a rare wit in our social or political circles. Everybody is talking about him and quoting his remarks, and all are delighted with his company. He is not without great merits as a songster; but he is well known and admired, because he is showy, noisy, and flippant, and sings only in the open field, and frequently while poised on the wing, so that everybody who hears him can see him, and know who is the author of the strains that afford him so much delight. He sings also at broad noonday, when everybody is out, and is seldom heard before sunrise, while other birds are pouring forth their souls in a united concert of praise. He waits until the sun is up, and when most of the early performers have become silent, as if determined to secure a good audience before exhibiting his powers.
The Bobolink, or Conquedle, has unquestionably great talents as a musician. In the grand concert of Nature it is he who performs the recitative parts, which he delivers with the utmost fluency and rapidity; and one must be a careful listener, not to lose many of his words. He is plainly the merriest of all the feathered creation, almost continually in motion, and singing upon the wing, apparently in the greatest ecstasy of joy.
There is not a plaintive strain in his whole performance. Every sound is as merry as the laugh of a young child; and one cannot listen to him without fancying that he is indulging in some jocose raillery of his companions. If we suppose him to be making love, we cannot look upon him as very deeply enamored, but rather as highly delighted with his spouse, and overflowing with rapturous admiration. The object of his love is a neatly formed bird, with a mild expression of countenance, a modest and amiable deportment, and arrayed in the plainest apparel. It is evident that she does not pride herself upon the splendor of her costume, but rather on its neatness, and on her own feminine graces. She must be entirely without vanity, unless we suppose that it is gratified by observing the pomp and display which are made by her partner, and by listening to his delightful eloquence of song: for if we regard him as an orator, it must be allowed that he is unsurpassed in fluency and rapidity of utterance; and if we regard him only as a musician, he is unrivalled in brilliancy of execution.
Vain are all attempts, on the part of other birds, to imitate his truly original style. The Mocking-bird gives up the attempt in despair, and refuses to sing at all when confined near one in a cage. I cannot look upon him as ever in a very serious humor. He seems to be a lively, jocular little fellow, who is always jesting and bantering, and when half a dozen different individuals are sporting about in the same orchard, I often imagine that they might represent the persons dramatized in some comic opera. These birds never remain stationary upon the bough of a tree, singing apparently for their own solitary amusement; but they are ever in company, and passing to and fro, often commencing their song upon the extreme end of the bough of an apple-tree, then suddenly taking flight, and singing the principal part while balancing themselves on the wing. The merriest part of the day with these birds is the later afternoon, during the hour preceding dewfall, and before the Robins and Thrushes commence their evening hymn. Then, assembled in company, it would seem as if they were practising a cotillon upon the wing, each one singing to his own movements, as he sallies forth and returns,—and nothing can exceed their apparent merriment.
The Bobolink usually commences his warbling just after sunrise, when the Robin, having sung from the earliest dawn, brings his performance to a close. Nature seems to have provided that the serious parts of her musical entertainment in the morning shall first be heard, and that the lively and comic strains shall follow them. In the evening this order is reversed; and after the comedy is concluded, Nature lulls us to meditation and repose by the mellow notes of the little Vesper-bird, and the pensive and still more melodious strains of the solitary Thrushes.
In pleasant, sunshiny weather, the Bobolink seldom flies without singing, often hovering on the wing over the place where his mate is sitting upon her ground-built nest, and pouring forth his notes with great loudness and fluency. The Bobolink is one of our social birds, one of those species that follow in the footsteps of man, and multiply with the progress of agriculture. He is not a frequenter of the woods; he seems to have no taste for solitude. He loves the orchard and the mowing-field, and many are the nests which are exposed by the scythe of the haymaker, if the mowing be done early in the season. Previously to the settlement of America, these birds must have been comparatively rare in the New England States, and were probably confined to the open prairies and savannas in the northwestern territory.
THE O'LINCON FAMILY.
A flock of merry singing-birds were sporting in the grove;
Some were warbling cheerily, and some were making love:
There were Bobolincon, Wadolincon, Winterseeble, Conquedle,—
A livelier set was never led by tabor, pipe, or fiddle,—
Crying, "Phew, shew, Wadolincon, see, see, Bobolincon,
Down among the tickletops, hiding in the buttercups! I know the saucy chap, I see his shining cap
Bobbing in the clover there,—see, see, see!"
Up flies Bobolincon, perching on an apple-tree,
Startled by his rival's song, quickened by his raillery.
Soon he spies the rogue afloat, curvetting in the air,
And merrily he turns about, and warns him to beware!
"'Tis you that would a-wooing go, down among the rushes O!
But wait a week, till flowers are cheery,—wait a week, and, ere you marry,
Be sure of a house wherein to tarry!
Wadolink, Whiskodink, Tom Denny, wait, wait, wait!"
Every one's a funny fellow; every one's a little mellow;
Follow, follow, follow, follow, o'er the hill and in the hollow!
Merrily, merrily, there they hie; now they rise and now they fly;
They cross and turn, and in and out, and down in the middle, and wheel about,—
With a "Phew, shew, Wadolincon! listen to me Bobolincon!—
Happy's the wooing that's speedily doing, that's speedily doing,
That's merry and over with the bloom of the clover!
Bobolincon, Wadolincon, Winterseeble, follow, follow me!"
Oh, what a happy life they lead, over the hill and in the mead!
How they sing, and how they play! See, they fly away, away!
Now they gambol o'er the clearing,—off again, and then appearing;
Poised aloft on quivering wing, now they soar, and now they sing:—
"We must all be merry and moving; we must all be happy and loving;
For when the midsummer has come, and the grain has ripened its ear,
The haymakers scatter our young, and we mourn for the rest of the year.
Then Bobolincon, Wadolincon, Winterseeble, haste, haste, away!"}}
SONG OF THE SONG-SPARROW, AND ITS VARIATIONS.
Note.—The notes marked guttural seem to me to be performed by a rapid trilling of these notes with their octave. It should be added, that no bird sings constantly in so regular time as is represented above, and the intervals between the high and low notes are very irregular. Both the time and the tune are in great measure ad libitum.
SONG OF THE LINNET. (Fringilla purpurea.)
SONG OF THE WREN. (Troglodytes fulvus.)
SONG OF THE ROBIN. (Turdus migratorius.)
Note.—The Robin is continually varying his notes; so that the two specimens, as given above, may be considered but the theme upon which he constructs his melody.
SONG OF THE WARBLING VIREO. (V. Gilvus.)
SONG OF THE RED-EYED VIREO. (V. olivaceus.)
SONG OF THE GOLDEN ROBIN. (Icterus Baltimore.)
- Mr. Charles S. Paine, of East Randolph, who, I believe, was the first to observe this habit of the Song-Sparrow.
- Mr. Augustus Fowler of Danversport, who has made one of the finest collections of the eggs of native birds. His drawings of the same are beautifully executed, accompanied by representations of the nests and of the foliage that surrounded them. This gentleman and his brother, Mr. S. P. Fowler, have found leisure, during the intervals of their occupation in a mechanical art, to acquire a knowledge of certain branches of natural history which would do honor to a professor.