The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 7/The Birds of the Pasture and Forest
THE BIRDS OF THE PASTURE AND FOREST.
He who has always lived in the city or its suburbs, who has seldom visited the interior except for purposes of trade, and whose walks have not often extended beyond those roads which are bordered on each side by shops and dwelling-houses, may never have heard the birds that form the subject of this sketch. These are the birds of the pasture and forest,—those shy, melodious warblers, who sing only in the ancient haunts of the Dryads, and of those nymphs who waited upon Diana in her hunting-excursions, but who are now recognized only by the beautiful plants which, with unseen hands, they rear in the former abodes of the celestial huntress. These birds have not probably multiplied, like the familiar birds, with the increase of human population and the extension of agriculture. They were perhaps as numerous in the days of King Philip as they are now. Though they do not shun mankind, they keep aloof from cultivated grounds, living chiefly in the deep wood or on the edge of the forest, and in the bushy pasture.
There is a peculiar wildness in the songs of this class of birds, that awakens a delightful mood of mind, similar to that which is excited by reading the figurative lyrics of a romantic age. This feeling is, undoubtedly, to a certain extent, the effect of association. Having always heard their notes in rude, wild, and wooded places, they never fail to bring this kind of scenery vividly before the imagination, and their voices affect us like the sounds of mountain-streams. There is a little Sparrow which I often hear about the shores of unfrequented ponds, and in their untrodden islets, and never in any other situations. The sound of his voice, therefore, always enhances the sensation of rude solitude with which I contemplate this wild and desolate scenery. We often see him perched upon a dead tree that stands in the water, a few rods from the shore, apparently watching our angling operations from his leafless perch, where he sings so sweetly, that the very desolation of the scene borrows a charm from his voice that renders every object delightful. This bird I believe to be the Fringilla palustris of Wilson.
It is certain that the notes of the solitary birds, compared with those of the Robin and Linnet, excite a different class of sensations. I can imagine that there is a similar difference in the flavors of a cherry and a cranberry. If the former is sweeter, the latter has a spicy zest that is peculiar to what we call natural fruit. The effect is the same, however, whether it be attributable to some intrinsic quality, or to association, which is indeed the source of some of the most delightful emotions of the human soul.
Nature has made all her scenes, and the sights and sounds that accompany them, more lovely, by causing them to be respectively suggestive of a certain class of sensations. The birds of the pasture and forest are not frequent enough in cultivated places to be associated with the garden or village inclosure. Nature has confined particular birds and animals to certain localities, and thereby adds a poetic and a picturesque attraction to their features. There are also certain flowers that cannot be cultivated in the garden, as if they were designed for the exclusive adornment of those secluded arbors which the spade and the plough have never profaned. Here flowers grow which are too holy for culture, and birds sing whose voices were never heard in the cage of the voluptuary, and whose tones inspire us with a sense of freedom known only to those who often retire from the world, to live in religious communion with Nature.
When the flowers of early summer are gone, and the graceful neottia is seen in the meadows, extending its spiral clusters among the nodding grasses,—when the purple orchis is glowing in the wet grounds, and the roadsides are gleaming with the yellow blossoms of the hypericum, the merry voice of the Bobolink has ceased, and many other familiar birds have become almost silent. At this time, if we stroll away from the farm and the orchard into more retired and wooded haunts, we may hear, at all times of the day and at frequent intervals, the pensive and melodious notes of the Wood-Sparrow, who sings as if he were delighted at being left almost alone to warble and complain to the benevolent deities of the grove. He who in his youth has made frequent visits to these pleasant and solitary places, and wished that he could live and love forever among the wild-roses, the blushing azaleas, the red summer-lilies, and the thousands of beautiful and sweet-scented flowers that spring up among the various spicy and fruit-bearing shrubs which unite to form a genuine huckleberry-pasture,—he only knows the unspeakable delights which are awakened by the sweet, simple notes of this little warbler.
The Wood-Sparrow (Fringilla pusilla) is somewhat less than a Canary, with a chestnut-colored crown; above of a grayish brown hue, and dusky white beneath. Though he does not seem to be a shy bird, I have never seen him in cultivated grounds, and the inmates of solitary cottages alone are privileged to hear his notes from their windows. He loves the hills which are half covered with young pines, viburnums, cornels, and huckleberry-bushes, and feeds upon the seeds of grasses and wild lettuce, with occasional repasts of insects and berries.
His notes are sweet and plaintive, seldom consisting of more than one strain. He commences slowly, as if repeating the syllable, de de de de de de d' d' d' d' d' d' d' r' r' r',—increasing in rapidity, and at the same time rising as it were by semi-tones, or chromatically, to about a major fourth on the scale. In midsummer, when this bird is most musical, he occasionally lengthens his song by alternately ascending and descending, interposing a few chirping notes between the ascending and descending series. The song loses a part of its simplicity, and, as it seems to me, is not improved by this variation.
While listening to the notes of the Wood-Sparrow, we are continually saluted by the agreeable, though less musical song of the Chewink, or Ground-Robin,—a bird that frequents similar places. This is a very beautiful bird, elegantly spotted with white, red, and black,—the female being of a bright bay color where the male is red. Every rambler knows him, not only by his plumage and his peculiar note, but also by his singular habit of lurking about among the bushes, appearing and disappearing like a squirrel, and watching all our movements. Though he does not avoid our company, it is with difficulty that a marksman can obtain a good aim at him, so rapidly does he change his position among the leaves and branches. In this habit he resembles the Wren. While we are watching his motions, he pauses in his song, and utters that peculiar note of complaint from which he has derived his name, Chewink, though the sound he utters is more like chewee, accenting the second syllable.
The Chewink (Fringilla erythrophthalma) is a very constant singer during four months of the year, from the middle of April. He is very untiring in his lays, seldom resting for any considerable time from morning till night, being never weary in rain or in sunshine, or at noon-day in the hottest weather of the season. His song consists of two long notes, the first about a third above the second, and the last part is made up of several rapidly uttered notes about one tone below the first note.
There is an expression of great cheerfulness in these notes; but music, like poetry, must be somewhat plaintive in its character, to take strong hold of the feelings. I have never known a person to be affected by these notes as by those of the Wood-Sparrow. While engaged in singing, the Chewink is usually perched on the lower branch of a tree, near the edge of a wood, or on the top of a tall bush. He is a true forest-bird, and builds his nest in the thickets that conceal the boundaries of the wood.
The notes of the Chewink and his general appearance and habits are well calculated to render him conspicuous, and they cause him to be always noticed and remembered. Our birds are like our men of genius. As in the literary world there is a description of talent that must be discovered and pointed out by an observing few, before the great mass can understand it or even know its existence,—so the sweetest songsters of the wood are unknown to the mass of the community, while many very ordinary performers, whose talents are conspicuous, are universally known and admired.
As we advance into the wood, if it be near mid-day, or before the decline of the sun, the notes of two small birds will be sure to attract our attention. These notes are very similar, and as slender and piercing as the chirp of a grasshopper, being distinguished from the latter only by a different and more pleasing modulation. The birds to which I refer are the Red Start (Muscicapa ruticilla) and the Speckled Creeper (Sylvia varia). The first is the more rarely seen of the two, being a bird of the deep forest, and shunning observation by hiding himself in the most obscure parts of the wood. In general appearance, and in the color of his plumage, he bears a resemblance to the Ground-Robin, though not more than half his size. He lives entirely on insects, catching them while they are flying in the air.
His song is similar to that of the Summer Yellow-Bird, so common in our gardens among the fruit-trees, but it is more shrill and feeble. The Creeper's song does not differ from it more than the songs of different individuals of the same species may differ. This bird may be seen creeping like a Woodpecker around the branches of trees, feeding upon the grubs and insects that are lodged upon the bark. He often leaves the forest, and may be seen busily searching the trees in the orchard and garden. The restless activity of the birds of this species affords a proof of the countless myriads of insects that must be destroyed by them in the course of one season,—insects which, if not kept in check by these and other small birds, would multiply to such an extreme as to render the earth uninhabitable by man.
While listening with close attention to the slender notes of either of the last-named birds, often hardly audible amidst the din of grasshoppers, the rustling of leaves, and the sighing of winds among the tall oaken boughs, suddenly the wood resounds with a loud, shrill song, like the sharpest notes of the Canary. The bird that startles one with this vociferous note is the Oven-Bird, (Turdus aurocapillus), or Golden-Crowned Thrush. It is the smallest of the Thrushes, is confined exclusively to the wood, and when singing is particularly partial to noon-day. There is no melody in his song. He begins rather low, increasing in loudness as he proceeds, until the last notes are so loud as to seem almost in our immediate presence. He might be supposed to utter His words, I see, I see, I see, etc.,—emphasizing the first word, and repeating the words six or eight times, louder and louder with each repetition. No other bird equals this little Thrush in the emphasis with which he delivers his brief communication. His notes are associated with summer noon-days in the deep woods, and, when bursting upon the ear in the silence of noon, they disperse all melancholy thoughts, and inspire one with a vivid consciousness of life.
The most remarkable thing connected with the history of this bird is his oven-shaped nest. It is commonly placed on the ground, under a knoll of moss or a tuft of grass and bushes, and is formed almost entirely of long grass neatly woven. It is covered with a roof of the same materials, and a round opening is made at the side, for the bird's entrance. The nest is so ingeniously covered with grass and disguised with the appearance of the general surface around it, that it is very seldom discovered. The Cow-Bunting, however, is able to find it, and often selects it as a depository for its own eggs.
Those who are addicted to rambling in pursuit of natural curiosities may have observed that pine-woods are remarkable for certain collections of mosses which have cushioned a projecting rock or the decayed stump of a tree. When weary with heat and exercise, it is delightful to sit down upon one of these green velveted couches and take note of the objects immediately around us. We are then prepared to hear the least sound that invades our retreat. Some of the sweetest notes ever uttered in the wood are distinctly heard only at such times; for when we are passing over the rustling leaves, the noise made by our progress interferes with the perfect recognition of all delicate sounds. It was when thus reclining, after half a day's search for flowers, under the grateful shade of a pine-tree, now watching the white clouds that sent a brighter day-beam into these dark recesses, as they passed luminously overhead, and then noting the peculiar mapping of the grounds underneath the wood, diversified with mosses in swelling knolls, little islets of fern, and parterres of ginsengs and Solomon's-seals,—in one of these cloisters of the forest, I was first greeted by the pensive note of the Green Warbler, as he seemed to titter in supplicatory tones, very slowly modulated, "Hear me, Saint Theresa!" This strain, as I have observed many times since, is, at certain hours, repeated constantly for ten minutes at a time, and it is one of those melodious sounds that seem to belong exclusively to solitude.
The Green Warbler (Sylvia virens) is a small bird, and though his notes may be familiar to all who have been accustomed to strolling in the woods, the species is not numerous in Massachusetts, the greater number retiring farther north in the breeding-season. Nuttall remarks in reference to this bird, "His simple, rather drawling, and somewhat plaintive song, uttered at short intervals, resembled the syllables 'te dé teritscá, sometimes te derisca, pronounced pretty loud and slow, and the tones proceeded from high to low. In the intervals, he was perpetually busied in catching small cynips, and other kinds of flies,—keeping up a smart snapping of his bill, almost similar to the noise made by knocking pebbles together." There is a plaintive expression in this musical supplication, that is apparent to all who hear it, no less than if the bird were truly offering prayers to some tutelary deity. It is difficult, in many cases, to determine why a certain combination of sounds should affect one with an emotion of sadness, while another, under the same circumstances, produces a feeling of joy. This is a part of the philosophy of music which has not been explained.
While treating of the Sylvias, I must not omit to notice one of the most important of the tribe, and one with which almost everybody is acquainted,—the Maryland Yellow-Throat (Sylvia trichas). This species is quite common and familiar. He is most frequently seen in a willow-grove that borders a stream, or in the shrubbery of moist and low grounds. The angler is greeted by his notes on the rushy borders of a pond, and the botanist listens to them when hunting for those rose-plants that hide themselves under dripping rocks in some wooded ravine. The song of the Yellow-Throat resembles that of the Warbling Vireo, delivered with somewhat more precision, as if he were saying, I see you, I see you, I see you. His notes are simply lively and agreeable; there is nothing plaintive about them. The bird, however, is very attractive in his appearance, being of a bright olive-color above, with a yellow throat and breast, and a black band extending from the nostrils over the eye. This black band and the yellow throat are the marks by which he is most easily identified. The Yellow-Throat remains tuneful till near the last week in August.
But if we leave the wood while those above described are the only singing-birds we have heard, we have either returned too soon, or we did not penetrate deeply enough into the forest. The Wood-Sparrow prepared our ears for a concert more delightful than the Red Start or the Yellow-Throat are capable of presenting, and we have spent our time almost in vain, if we have not heard the song of the Wood-Thrush (Turdus melodus). His notes are not startling or conspicuous; some dull ears might not hear them, though poured forth only a few rods distant, if their attention were not directed to them. Yet they are loud, liquid, and sonorous, and they fail to attract attention only on account of the long pauses between the different strains. We must link all these strains together to enjoy the full pleasure which the song of this bird is capable of affording, though any single strain alone is sufficient to entitle the bird to considerable reputation as a songster.
The song of the Wood-Thrush consists of about eight or ten different strains, each of considerable length. After each strain the bird makes a pause of about three or four seconds. I think the effect of this sylvan music is somewhat diminished by the length of the pauses or rests. It may be said, however, that during each pause our susceptibility is increased, and we are thus prepared to be more deeply affected by the next notes. Whether the one or the other opinion be correct, it is certain that any one who stops to listen to this bird will become spellbound, and deaf to almost every other sound in the grove, as if his ears were enchained to the song of the Siren.
The Wood-Thrush sings at almost all hours of the day, though seldom after sunset. He delights in a dusky retreat, and is evidently inspired by solitude, singing no less in gloomy weather than in sunshine. Late in August, when other birds have mostly become silent, he is sometimes the only songster in the wood. There is a liquid sound in his tones that slightly resembles that of a glassichord; though in some parts of the country he has received the name of Fife-Bird, from the clearness of his intonations. By many persons this species is called the Hermit-Thrush.
The Veery (Turdus Wilsonii) has many habits like those of the Wood-Thrush, and some similarity of song. He is about the size of a Blue-Bird, and resembles the Red Thrush, except that the brown of his back is slightly tinged with olive. He arrives early in May, and is first heard to sing during some part of the second week of that month, when the sons of the Bobolink commences. He is not one of our familiar birds; and unless we live in close proximity to a wood that is haunted by a stream, we shall never hear his voice from our doors or windows. He sings neither in the orchard, nor the garden, nor in the suburbs of the city. He shuns the exhibitions of art, and reserves his wild notes for those who frequent the inner sanctuary of the groves. All who have once become familiar with his song await his arrival with impatience, and take note of his silence in midsummer with regret. Until this little bird has arrived, I always feel as an audience do at a concert, before the chief singer has made her appearance, while the other performers are vainly endeavoring to soothe them by their inferior attempts.
This bird is more retiring than any other important singing-bird, except the Wood-Thrush,—being heard only in solitary groves, and usually in the vicinity of a pond or stream. Here, especially after sunset, he pours forth his brilliant and melancholy strains with a peculiar cadence, and fills the whole forest with sound. It seems as if the echoes were delimited with his notes, and took pleasure in passing them round with multiplied reverberations. I am confident this bird refrains from singing when others are the most vocal, from the pleasure he feels in listening either to his own notes, or to the melodious responses which others of his own kindred repeat in different parts of the wood. Hence he chooses the dusk of evening for his vocal hour, when the little chirping birds are mostly silent, that their voices may not interrupt his chant. At this hour, during a period of nine or ten weeks, he charms the evening with his strains, and often prolongs them in still weather till after dusk, and whispers them sweetly into the ear of night.
No bird of his size has more strength of voice; but his song, though loud, is modulated with such a sweet and flowing cadence, that it comes to the ear with all the mellowness of the softest warbling. It would be difficult to describe his song. It seems at first to be wanting in variety. I was long of this opinion, though I was puzzled to account for its pleasing and extraordinary effect on the mind of the listener. The song of the Veery consists of five distinct strains or bars. They might, perhaps, be represented on the musical staff, by commencing the first note on D above the staff and sliding down with a trill to C, one fifth below. The second, third, fourth, and fifth bars are repetitions of the first, except that each commences and ends a few tones lower than the preceding.
Were we to attempt to perform these notes with an instrument adapted to the purpose, we should probably fail, from the difficulty of imitating the peculiar trilling of the notes, and the liquid ventriloquial sounds at the conclusion of each strain. The whole is warbled in such a manner as to produce upon the ear the effect of harmony. It seems as if we heard two or three concordant notes at the same moment. I have never noticed this effect in the song of any other bird. I should judge that it might be produced by the rapid descent from the commencing note of each strain to the last note about a fourth or fifth below, the latter being heard simultaneously with the reverberation of the first note.
Another remarkable quality of the song is a union of brilliancy and plaintiveness. The first effect is produced by the commencing notes of each strain, which are sudden and on a high key; the second, by the graceful chromatic slide to the termination, which is inimitable and exceedingly solemn. I have sometimes thought that a part of the delightful influence of these notes might be attributable to the cloistered situations from which they were delivered. But I have occasionally heard them while the bird was singing from a tree in an open field, when they were equally pleasing and impressive. I am not peculiar in my admiration of this little songster. I have observed that people who are strangers to the woods, and to the notes of birds, are always attracted by the song of the Veery.
In my early days, when I was at school, I boarded in a house near a grove that was vocal with these Thrushes; and it was then I learned to love their song more than any other sound in Nature, and above the finest strains of artificial music. Since that time I have lived in town, apart from their sylvan retreats, which I have visited only during my hours of leisure; but I have seldom failed, each returning year, to make frequent visits to the wood to listen to their notes, which cause full half t he pleasure I derive from a summer-evening walk. If in any year I fail to hear the song of the Veery, I feel a painful sense of regret, as when I have missed an opportunity to see an absent friend, during a periodical visit.
The Veery is not one of our latest singers. His notes are not often heard after the middle of July.
We should not be obliged to penetrate the wood to learn the habits of another Thrush, not so remarkable for his musical powers as interesting on account of his manners. I allude to the Cat-Bird, (Turdus felivox,) well known from his disagreeable habit of mewing like a kitten. He is most frequently seen on the edge of a wood, among the bushes that have come up, as it were, to hide its baldness and to harmonize it with the plain. He is usually attached to low, moist, and retired situations, though he is often very familiar in his habits. His nest of dry sticks is sometimes woven into a currant-bush in a garden that adjoins a wood, and his quaint voice may be heard there as in his own solitary haunts. The Cat-Bird is not an inveterate singer, and never seems to make music his employment, though at any hour of the day, from dawn until dusk in the evening, he may be heard occasionally singing and complaining.
Though I have been all my life familiar with the notes and manners of the Cat-Bird, I have not yet been able to discover that he is a mocker. He seems to me to have a definite song, unlike that of any other bird, except the Red Mavis,—not made up of parts of the songs of other birds, but as unique and original as that of the Song-Sparrow or the Robin. In the songs of all birds we may detect occasional strains that resemble parts of the song of some other species; but the Cat-Bird gives no more of these imitations than we might reasonably regard as accidental. The modulation of his song is somewhat similar to that of the Red Thrush, and it is sometimes difficult to determine, at first, when the bird is out of sight, whether we are listening to the one or the other; but after a few seconds, we detect one of those quaint turns that distinguish the notes of the Cat-Bird. I never yet mistook the note of the Cat-Bird for that of any species except the Red Thrush. The truth is, that the Thrushes, though delightful songsters, possess inferior powers of execution, and cannot equal the Finches in their capacity of learning and performing the notes of other birds. Even the Mocking-Bird, as compared with many other species, is a very imperfect imitator of any notes which are difficult of execution.
The mewing note of the Cat-Bird, from which his name is derived, has been the occasion of many misfortunes to his species, causing them to share a portion of that contempt which almost every human being feels towards the feline race, and that contempt has been followed by persecution. The Cat-Bird has always been proscribed by the New England farmers, who from the first settlement of the country have entertained a prejudice against many of the most useful birds. The Robin and a few diminutive Fly-Catchers are almost the only exceptions. But the Robin is now in danger of proscription. Within a few years past, the horticulturists, who are unwilling lo lose their cherries for the general benefit of agriculture, have made an effort to obtain an edict of outlawry against him, accusing him of being entirely useless to the farmer and the gardener. Their efforts have caused the friends of the Robin to examine his claims to protection, and the result of their investigations is demonstrative proof that the Robin is among the most useful birds in existence. The Cat-Bird and other Thrushes are similar in their habits of feeding and in their services to agriculture.
The Red Mavis (Turdus rufus) has many habits similar to those of the Cat-Bird, but he is not partial to low grounds. He is one of the most remarkable of the American birds, and is generally considered the finest songster in the New England forest. Nuttall says, "He is inferior only to the Mocking-Bird in musical talent"; but I should question his inferiority. He is superior to the Mocking-Bird in variety, and is surpassed by him only in the intonation of some of his notes. But no person is ever tired of listening to the Red Mavis, who constantly varies his song, while the Mocking-Bird tires us with his repetitions, which are often continued to a ludicrous extreme.
It is unfortunate that our ornithologists should, in any cases, have adopted the disagreeable names which our singularly unpoetical countrymen have given to the birds. The little Hair-Bird, for example, is called the "Chipping-Sparrow," as if he were in the habit of making chips, like the Carpenter-Bird; and the Red Thrush is called the "Thrasher," which is a low corruption of Thrush, and would signify that the bird had some peculiar habit of threshing with his wings. The word "chipping," when used for "chirping," is incorrect English; and "thrasher" is incorrect in point of fact. No such names should find sanction in books. Let us repudiate the name of "Thrasher" for the Red Thrush, as we would repudiate any other solecism.
The Red Mavis, or Thrush, is most musical in the early part of the season, when he first arrives, or in the month of May; the Veery is most vocal in June, and the Wood-Thrush in July; the Cat-Bird begins early and sings late, and fills out with his quaint notes the remainder of the singing season, after the others have become silent. When one is in a thoughtful mood, the songs of the Wood-Thrush and the Veery surpass all others on their delightful influence; and when I am strolling in the solitary pastures, it seems to me that nothing can exceed the simple melody of the Wood-Sparrow. But without claiming for the Red Thrush any remarkable power of exciting poetic inspiration, his song in the open field has a charm for all ears, and can be appreciated by the dullest of minds. Without singing badly, he pleases the millions. He sings occasionally at all hours of the day, and, when employed in singing, devotes himself entirely to song, with evident enthusiasm.
It would be difficult, either by word or by note, to give one who has never heard the song of the Red Thrush a correct idea of it. This bird is not a rapid singer. His performances seem to be a sort of recitative, often resembling spoken words, rather than musical notes, many of which are short and guttural. He seldom whistles clearly, like the Robin, but he produces a charming variety of tone and modulation. Thoreau, in one of his quaint descriptions, gives an off-hand sketch of the bird, which I will quote:—"Near at hand, upon the topmost spray of a birch, sings the Brown Thrasher, or Red Mavis, as some love to call him,—all the morning glad of your society, that would find out another farmer's field, if yours were not here. While you are planting the seed, he cries,—'Drop it, drop it,—cover it up, cover it up,—pull it up, pull it up, pull it up.'"
We have now left the forest and are approaching the cultivated grounds, under the shade of those fully expanded trees which have grown without restraint in the open field. Here as well as in the wood we find the Pewee, or Phoebe. (Muscicapa nunciola,) one of our most common and interesting birds. He seems to court solitude, and his peculiar note harmonizes well with his obscure and shady retreats. He sits for the most part in the shade, catching his feast of insects without any noise, merely flitting from his perch, seizing his prey, and then resuming his station. This movement is performed in the most graceful manner, and he often turns a somerset, or appears to do so, if the insect at first evades his pursuit,—and he seldom fails in capturing it. All this is done in silence, for he is no singer. The only sounds he utters are an occasional clicking cherup, and now and then, with a plaintive cadence, he seems to speak the word pewee. As the male and female bird cannot be readily distinguished, I have not been able to determine whether this sound is uttered by both sexes, or by the male alone.
So plainly expressive of sadness is this peculiar note, that it is difficult to believe that the little being that utters it can be free from sorrow. Certainly he can have no congeniality of feeling with the sprightly Bobolink. Perhaps, with the rest of his species, he represents only the fragment of a superior race, which, according to the metempsychosis, have fallen from their original importance, and this melancholy note is but the partial utterance of sorrow that still lingers in their breasts after the occasion of it is forgotten.
Though a shy and retiring bird, the Pewee is known to almost every person, on account of its remarkable note. Like the swallow, he builds his nest under a sheltering roof or rock, and it is often fixed upon a beam or plank under a bridge that crosses a small stream. Near this place he takes his station, on the branch of a tree or the top of a fence, and sits patiently waiting for every moth, chafer, or butterfly that passes along. Fortunately, there are no prejudices existing in the community against this bird that provoke men to destroy him. As he is known to feed entirely on insects, he cannot be suspected of doing mischief on the farm or in the garden, and is considered worthy of protection.
I would remark in this place, that the Fly-Catchers and Swallows, and a few other species that enjoy an immunity in our land, would, though multiplied to infinity, perform only those offices which are assigned them by Nature. It is a vain hope that leads one to believe, while he is engaged in exterminating a certain species of small birds, that their places can be supplied and their services performed by other species which are allowed to multiply to excess. The preservation of every species of indigenous birds is the only means that can prevent the over-multiplication of injurious insects.
As we return homeward, we soon find ourselves surrounded by the familiar birds that shun the forest and assemble around the habitations of men. Among them the Blue-Bird meets our sight, upon the roofs and fences as well as in the field and orchard. At the risk of introducing him into a company to which he does not strictly belong, I will attempt in this place to describe some of his habits. The Blue-Bird (Sylvia sialis) arrives very early in spring, and is detained late in the autumn by his habit of raising two or more broods of young in the season. He is said to bear a strong resemblance to the English Robin-Redbreast, being similar in form and size, each having a red breast and short tail-feathers, with only this manifest difference, that one is olive-colored above where the other is blue. But the Blue-Bird does not equal the Redbreast as a songster. His notes are few, not greatly varied, though melodious and sweetly and plaintively modulated, and never loud. On account of their want of variety, they do not enchain a listener, but they constitute a delightful part in the woodland melodies of morn.
The importance of the inferior singers in making up a general chorus is not always appreciated. In an artificial musical composition, as in an oratorio or an anthem, though there is a leading part, which is commonly the air, that gives character to the whole, yet this principal part would often be a very indifferent piece of melody, if performed without its accompaniments. These accompaniments by themselves would seem still more unimportant and trifling. Yet if the composition be the work of a master, however trifling and comparatively insignificant these brief strains or snatches, they are intimately connected with the harmony of the piece, and could not be omitted without a serious derangement of the grand effect. The inferior singing-birds, on the same principle, are indispensable as aids in giving additional effect to the notes of the chief singers.
Though the Robin is the principal musician in the general orison of dawn, his notes would become tiresome, if heard without accompaniments. Nature has so arranged the harmony of this chorus, that one part shall assist another; and so exquisitely has she combined all t he different voices, that the silence of any one can never fail to be immediately perceived. The low, mellow warble of the Blue-Bird seems a sort of echo to the louder voice of the Robin; and the incessant trilling or running accompaniment of the Hair-Bird, the twittering of the Swallow, and the loud and melodious piping of the Oriole, frequent and short, are sounded like the different parts of a regular band of instruments, and each performer seems to time his part as if by design. Any discordant sound, that may happen to be made in the midst of this performance, never fails to disturb the equanimity of the singers, and some minutes must elapse before they recommence their parts.
It would be difficult to draw a correct comparison between the different birds and the various instruments in an orchestra. It would be more easy to signify them by notes on the gamut. But if the Robin were supposed to represent the German flute, the Blue-Bird might be considered as the flageolet, frequently, but not incessantly, interposing a few mellow strains, the Swallow and the Hair-Bird the octave flute, and the Golden Robin the bugle, sounding occasionally a low but brief strain. The analogy could not be carried farther without losing force and correctness.
All the notes of the Blue-Bird—his call-notes, his notes of alarm, his chirp, and his song—are equally plaintive, and closely resemble each other. I am not aware that this bird ever utters a harsh note. His voice, which is one of the earliest to be heard in the spring, is associated with the early flowers and with all pleasant vernal influences. When he first arrives, he perches upon the roof of a barn or upon some still leafless tree, and pours forth his few and frequent notes with evident fervor, as if conscious of the delights that await him. These mellow notes are all the sounds he titters for several weeks, seldom chirping, crying, or scolding like other birds. His song is discontinued in the latter part of summer; but his peculiar plaintive call, consisting of a single note pensively modulated, continues all day, until the time of frost. This sound is one of the melodies of summer's decline, and reminds us, like the notes of the green nocturnal grasshopper, of the fall of the leaf, the ripened harvest, and all the melancholy pleasures of autumn.
The Blue-Bird builds his nest in hollow trees and posts, and may be encouraged to breed and multiply around our habitations, by erecting boxes for his accommodation. In whatever vicinity we may reside, whether in the clearing or in the heart of the village, if we set up a little bird-house in May, it will certainly be occupied by a Blue-Bird, unless preoccupied by a bird of some other species. There is commonly so great a demand for such accommodations among the feathered tribes, that it is not unusual to see birds of several different species contending for the possession of one box.
After the middle of August, as a new race of winged creatures awake into life, the birds, who sing of the seed-time, the flowers, and of the early summer harvests, give place to the inferior band of insect-musicians. The reed and the pipe are laid aside, and myriads of little performers have taken up the harp and the lute, and make the air resound with the clash and din of their various instruments. An anthem of rejoicing swells up from myriads of unseen harpists, who heed not the fate that awaits them, but make themselves merry in every place that is visited by sunshine or the south-wind. The golden-rod sways its beautiful nodding plumes in the borders of the fields and by the rustic roadsides; the purple gerardia is bright in the wet meadows, and the scarlet lobelia in the channels of the sunken streamlets. But the birds heed them not; for these are not the wreaths that decorate the halls of their festivities. Since the rose and the lily have faded, they have ceased to be tuneful; some, like the Bobolink, assemble in small companies, and with a melancholy chirp seem to mourn over some sad accident that has b others still congregate about their usual resorts, and seem almost like strangers in the land.
Nature provides inspiration for every sentiment that contributes to the happiness of man, as she provides sustenance for his various physical wants. But all is not gladness that elevates the soul into bliss; we may be made happy by sentiments that come not from rejoicing, even from objects that waken tender recollections of sorrow. As if Nature designed that the soul of man should find sympathy, in all its healthful moods, from the voices of her creatures, and from the sounds of inanimate objects, she has provided that all seasons should pour into his ear some pleasant intimations of heaven. In autumn, when the harvest-hymn of the day-time has ceased, at early nightfall, the green nocturnal grasshoppers commence their autumnal dirge, and fill the mind with a keen sense of the rapid passing of time. These sounds do not sadden the mind, but deepen the tone of our feelings, and prepare us for a renewal of cheerfulness, by inspiring us with the poetic sentiment of melancholy. This sombre state of the mind soon passes away, effaced by the exhilarating influence of the clear skies and invigorating breezes of autumn, and the inspiriting sounds of myriads of chirping insects that awake with the morning and make all the meadows resound with the shout of their merry voices.
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