Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold."
WHATEVER the calendar may say about winter coming in on the first of this month (or, with more scientific accuracy, on the 21st), our feelings do not cross the winter-line until the first snow-storm. Be it never so cold, the autumn mood will linger on, until a few fairy flakes silently but suddenly dispel the illusion, and inaugurate the new regime, as the song sparrow's earliest March melody magically opens the gate of spring.
Winter is like the old Norse poetry, ragged, and jagged, and barbarously grand. There is a certain fascination in the unique and austere realities of this bleak and inhospitable season. Until one stands in the depths of the woods in mid-winter he does not appreciate how rare and peculiarly impressive is the sense of absolute silence — the soundless, deathly quiet in earth and air, against which even his own light breathing harshly grates, while his ear seems strangely filled with the vacuity of sound. At long intervals the profound stillness is broken, yet intensified, by the distant cawing of the crows, or the coarse call-note of the flicker, or the sudden merriment of the chickadee in a tree close by; but it is gone in an instant — the sound engulfed in an ocean of frozen silence. There is a potency in the sense of utter desolation in the soundless forest on a winter's day that is hardly surpassed by any display of nature's most tremendous energies. Nothing seems more aptly to symbolize the spirit of winter in its gloom, isolation, and grandeur, than the lone sea-bird pursuing its wild, magnificent flight over the turbulent main, before a darkly gathering storm.
The bleak, wild scenes of winter-life, such as the driving snow-storm, the sombre landscape, the noiseless passage of a hawk amid the trees, the cutting wind that sways the leafless boughs with dismal creak —
— the moaning pines, the cold light of day, and the still colder and quickly gathering darkness — these and all other ghastly things that appertain to Nature's annual burial, constitute an incomparable background on which to project the tone and temper of all the other seasons of the year — the joy of spring, the luxuriance of summer, and the glory of autumn.
Sky-filling and half-formless phantom shadowing the earth, and whose essential elements are darkness, clouds, and icy winds, Winter is the dread image of a scourge that devastates the world,
"And reigns tremendous o'er the conquer'd year."
School ornithology means, a bird in the hand — field ornithology, a bird in the bush; and in its wild freedom its life-history is comprised under four aspects, viz., appearance (i.e., plumage and physique), migrations, general habits and song, and nidification. When one proceeds to study these creatures he finds how the details involved in this summary begin to multiply, so that thorough knowledge of any species, which at first seemed an easy matter to acquire, proves to be an affair of prolonged and perhaps endless research. It befits the purpose of this book to speak briefly of the foregoing summary, wherein is outlined the entire province of field ornithology.
Acquaintance with a bird begins, of course, in identifying its species; and this requires either verbal description, pictorial illustration, or (which is best of all) access to a collection of stuffed specimens.1 In either case there are two ways of proceeding: either first to find the living bird, notice its size and as many of the details of coloration as possible, with all of its habits that may be noted, and then from reference-book or stuffed collection determine what it is. In some cases this method will be very easy, as where the colors are simple, and a good view is had of the specimen. In other cases, with complicated markings, as in the warblers, or when the bird is very small, or seen at a distance, it might be a long time before the species can be determined.
The second method is the reverse of the other — first to learn the appearance of the birds of any locality from either of the above sources, and then find their counterparts in nature. This method is simplified by finding out what birds are to be expected at any given time and place, and thus confining the attention to a few birds at a time. 'This latter course involves more preliminary work, but has the advantage that thereby the live specimens will generally be identified at a glance. The temperament and circumstances of the individual will determine the method to be adopted. For myself, I learned the names and coloring of all the song-birds of New England before I had seen half a dozen living species, — a method that another person might find very irksome.
One soon finds that the size (particularly the length) of a bird is one of the most important factors in determining its species. Where there is some uncertainty in regard to the characteristic coloring, an approximate idea of the size is of great assistance; while there are several instances of distinct species among the land-birds, and still more among the waterfowl, that are colored exactly alike or nearly so, and appear to be only larger and smaller editions of the same creature; like the hairy and the downy woodpeckers, and (when seen at a distance) the pine grosbeak and the cross-bill. As birds in the wild state will not submit to any rules, twelve-inch or otherwise, it is well to know the length of a few familiar birds, which one can carry in mind as standards of measure. As good as any for this purpose are the crow, which is about twenty inches long, the robin, about ten inches, and the English sparrow, or the song sparrow, about six inches. In discovering a new species one is often so excited as to forget entirely to make a note of its size, and on consulting reference-book or stuffed collection he finds he has neglected an essential point of the description, and must wait until the bird favors him with another audience.
Secondly, as regards the migrations of birds (for, as before shown, there is rarely a specimen and only a very few species resident the whole year at any locality in northern latitudes), the facts are most easily learned from books, although by a year's careful observation one can quite accurately classify the summer and winter residents and migrants of his own region. But the further interesting facts of the northern and southern extent of their range in different seasons of the year can be learned only by the combined observations of many individuals over a wide extent of territory, and we must rely upon books to tell us, for example, where the fox sparrow lives in summer, or the humming-bird in winter.
Thirdly, a bird's general habits and song (if a song-bird) afford endless entertainment, whatever the locality, and in this phase of its biography each person may do original work. In the case of all the familiar species there is now little reason to expect any important new disclosures, and yet individuality asserts itself to such a degree among these creatures, that such an event is not impossible; while any modification of their circumstances naturally leads to the development of new traits. The more they are observed, the less mechanical and prescribed their lives appear, and minor facts of interest are coming to light from time to time in regard to even the commonest species.
But, fortunately, the interest of research in this pursuit is not at all dependent upon discovering facts, important or trivial, which have never been known before. There is precisely as much satisfaction in learning the ways and appearance of an unfamiliar bird, and in getting a clear sense of its individuality, as if the same species had not been watched before by a thousand pairs of eyes. As someone has well said, every observer is for himself at least an original discoverer; and the same exhilaration of discovery is in store for each new beginner. It is entertaining to read others' accounts of bird-life, but this is a mild satisfaction compared with seeing for one's self what is transpiring in the woods and fields all about. However instructive the experience of others, one realizes only his own experience. It is the difference between shadow and substance. Language is a clumsy medium for conveying beauty of form and color, grace of motion, tone and modulation of song.
When one considers the various classes of birds — song-birds, birds of prey, game-birds, shore and swimming birds — and the diversity of habits incident to their several modes of life, he realizes the endless field of investigation open to the student. Every region of the globe attracts an avifauna congenial to its physical and climatic conditions. Mountain and plain, forest and field, seashore and stream, from the tropics to the Arctic zone — all have their special types, each with its own functions, and all for the service and adornment of nature. And when we take a still broader outlook, and survey the myriad varieties of organic forms throughout the world, from the depths of ocean to the tops of the mountains, and even pervading the atmosphere, ranging from microscopic protozoa up through all degrees of magnitude and of organic complexity of vegetable and animal life, and the countless specimens of each type distributed within the bounds of its habitation, each a perfectly developed and incessantly energizing force fulfilling its prescribed purpose from time immemorial in the economy of nature, — such a sweeping glance gives a faint idea what an amazingly intricate and magnificent piece of mechanism is this world. Of all the sciences that come to view in this stupendous panorama, ornithology is perhaps the most poetic and picturesque. 2
Song-birds, not those whose natures are mocked in brass prisons, but in the wild freedom of their native haunts, have in themselves something akin to the human heart, bringing them almost to the plane of fellowship with mankind. There is sublimity in the imperial flight and bearing of the eagle, like the rugged Spirit of the mountains; there is a wild and melancholy picturesqueness in the reminiscent water-fowl; but neither the grandeur of the one, nor the poetry of the other, can elicit that personal, affectionate regard that springs up for a creature that can translate its heart into song. What a hold the familiar song-birds of every country have upon the people! And commonly they are among the most plainly dressed of their kind. The song sparrow, the purple finch, the robin, the thrush, in our own country; the wren, the chaffinch, and the skylark, in Europe; who would think of naming these among the feathered "beauties," yet who would not gladly sacrifice any of the merely ornamental species for such as these? Only heart speaks to heart, and the world in the end is swayed neither by fine manners nor by fine looks.
Apart from the more subtle influence upon the mind wrought by these audible and visible impressions of nature, there comes a refinement of hearing, in the discrimination of tones and the unravelling of cadences; a delicacy of vision, in the minute distinctions of action, form, and color; an education of eye and ear, in itself pleasurable, and enlarging one's capacity for enjoyment.
In the chill of a bright March morning the song sparrow, with his lusty welcome to the reviving earth; in June the robin carolling in the maple at the first blush of dawn; the wood or the hermit thrush pouring forth his golden notes in the cool repose of a summer's eve; the serene cadence of the vesper sparrow, floating from quiet fields; the mid-day jubilation of the purple finch in the orchard; the merry tone of the chickadee suddenly dissolving the icy desolation of a winter's day; these and numerous other voices, louder and fainter, are giving Nature's invitation to go forth and behold her works. On every hand mystery is ripening into clear knowledge under the eye and ear of man; it is the mind's perpetual harvest.
It is during the
nidification (approximately May and June) that a bird is seen
and heard at its best.
Wood Thrushes and Nest
This is the climax of its annual experience, the fulness of its joy, when it blooms into the maturity of its nature. Its song is then most hearty and copious, its instinctive powers and affection most wonderfully exhibited. Its timidity, and at the same time its boldness, are most marked at this season, as if realizing its responsibility for the perpetuity of its kind. Its devices for misleading attention from its nest and its young are sometimes very amusing, and yet pathetic, as in the case of the prairie-hen, which is a great adept in such trickery. As one writer describes it, when she is leading about her young inquest of food, and is surprised by an intruder, she utters a cry of alarm. The young ones immediately scamper to the brush; and while they are skulking into places of safety, their anxious parent beguiles the spectator by drooping and fluttering her wings, limping along the path, rolling over in the dirt, and other pretences of inability to walk or fly," and continuing these signs of injury and distress until the spectator has been lured to a safe distance. At other times, when surprised upon the nest, its boldness is often most heroic; and one cannot but be amazed at the wisdom often displayed in so locating the nest as best to conceal it from its numerous foes, while the structure itself is a marvel of skill, and sometimes of exquisite beauty. Its instinct is nothing short of genius. However lightly one may pass over the other aspects of a bird, he may well be deferential in view of its wisdom.
Birds' nests, in all the diversity of size, location, materials of composition, and style of architecture, are a most curious and interesting study by itself. They vary in size from the eagle's rude structure, five feet across, down to the daintiest of all, the humming-bird's, only an inch and a half in diameter. They are located in all sorts of places. Those of the bank swallow and belted kingfisher are subterranean, at the end of long excavations in sandbanks, from one to several feet below the surface. Sparrows build on the ground; so do night-hawks and many water-fowl. To find the nests of thrushes and many of the warblers, we must look a few feet above the ground, in bushes and trees. Crows nest in the tops of tall trees, and inaccessible cliffs several hundred feet high are fittingly the home of many of the hawks and eagles. Woodpeckers make cavities from one to two feet in depth in trees, and chickadees and nuthatches, with the same proclivity as the woodpecker, but without its strength, will sometimes take the abandoned nests of the latter, and sometimes make their own excavations in a rotten stump where the wood is soft. Swifts build in chimneys, barn swallows under the eaves of outbuildings. Some species choose the deepest woods, and others the orchard and the wayside. In the case of aerial birds the altitude of the nest is about in the plane of their average flight, and while the little vesper sparrow selects a tussock of grass in which to build, the grand and lonely mountain is the foundation of the eagle's home. Among aerial birds, too, there is an irregular parallelism between the size of the bird and the height of the nest — many warblers and sparrows choosing the ground, or a slight elevation, the larger finches, crows, hawks, and eagles going successively higher and higher.
A constant thought of a bird is, "Many are they that rise up against me," and safety is commonly the first consideration in the location of nests. In this they are materially assisted by the generally inconspicuous colors of the female, and among the sparrows, which mostly nest on the ground, so that the eggs and young are especially exposed to the depredations of other animals, by the neutral coloring of both sexes. The Maryland yellow-throat finds security in the seclusion of low bushes, the red-eyed vireo in the manifest exposure of the tip-end of a branch, in a "privacy of light," and the bobolink concludes to run his chances by camping down on the open and unbroken surface of a field, with no landmark about, so that if by any chance it is discovered, the finder would have no clue by which to return to it. The most ingenious and artistic device of all is in so choosing the materials composing the exterior that they blend indistinguishably with the surrounding colors.
In these structures a surprising inequality of architectural skill is displayed. Some birds are most indifferent builders, while others show most careful effort and artistic taste. Nothing could be more primitive than the nest of the whippoorwill or of the night-hawk — only a slight hollow scratched in the bare ground, or, at best, with only a few sticks rudely surrounding the depression. Bank swallows hardly need anything better than the soft sand which is the natural basis of their nest, but tenderness or pride commonly prompts them to overlay it with a few roots, twigs, and feathers. Woodpeckers consider a few of the chips they have made in the excavation quite soft enough to receive the eggs — or possibly they call this a parquet flooring. Chickadees and nuthatches make their excavations cosey with soft moss, hairs, and the like. The nest of the robin (and of the wood thrush as well), although coarsely made and inelegant, is unusual in consisting of three distinct layers, the outermost of various coarse substances like weeds, roots, straw, etc., woven together, the next layer of somewhat finer material plastered together with mud, and, lastly, the innermost lining of soft grass and moss, the whole constituting a structure clumsy in appearance, but durable. The golden-crowned warbler gets its name of oven-bird from its peculiar nest, which is built over at the top, with the entrance on one side, and looking much like an old-fashioned oven. It is placed on the ground, made of dry leaves and grasses, and lined with soft material.
The nest of the marsh wren is still more complex and unique. By the way, the wren family is quite a gifted one; physically diminutive, but brainy. Their proclivities take different directions, and while the winter and the house wrens adopted a musical career, the marsh wren became famous as an architect; which is quite a harmonious contrast, if architecture be, as someone has called it, frozen music. I quote from Wilson the following description of its seaside mansion: "This is formed outwardly of wet rushes mixed with mud, well intertwined and fashioned into the form of a cocoanut. A small hole is left two-thirds up for entrance" (another writer says the front door always faces the south), "the upper edge of which projects like a pent-house over the lower to prevent the admission of rain. The inside is lined with fine, soft grass, and sometimes feathers, and the outside, when hardened by the sun, resists every kind of weather. This nest is generally suspended among the reeds, above the reach of the highest tides, and is tied so fast to every part of the surrounding reeds as to bid defiance to the winds and the waves."
The nest of the cliff swallow, which is fashioned into the shape of a gourd, is constructed on the exterior entirely of pellets of mud (bricks without straw), the interior softly lined, and the whole attached by its larger part to a building or cliff. Among all the designs of nests, in this country at least, there is nothing more picturesque than the deep, pendulous structure of the Baltimore oriole, hanging from near the extremity of a drooping branch of an elm-tree, nearly seven inches in depth, of cylindrical shape, the outer part a sort of coarsely woven cloth made of thread, sewing-silk, ravellings of any kind, strings of the flax of silkweed, tow, etc., with a lining of horse-- hair, grass, and similar material.
But the most ethereal
affair of all,
of gauzy texture comporting with its dainty occupant, is the
humming-bird's home. Its framework is soft down, such as grows on the
stems of certain ferns, covered with lichens glued on with the
saliva of the bird, and the whole lined with superlatively soft and
downy substances like the pappus of flying seeds. This elegant abode
is only three-quarters of an inch in its inner diameter, yet
amply large for the two tiny eggs less than half an inch in length —
"love in a cottage," indeed — and the casket with its
pair of germinant jewels and its airy fairy master and mistress
presents one of the rarest pictures in nature.
Humming-Birds and Nest
In contrast with such a delicate dream how huge and ungainly is the dwelling of the bald eagle, a bulky heap sometimes five feet in diameter, and two or three feet thick, made of large sticks often an inch thick, branches of seaweed, and turf. But Nature is as masterly in a gigantic stroke as in her gentlest touch, and shows the same superb consistency in grouping the majestic bird of prey with its inhospitable eyrie on the rugged, lonely mountain-top, as when she fills the woods below with singing birds, and populates the shore of lake and stream with graceful water-fowl.
More unpromising tools than a bird's bill and feet could hardly be imagined for building anything that is to be compact and durable, to say nothing of neatness and elegance. Recently, in unravelling, a nest a strand was found, some feet in length, that was woven in and out thirty-four times. In rearing the second brood of the same year the parents commonly take much less pride in their work, or else are obliged to be more expeditious, and the materials are thrown together quite hastily. It is very unusual for a nest to be used a second season, except where one species takes the abandoned nest of another, like the chickadee; but one writer tells of a pair of ravens in Ohio that occupied the same nest for several years, which, from its protected situation, required but few alterations and additions each year. As a class the songbirds are much the finest builders, the nests of the larger aerial species, like crows, hawks, etc., being quite clumsy, while game-birds and water-fowl rarely exert themselves beyond what is absolutely necessary.
The assortment of materials used in nest building is much larger than one might suppose, owing to the peculiarities in architecture, the difference of the supplies afforded in different localities, and probably, too, something must be allowed for their individual tastes. The following variety is to be found in the nests of our own region: grasses, leaves, weeds, fibrous roots, sticks, twigs, outer bark of grapevine, cedar-bark, fine fir branches, cranberry fibre, dry plants of various kinds, pine needles, rushes, sedges, mosses, lichens, seaweed, hay, wool, tow, cottony substance of fern stems, straw, horse-hair, feathers (sometimes of the bird itself), down of thistle and other seeds, fine hair of various animals, silky vegetable fibre, willow-down, wool of cotton-grass, caterpillar's silk, pieces of the nests of hornets and spiders, hogs' bristles, strings of silkweed-flax, artificial thread, sewing-silk, strips of paper, snake-skins, mud, turf, pebbles, clam and oyster shells (in the case of the kill-deer plover), and in several species the saliva of the bird, to serve as glue for binding the parts together.
A bird is supposed to have little interest in its nest, apart from the eggs or the young actually contained therein. But I have heard of a curious instance of sentiment (quite likely found in other species) displayed by a pair of great-footed hawks nesting on Mount Tom, in Massachusetts. The nest was near the top of the mountain, almost at the summit of a precipitous cliff two hundred feet in height, and well-nigh inaccessible. When the bold climber approached the nest (which was on a shelving rock, and was merely a slight excavation, without any pretence of a structure), although it was as yet entirely empty, the hawks were found lingering about the spot, and displayed great anxiety and anger at the intrusion. The narrator said that thus for weeks before the eggs were laid the spot was carefully guarded by the bold and watchful birds.
Some of the wild and magnificent scenes witnessed and participated in by those who have made a study of the larger birds of prey in mountainous regions are of thrilling interest, and may well be said to constitute the heroic side of ornithology.
After selecting the site for the nest — an important matter that often causes very earnest discussion — the structure is usually completed with more or less rapidity according to the degree of complexity and elegance, and the eggs immediately thereafter deposited, the incubation being generally effected by the female, but frequently with the assistance of her mate. The period required for incubation varies with the size of the bird, from ten days or less for the smallest species up to about eight weeks for the ostrich.
Most species produce two sets, and a few three sets of eggs each year. The entire nesting season is longer than commonly supposed. While for the majority of birds it is comprised in about six weeks — from the middle of May to the end of June — the great horned owl lays its eggs in March, sometimes even in February, other owls and hawks (sometimes the song sparrow) in April, whereas the second set of many species is not produced till July. Indeed the cedar-bird and goldfinch commonly wait till July before laying the first set, and the goldfinch even delays sometimes till August. (The period is even longer than the foregoing for the entire country, extending from January, for some of the birds of prey, to the end of September.)
The full set of eggs varies in number. Among thrushes, warblers, finches, etc., the set contains four or five, which is perhaps the general average. But eagles, whippoorwills, humming-birds, and a few others have only two in a set, and among the commoner species the house wren has from six to nine, the ruffed grouse from eight to fifteen, and Wilson states that in the nest of the Virginia partridge or "Bob-white" one will sometimes find as many as twenty-four eggs, probably, however, the joint contribution of two or three females. It would be interesting to know the significance of the peculiar and often beautiful ground tints, and of the various markings in lilac, red, brown, etc., found on almost all egg-shells.
The search for nests is as fascinating as almost any aspect of ornithology, although it can be successfully prosecuted only during the brief period of nidification. And, when found, there is a finer pleasure in leaving nest and eggs intact than in despoiling them.
Since for the female bird the conjugal compact seems to be quite as much a matter of convenience as of sentiment, it is doubtful, in the event of accident befalling her mate after the nesting season is fully over, whether she consents to pass again under the "blissful yoke" until the next year. But should she be bereft during the critical nesting period, like a practical business woman she accepts or even hunts up another partner with surprising and almost unseemly celerity.
A bird's natural period of life appears to be somewhat, though by no means strictly, proportional to its size. Vital statistics of such fugacious creatures are difficult to obtain, and afford only approximate conclusions. It is known, however, that eagles and swans sometimes live a hundred years, whereas, for many of the smallest species the limit is only five or six years. Peacocks not uncommonly live twenty years, and even goldfinches and blackbirds have attained that age, although probably it is greatly in excess of their natural limit; and parrots have survived sixty years in confinement. Doubtless, the average duration of bird-life, as fixed by nature, does not exceed ten or twelve years.
Yet, naturally short-lived as are the great majority of birds, vast numbers are prematurely cut off by adverse climate and lack of food, by the ravages of disease, by the attacks of numerous insidious foes among the lower animals, and, most lamentable of all, by the wanton assaults of man himself. It is disgraceful to humanity, and increasingly barbarous and criminal, in proportion as intelligence and refinement increase, that mankind, for the pleasure of cruel sport in the one sex, and for the gratification of vanity by personal adornment in the other sex, should be conspicuous among the destroyers of one of the most useful, as well as most beautiful, of the creations of nature.
What a storehouse Nature is for ideas in the useful and fine arts! Man's inventions and artistic products are largely only ingenious copyings — legitimate plagiarisms. It is said that the invention of the sewing-machine was long delayed, because it did not occur to the inventor to put the eye of the needle next to the point. If he had gone to the woods in June and watched the birds carrying in the points of their bill-needles the threads of hair, roots, and twigs in and out in circumferential interlacings, weaving a structure that human skill cannot approach unto, the problem would have been solved easier and earlier.
A most important appliance in mechanics, and a great discovery in its day, is the knee joint — as old as Adam, nay, older, for it was in the machinery of the megatherium, in his pre-Adamic, paleozoic peregrinations. The "ball and socket" is another contribution of the animal frame to the mechanical service of man; and microscopic and telescopic science finds its lens in the eyeball. As Dryden says: —
Makes mighty things from small beginnings grow;
Thus fishes first to shipping did impart,
Their tail the rudder, and their head the prow."
The hollow columnar structure, as combining the greatest strength and lightness, finds its prototype in the bone, while the frieze of the Corinthian column was suggested by seeing acanthus leaves growing around a vase. And as for sculpture and painting, they are most essentially imitative, discriminatingly reproductive of Nature's examples. Some one has said that it requires more skill to make a good quotation than to do original thinking — which, if true, is very flattering to mankind, who have been quoting from Nature steadily for six thousand years. And the famous wise man of antiquity has declared, "The thing that hath been, it is that that shall be: and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."
While it is true that the chief pleasure of field ornithology is derived from personal research, yet, for the wise direction of one's efforts, and for information on such points as fail to come within his own observation, a handbook is indispensable. Investigation in this science has been more thorough in the eastern part of the United States than elsewhere in America, and there are several reference-books, reliable and interestingly written, regarding the birds to be found in New England and the Eastern and Middle States. A thorough student desires to consult various authorities, but a single good work will ordinarily suffice.
Expense and completeness taken into account, the best hand-book for the land-birds of the Northeastern States is Minot's "Land and Game Birds of New England" (Estes & Lauriat). This really suffices for a much larger area than New England, for the species that summer only in the extreme Northern States are seen as migrants in more southerly latitudes, and there are few that summer in the Middle Atlantic and interior States that do not penetrate at least a little way up the Valley of the Connecticut, and are thus included among the New England birds. One feature of this book especially valuable to the beginner is a register containing the species that may be expected on each month of the year, with approximate dates of arrival and departure, and times of nesting. For the latitude of New York, of course the dates of arrival and departure will be respectively earlier and later by a few days.
In studying the water-fowl, recourse must be had to some other work, and a very satisfactory one, treating of the land-birds as well, is "New England Bird Life," by W. A. Stearns, edited by Elliott Coues (2 vols., Lee & Shepard). But as far as land-birds are concerned, Minot's work is preferable. Another, that covers the same ground as the one by Stearns, in one volume, is Samuel's "Birds of New England." 3
The most complete work on the subject is the large volume by Elliott Coues, recently published, entitled "Key to North American Birds" (Estes & Lauriat). The physical descriptions in this are extremely accurate, but the accounts of their habits are very brief. It is valuable as being the highest authority on all North American birds, and also contains much that is interesting in the more scientific aspects of the subject.
If one is only dabbling in the study, he will probably content himself with learning merely the popular names of the species, with little regard to their relationships; but if he is ambitious to have a distinct classification of them in his mind, he will find it of great assistance to master the scientific names as well, by which the relations of family, genus, and species will be kept constantly in view. This suggestion is not inconsistent with a previous criticism of current classification. Even a poor classification is infinitely better than none; and the present grouping is far from poor, as its mistake (if a layman may be allowed to pass judgment) is probably not so much in asserting false relationships, as in adopting, to some extent, principles of classification which are not truly fundamental. And moreover, whether it be a weakness or not, there is a great satisfaction, after watching and listening, for example, to the wood thrush, complacently and learnedly to say to one's self, Turdidoe turdus mustelinus — only its official tag, as it were, but how it flatters the mind to phrase a world-relationship in ponderous Latinity!
It remains to speak of an important aid to the student in another class of books, less technical and less directly educational in design, but of greater literary pretension and worth — books that in some ways afford as much inspiration to the reader to pursue this line of study as he will find in the results, however delightful, of personal investigation, — those books in which he holds intercourse with Nature through the eyes and ears of a writer whose senses are more keen than his own, whose mind is more discerning, whose spirit is more appreciative of the finest touches of beauty, and whose opportunities of investigation have been more varied and ample. Such books are spiritual pabulum, a finer revelation than can ever be com-pressed into the formalities of a text-book, transferring the reader to higher points of vision than he can attain with his unripe experience.
Pre-eminent among other well-known and able writers of this class is that last and best prose-poet of our times, Mr. John Burroughs, a sort of high-priest in Nature's temple, a veritable seer. The atmosphere of one of his books is as refreshing as a week's outing; his descriptions are panoramic, the delicacy of sentiment and felicity of expression unsurpassed, with here and there a subtle turn in the phrase that sparkles like a jewel. Combining scientific accuracy with a poet's intensity of feeling, he is too well balanced and too honest ever to allow a fact to be distorted in order to extract therefrom a finer sentiment. His writings rest upon a solid foundation of rugged common-sense, and are written in a warm, transparent and invigorating style, without a taint of self-consciousness.
Like the best landscape pictures, his works seem to have been produced out-of-doors. The song of birds and aroma of flowers echoes and exhales from every page — an inimitable transcript of nature. With keen intellect, sensitive spirit, wide experience, and deep sympathies, a commanding and lovable personality stands behind his works, re-enforcing all that he utters. To his writings more than to any other of the same class are Thoreau's words applicable — "Books of natural history make the most cheerful winter reading."
December birds are happily ignorant of, or nobly superior to, the dreariness of the coming season, and the contagion of their cheerfulness is compensation for many a winter's walk in the by-ways and the woods. The most abundant throughout the month were the white-throats, with tarnished head-gear, and the snow-birds, always spruce in appearance, and "showing the white feather" in retreat. A pair of fox sparrows seem to have resolved to test the gayety of New York winter-life, for I have seen them from time to time, up to the 10th. Golden-crowned kinglets are numerous, and the chickadee, singly or in pairs, is sometimes hilarious with his dee, dee, dee, or in quieter mood is heard chanting a very different song with delicate tone and modulation. Goldfinches are roaming about in flocks in the tops of the trees, the European species the happier of the two, judging from their luscious chatter. Robins are among the rarities, a single specimen, on the 24th, in a tree-top uttering his call-note with great unction. A single chewink seems stranded here for the winter, but has fallen among white-throated friends, and appears in no wise disconsolate. A field sparrow showed itself a couple of days early in the -month, and the hermit thrush was last seen on the 7th. What seemed to be a pair of yellow-rumps were found on the 13th, and the song sparrow occasionally until the 25th, while the cardinals have returned to their winter-quarters in the Ramble. Among the larger species were gulls and crows, with an occasional coarse, loud tone from a tree-top that revealed the golden-winged woodpecker, which, on the wing, sometimes gives a delightfully mellow note, showing the folly of forcing the tone.
In walking through the Park on the 28th, a rather sizable bird flew over my head and lighted in a distant tree. If robins had been plentiful I should have thought this to be one, as it was about as large, and yet with something unusual in its appearance that made me curious to follow it up. It showed little timidity, but still kept a sharp eye on me as I reconnoitred close enough to see that its plumage was dingy white beneath and ashy above; not a robin certainly, possibly a shrike. At that instant it flew out of sight, but following its direction I soon found it perching in a low bush, furtively looking about and jerking its tail like a cat-bird. I mentally requested him to hold his head still for examination, for the characteristic markings of a bird radiate from the seat of intelligence. A shrike's bill is stout, and curved at the end, and a black stripe passes through the eye; this one's bill was straight and slender, and the side of the face of uniform color; while in flying off again it disclosed pure white outer tail-feathers, with much white on the remainder, — no shrike, but the mocking-bird! — the genius of the thrush family, — the cat-bird, before the latter fell from grace. But what brought him to New York the last of December? It is a thoroughly Southern species, and it is quite the thing to explain its occasional appearance in the Northern States, and especially in winter, by calling it an escaped caged specimen; an inference that seems somehow to detract not a little from the credit of finding it. But I am convinced that in the present instance such a supposition is an injustice both to the bird and to myself. Without any doubt, this particular specimen wandered up from the South entirely of its own volition, and lingered about the Park for my special benefit — a sort of Christmas present, a little belated in the delivery.
My last tour of
observation for the
year was taken on the 3oth in a genuine snow-storm, the air still and
full of flakes — more favorable for finding birds than a clear but
windy day. The chickadee was chanting its brief and gentle carol near
a brown creeper that was just starting at the bottom of a tree
for his endless ascent. Numerous white-throats were busily scratching
among the leaves, and fraternizing with the solitary chewink, who
will doubtless remain here through the winter, unless driven away by
extreme cold; and, lastly, a cardinal grosbeak was flitting from tree
to tree in lively fashion, uttering his loud, rich call-note.
1 The illustrations in this book were prepared from specimens kindly furnished by the directors of the Museum of Natural History, in New York City.
2 It lifts a corner of the curtain to our view of the infinity of life on the globe, to be told that there are 100,000 species of animalcules alone, and that of one of these, 30,000 individuals can inhabit a single drop of water; while another is so prolific that in four days its descendants number 70,000,000,000.
3 A valuable work entitled "Our Common Birds, and How to Know Them," by John B. Grant (Charles Scribner's Sons), combines a set of photographic illustrations with a brief description of the birds.