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THE QUEST OF A THRUSH
THE FIRST YEAR
To an enthusiastic bird-student nothing is so alluring, so irresistibly attractive, as an unfamiliar bird-song. Until the mystery is solved, the unknown singer seen and identified, there is no rest for the eager pursuer. If it chance that the spirit is hampered by the body, if the student is unable to scramble over rocks, tear through jungles, and wade swamps hour after hour and day after day, the case becomes sometimes really desperate, and admirable opportunity is offered to cultivate philosophy, to "learn to wait" in a proper spirit.
Several times since my eyes were opened to the delights of bird-study I have fallen under a spell of the sort. In most cases I have been able to solve the problem and name my bird at last, but in two or three cases the mystery is a mystery still, and the tantalizing notes haunt me yet. In one instance it was a wild ringing song, resembling that of the winter wren, heard years ago on the coast of Maine; another was a strange monologue, half song, half talk, heard in the early morning before I could get to the window, in the western part of the same state. Neither of these was ever traced to its source.
Generally, however, I have been more fortunate. Three years of watching were required to become somewhat familiar with the domestic life of the veery, or tawny thrush, though much yet remains to be discovered, and three more have passed in quest of another of the beguiling family, the olive-backed or Swainson's thrush. Nor am I yet satisfied; I am still in pursuit.
The search began two years before the chronicle of the preceding chapter, in a rather wild part of the Pine-Tree State. Out of a piece of wood at some distance from the farmhouse where I was staying, and separated from it by an impassable swamp, came one evening a loud call in the peculiar tremulous tones of the veery, sounding to me like "Wake up! Judy!" the first two notes with falling, the last two with rising inflection. As evening of that first day drew on, the call to Judy was accompanied by other sounds uttered in the same voice, a loud ringing song or recitative composed of similar ejaculations, with varied modulations that gave it greater resemblance to conversation than to music. Indeed, while I sat and listened through the long twilight to two or three birds calling and answering one another from distant treetops, I could not rid myself of the fancy that they were exchanging opinions across their green world.
The country was beautiful, bobolinks sang enchantingly almost under my window, warblers and hermit-thrushes made musical the woods behind the house, but the singer I could not name was the most bewitching of all. If I could not trace him, I could at least fly from him, and so I did. I packed my belongings and took a bee-line across the state to the Island where my story begins. I settled myself in the nook already described and prepared to forget, or try to forget, the puzzling song. But fate was kinder than I dared hope. The very first morning I was wakened by an unfamiliar and remarkable bird-note, a low, liquid "quit," sometimes followed by an explosive sound, a sort of subdued squawk. This sound was a nasal "a," like "a" in "man." The bird said "quit-a" in that tone, and with so much emphasis on the second syllable that it had an explosive effect. Naturally this mystified me and aroused great interest, especially because, in spite of my persistent efforts, I was unable to get a glimpse of the bird.
This state of affairs continued for several days. But as we have been told, and as some of us know, "all things come in time to him who can wait." To me at last came my chance. One afternoon there rolled in upon us, from our restless neighbor, the sea, an all-embracing fog, which gradually enfolded us till we were closely wrapped as in a heavy blanket. The fog-bell on a point near by tolled dismally, and a more distant whistling-buoy sent out at intervals a groan, as if wailing for all who had found graves beside the rocks it was now set to guard. All night this continued, and in the morning the fog was lighter, but a steady rain was falling. Now, I thought, is my time to see the stranger who has so interested me; for in a steady rain birds find it somewhat less comfortable on the tree-tops, and incline to get under the leafy roofs for shelter as well as for food. Duly encumbered by wraps and protectors that man has devised as shields from the weather, I hastened to a bit of the woods where for a few rods it was level and penetrable, and where I had heard the luring voice. Here, with some difficulty, I found a spot firm enough to support the legs of my chair, and settled myself to wait.
More conspicuous than ever were the contrasted tree-trunks, as the dampness turned the spruces black, and brought out the beauty of the decorative lichens in every shade of green, from almost white to dead black, with here and there bits of pink and drab, all standing up, living and beautiful as always in a soaking rain. Even the rocks were glorified by great patches of these curious plants, which show freshness and life only when wet, the tender blue-green leaves, if one may call them so, with their rich brown lining, all expanded in exquisite ruffle-like convolutions.
Spruce trunks had also another peculiarity. As they had grown they had shed their youthful branches. One young tree, not more than ten feet high, had already dropped off twenty-seven branchlets, retaining only a few at the top, and bending all its energies to the task of reaching and penetrating the thick green roof to the sunlight above. Each limb, as it broke off, left a part, a few inches or a foot long, standing straight out from the trunk, the whole forming a sort of circular ladder, by which it seemed one might mount to the upper regions, and, better yet, offering convenient perches for the feathered woodlanders.
While I was absorbed in admiration of my surroundings a bird-note fell upon my ear, a low "quit" in an unmistakable thrush tone. Turning my eyes quickly, I saw the speaker, standing on a round of the ladder encircling a tall old spruce-tree at the outer edge of the little clearing, pioneer of that bit of woods. Very slowly I brought my glass to bear upon him. A thrush, certainly, but none that I knew; neither hermit, wood, nor tawny. While I tried to see some characteristic by which to identify him, he spoke again, this time the rich "quit" with the peculiar added squawk, as I will call it, which had mystified me in the mornings. Meanwhile another of the family came noiselessly to a tree over my head, and whispered the same cry in an indescribably sweet and liquid tone. Still I looked in silence, and still the bird remained on the spruce. But after a while the danger of the presence of one of the human family seemed to be borne in upon him, and he suddenly startled me with a new sound, a sort of shriek, loud and on a much higher key. Even then I remained motionless; at last he grew somewhat more calm, and as if to put my last doubt to rest and to prove that he alone was author of all the sounds that had perplexed me, he began to sing in a low tone many of the strange clauses that I had heard shouted from the tree-tops. Finally, when confidence was assured by my unvarying stillness, he flew to another tree-trunk, then to a second, and at last to the ground, where he busied himself among the dead leaves.
I continued to sit without moving, and presently another of the family came about, with manners somewhat different. He stood on one of the broken branches, in plain sight, and treated me to a curious exhibition. Beginning with the usual "quit," very loud and on a high key, he repeated it many times, each repetition being lower in pitch and softer, till it became the merest murmur, almost inaudible at my short distance, with eyes fixed on me all the time. Strangely enough, as he proceeded, one after another of the birds around us warblers, juncoes, and others was hushed, till not a sound was heard excepting the rain on the leaves overhead. Then, having reduced his small world to absolute silence, he broke into a queer medley, whether song or scold, or a mixture of both, I could only guess. First came the common call uttered in the customary tone, then this call with added squawk, then the startling shriek on a high key, and after that a combination of all with some scraps of song. It was a confused jumble of all his accomplishments, forming a potpourri such as I never heard from thrush before. I was greatly interested in this exhibition of his character, and surprised at his versatility. Though he lacked the serene repose, the perfect dignity, of some of his family, he was a bird of marked individuality, and one well worthy of study.
The utterance of this bird, though charming and delightful to hear, has never seemed to me to merit the name of song. It has always impressed me, from the first moment I heard it in that far-off bit of woods, as a conversation. The clauses are of varying length, some with rising and others with falling inflection, three or four or sometimes as many as seven syllables in a clause, with pauses between, and without regularity so far as I can discover, and all on one note. Although not much given to trying to represent the notes of birds by our words, I will say that his clauses always sounded to me like variations on the theme "Er-rick-er-ree." His common call was like "er-rè-hu!" with strong accent on the second syllable.
After two hours with the thrush, the olive-backed, or Swainson's, as I found out later, I turned from the woods and made my way back, very wet indeed, but very happy; for I had added an acquaintance to my delightful list, and henceforth, whenever his peculiar inspiring notes might fall upon my ear, I should know him. Many evenings and mornings were passed listening to his song, and at last I felt familiar with every loud utterance of the bird, and was content to wait till some future summer for the pleasure of seeing him in his domestic relations and knowing him more intimately.
One thing more I must add to this year's chronicle of the olive-backed thrush: A friend who had the happiness to see a family of five olive-backed younglings take flight in the woods close by, brought me the nest and its surroundings. It was an exquisite affair; being the whole upper part of a young spruce six or seven feet high, with the little homestead two feet from the top, resting on three branchlets and surrounded by many more. And as the leaves fell off, revealing the delicately marked golden-brown twigs forming a complete protection on every side, it was picturesque and beautiful, worthy of a highly original member of one of our most characteristic and interesting bird families.
This was delightful, but it was not satisfactory. Not until the bird is seen at home in his domestic role, and the life about the nest is studied, does one really know him.
TRIBULATIONS BY THE WAY.
THE SECOND YEAR
The second year I started out with the one sole object of finding and knowing the olive-backed thrush. I had meanwhile taken pains to inform myself of several places where the bird was known to nest, and I went with confidence.
"Youll sure to find your thrush," said a beguiling voice, "on the top of Mount ."
Accordingly my first destination was a club-house on top of a mountain in a New England state, which was to be occupied that summer by the keeper's family alone.
Of the rough and weary way to reach that spot I spare my readers the details: the high country-wagon stage; the many miles dreary climb to the summit, where I was met; the two miles to "get in" through the woods, over an impossible, worn-out corduroy road, in which loose, wabbling logs alternated with fathomless pitch-holes, in a shaky old buggy constantly threatening dissolution, with a horse too small to inspire confidence, and the whole bridging an apparently bottomless swamp. The passage was a series of violent jerks, in every one of which it seemed the vehicle would come to pieces, and which soon drove the solitary passenger to her feet, where she performed gymnastic feats of jumping crevasses, balancing on floating logs, scaling cliffs, and extricating herself from pitfalls which shall be veiled in oblivion.
The house at which the dismal procession at last arrived was a comfortable summer cottage, with, however, the slight disadvantages that the window-shades would not come down and bedroom doors would not shut.
"We're so far from everybody," said the smiling hostess, "we never think of drawing down shades or locking doors."
But that night came up a severe thunderstorm, and drawn shades and closed doors took on a new importance. In all other respects the place was very nice and pleasant.
As I sat on the piazza that evening, I noticed first an ominous absence of bird-voices, and next the presence of a numerous frog population about the little lake close by. The musical performances of these voluble reptiles began about sunset and increased in volume and power till nothing else could be heard. If all the thrushes in the state had assembled in that spot and sung their loudest, they could not have been heard above the awful volume of frog-voices. Moreover, not a note of the olive-back had been heard near the house.
When I laid my head on the pillow that night with three staring, shadeless windows open to the lightning, I decided that it would not do. I could stand the loneliness in fact, I liked that; I might endure the frogs; it would not be impossible to console myself for the absence of the bird; I could probably live through a nightly thunder-storm for on questioning my host I learned the frequency of that entertainment; I could no doubt learn to dispense with such little things as window-shades and closed doors. I might, perhaps, reconcile myself to any one of these, but all of them combined was too much for my philosophy. So "in the morning," I said to myself, blinking before an unusually vivid flash, "in the morning I'll go back down the mountain the other way," for I had discovered there was another way.
But in the morning it poured, and I did not like to ask to be taken back. Two days the downpour kept me prisoner, but the third morning dawned cloudy, but not absolutely raining, and very early, in order to meet the "stage" as it passed the road below, we started down the mountain with the same rickety buggy and inadequate horse. This road was mostly a steep descent of three miles, and again I omit the details. Suffice it to say that I proved myself a tolerable pedestrian before we met the stage, which drew up with the cheerful information that it was full.
Despair made me eloquent, and the kindly passengers crowded up together and gave me a cramped seat on the end of a board. Of that ride I could a tale unfold: of the sick horse and the driver walking to spare him, half the time out of sight, leaving the reins in the hands of an indifferent girl, who allowed the horses to wander from side to side at will; and of the fatigue of the unusual walk and the uncomfortable seat. At the summit we were promised a fresh team, for in avoiding the corduroy outlet I had subjected myself to the ascent as well as the descent of the mountain. The new team was fresh indeed. They nearly wrecked us on the start before the exasperatingly leisurely driver had taken his seat, and while the lines hung loose over the box. Then they ran madly down the first hill in spite of brake and driver's shouts, galloped across the short level and ran down the next pitch, the mud splashing high, and tug-strap hanging. It was a sadly demoralized looking and feeling crowd that drew up at last before a hotel; and as I climbed painfully down the step-ladder way, the only alternative from a flying leap, I registered a vow in my heart never again to trust to the idiosyncrasies of horses and drivers; to confine my travels to places attainable by steam, electricity, cable, or any other power which has no will of its own.
The next place on the programme where the olive-backed thrush was promised was in the adjoining state about opposite on the map, and by taking five trains and consuming five hours, mostly in waiting in stations, I reached the place towards evening the next day, and found to my dismay that I was seven miles from the village. Here I was already again at the mercy of horse and manpower.
This horse and this man were of a different sort, however, and landed me safely at the farmhouse up in the mountains.
The next morning I set out to find my thrush, going at once to a piece of woods where my correspondent had said they were to be found in numbers nesting.
It was nesting-time, and my confident correspondent was a bird-student of years' standing; now I was sure of my bird. I passed through a grassy lane, and entered the woods at the foot. There I seated myself as comfortably as circumstances allowed, and proceeded to "wait" again.
The place was suffering from a plague of caterpillars. Everything about the house was covered with them, the piazza, the front of the house, the board walks, and the tree-trunks. One could not step without first looking to see that one did not crush a caterpillar, nor sit on a bench without clearing it of these unpleasant creatures. There in the woods they covered the trees, and made a sound like the dropping of a light rain.
Ugh! how could birds dainty, beautiful creatures live amid such an army! It was soon apparent that they shared my repugnance, for there appeared a warbler or two at rare intervals, two or three veeries at a distance and nothing else. Hours I sat there, loath to give up hope, not only that first day, but several succeeding ones, but never a note of the long-sought bird was heard. I was forced to conclude that my friend had been mistaken in her identification, for other thrushes were in another piece of woods near by, or that the birds had retired before the caterpillar army.
The annoyances that seem involuntarily to spring up around a bird-student did not fail to appear in this place. The sudden conversion of the grassy lane into a pasture by closing the gate and turning cows into it; the confining a vicious horse in a field with bars near my seat, which imprisonment the animal resented by pushing against the shaky old bars, threatening every minute to break through; the sudden attack of a fever of building or repairing the road, or cutting grass, which brought men and horses and lumber and great noise and unpleasantness about. All these, and more, grouped themselves as usual in that place, and completed the desolation the caterpillars had so well begun.
One interesting study I made of the ways of a party of Baltimore orioles that season. There were at first three of the gorgeous black and gold singers, on the most friendly terms with one another, perching close together on a branch, going down in the grass in a party, hunting insects socially on the apple-trees, climbing the trunk of an elm side by side, and singing and playing together, often till late in the evening.
That conduct of itself was remarkable, but stranger still was the fact that they sang exactly the same song, a thing I never before heard two birds do. This, in connection with their friendliness, made me think it probable that the three were brothers, reared in the same nest, and taught to sing by the same father.
" Through orchards tinted with the rose
In middle May the oriole goes,
His flute notes trying ever."
It was then the middle of May, and I watched with interest to see how their matrimonial affairs would settle themselves. The selection of partners was accomplished in a way satisfactory to all, and as quietly as if they were "old married folk," as, indeed, who knows but they were!
Though I was never absent very long, I did not see the process, to my great regret. I suddenly found them all provided with mates, talking together in low soft undertones, and evidently with serious business on hand. The three no longer played together, but they never quarreled.
This trio and their mates gave utterance to a great variety of notes, both musical and conversational, and some were strikingly like articulate speech. Also, both sexes sang. The males had, in addition to the usual sort of song, another peculiar seven-note strain, very different from anything I ever heard. Sometimes in the middle of this song the singer would interpolate an exquisitely rapturous note or two, as if the "beloved object" had suddenly appeared.
Before the end of May the three families were settled and busily building. One before my window on the upper branch of an elm where I could easily watch it, another in the top of an apple-tree, and the third in a maple across the road where
"High o'er the loud and dusty road
The soft gray cup in safety hung."
The nest of the apple-tree bird was not a typical oriole nest, being in an upright crotch and hung like a vireo's nest.
I was unable to stay to watch the family life of these interesting birds, which I regretted, for some of the most attractive of bird-notes are those passing between parents and young. I had in another place a glimpse into oriole family government which suggested that there might be much to learn of their ways. I was standing under a tree for a moment when I heard an oriole baby-cry over my head. Instantly there was a great commotion in the tree and a Baltimore oriole flew out and alighted in a tree a little way off. He was greatly disturbed and stood there watching me, flirting his wings and jerking his body in excitement while scolding his loudest. In a moment his mate joined him with a worm in her mouth, and added her distress to his. After a few minutes' calling without response, the father suddenly gave a peculiar whistle, loud and clear, and strikingly like a man's whistle to his dog. Instantly the young one flew out of the tree over my head, and joined his parents, and all flew away.
Besides this I had already discovered that mountains are not desirable for bird-study at least for mine. There is too much weather. When it was not raining it blew a gale, before which birds were silent, and so far as possible, invisible.
Here ends my search for the witching thrush, I said, I shall seek him no more. I took leave of the mountains, storms, and caterpillars, and betook myself to a quiet nook beside the sea, intending to confine my attention to warblers and white-throat sparrows, and other birds I had seen there before.
THE NEST AT LAST
THE THIRD YEAR
When was ever a bird-lover known finally to abandon a search so long as the faintest hope remained! I knew where the olive-backed thrush did live, and the next year the third in my search an irresistible drawing brought me again to his country, to the same comfortable cottage on the coast.
There, sure enough, were the birds, voluble as ever. Their soft, peculiar calls came from every side, and their strange recitatives or conversation resounded from the treetops.
Now must be made a confession: I am quick to know a bird's note, and no one can outdo me in patience and long-suffering in watching them but I have not the gift of finding nests. Nothing seemed more hopeless than to search that impenetrable jungle of close-growing spruces, while retaining uncertain footing on rocks lying at all angles, and slippery with dry spruce-needles. I did not attempt it. I resumed my walks, down to the shore, up the stony pathway to the woods, and enjoyed the birds everywhere.
The olive-backs soon made themselves obvious. About four A. M. they came around the house uttering their quiet, reserved, far-off "chack." It seemed that a dozen might be close to us, yet they moved about so silently that the most careful search with a glass would not show one. Then later in the day they threw off their early morning reserve, and shouted their inquiries and bits of advice across the tree-tops to one another, with perfect abandon.
Sometimes a bird took his stand on the tip-top of a spruce, sang his usual phrases, and between them uttered low "chacks" and other notes, as I have heard the wood-thrush, hermit, and tawny, "talk to themselves."
The most fascinating of bird-utterances, to me, are the low-toned ones not intended for the world at large. Not "talk" between two, neither notes of warning, nor of welcome, but plainly soliloquies, murmurs, trills, gurgles, and other indescribable sounds, evidently for their own enjoyment. Such I often hear over my head or behind my back, when I cannot stir without ending them. The finest song, and the greatest variety of shouts and calls to the general public, give me not half the pleasure I feel when listening to these contented and happy little strains that assure me a fellow creature finds joy in living, and makes me know that his life is not passed in constant terror.
"Oft may you thread
the woods in vain To see what singer piped the strain. Seek not, and the little eremite Flies gayly forth and sings in sight."
"Oft may you thread the woods in vain
To see what singer piped the strain.
Seek not, and the little eremite
Flies gayly forth and sings in sight."
Still greater happiness was promised. The very next morning a bird-loving friend, who has what I lack, the gift of finding nests, met me with the announcement:
"I've found a nest for you!"
And so he had: a nest of the olive-backed thrush, with four eggs and the bird sitting. Joy at last!
I hurried down to the spot. The nest was in a tangle of young spruces, and not well placed for study. Birds do not consult our convenience; in fact, I'm afraid they carefully consult our inconvenience, selecting the most inaccessible situations. The tangle was impenetrable and on a sharply sloping hillside. To see it at all I was obliged to sit much nearer than I liked, and constantly brace myself to retain my position.
As I feared, the birds did not accept my presence kindly. Like the veery, whom he resembles, the olive-back is intolerant of intrusions upon his domestic affairs. The presence of a spy, however respectful she may be, is so distressing to the pair, that I have no pleasure in trying to watch them. But I had sought so long! I hardened my heart and resolved to stay.
One hour's stay I made by the nest to which the owners refused to return. Then, lest harm come to the eggs, I left. The next morning I made another call the nest was empty! The eggs had doubtless made a breakfast for some squirrel, of which the grove was full. If I could only be sure I had not pointed it out to him!
To soften my disappointment a second friend announced a nest she had been studying two or three days, and I went with her a mile along a beautiful road on another part of the island.
The nest was just off the road in a spruce-tree, perhaps six feet from the ground, and in this case, too, we were obliged to sit nearer than I felt would be agreeable to the birds. Two or three hours we retained our places, and after some hesitation the birds did return to feed the little family.
We did not try them too long, and I left feeling very happy and hoping that now I should really know the bird.
Alas and alas! the next day my friend brought me the nest! She had found it empty excepting one dead nestling. This little unfortunate was well feathered and would have flown in a few days. We suppose the mischief was done by a black snake, which kills by constriction and often leaves part of his victims in the nest.
And so ends my three years' quest, but the subject is not closed. This year again I have heard his voice. Beyond the far Rocky Mountains, on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, the same song, the same eager conversation across the tree-tops saluted me, annihilating distance and transporting me instantly to the dear old rocks and woods of New England. The bird had probably another name, for his tail may have been a half inch longer, or his coat a half shade darker or lighter, than our bird, but his voice was the same, his manners were the same, and his heart, I am sure, was the same as his brother's across the continent.