I could wish Robin less native and plebeian in one respect,--the
building of his nest. Its coarse material and rough masonry are
creditable neither to his skill as a workman nor to his taste as an
artist. I am the more forcibly reminded of his deficiency in this
respect from observing yonder hummingbird's nest, which is a marvel of
fitness and adaptation, a proper setting for this winged gem,--the
body of it composed of a white, felt-like substance, probably the down
of some plant or the wool of some worm, and toned down in keeping with
the branch on which it sits by minute tree-lichens, woven together by
threads as fine and grail as gossamer. From Robin's good looks and
musical turn, we might reasonably predict a domicile of him as clean
and handsome a nest as the king-bird's, whose harsh jingle, compared
with Robin's evening melody, is as the clatter of pots and kettles
beside the tone of a flute. I love his note and ways better even than
those of the orchard starling or the Baltimore oriole; yet his nest,
compared with theirs, is a half-subterranean hut contrasted with a
Roman villa. There is something courtly and poetical in a pensile
nest. Next to a castle in the air is a dwelling suspended to the
slender branch of a tall tree, swayed and rocked forever by the wind.
Why need wings be afraid of falling? Why build only where boys can
climb? After all, we must set it down to the account of Robin's
democratic turn: he is no aristocrat, but one of the people; and
therefore we should expect stability in his workmanship, rather than
Another April bird, which makes her appearance sometimes earlier and
sometimes later than Robin, and whose memory I fondly cherish, is the
phoebe-bird, the pioneer of the flycatchers. In the inland farming
districts, I used to notice her, on some bright morning about Easter
Day, proclaiming her arrival, with much variety of motion and
attitude, from the peak of the barn or hay-shed. As yet, you may have
heard only the plaintive, homesick note of the bluebird, or the faint
trill of the song sparrow; and Phoebe's clear, vivacious assurance of
her veritable bodily presence among us again is welcomed by all ears.
At agreeable intervals in her lay she describes a circle or an ellipse
in the air, ostensibly prospecting for insects, but really, I suspect,
as an artistic flourish, thrown in to make up in some way for the
deficiency of her musical performance. If plainness of dress indicates
powers of song as it usually does, then Phoebe ought to be unrivaled
in musical ability, for surely that ashen-gray suit is the superlative
of plainness; and that form, likewise, would hardly pass for a
"perfect figure" of a bird. The seasonableness of her coming, however,
and her civil, neighborly ways, shall make up for all deficiencies in
song and plumage. After a few weeks phoebe is seldom seen, except as
she darts from her moss-covered nest beneath some bridge or shelving
Another April comer, who arrives shortly after Robin-redbreast, with
whom he associates both at this season and in the autumn, is the
gold-winged woodpecker, alias "high-hole," alias "flicker," alias
"yarup." He is an old favorite of my boyhood, and his note to me means
very much. He announces his arrival by a long, loud call, repeated
from the dry branch of some tree, or a stake in the fence,--a
thoroughly melodious April sound. I think how Solomon finished that
beautiful description of spring, "And the voice of the turtle is heard
in the land," and see that a description of spring in this farming
country, to be equally characteristic, should culminate in like
manner,--"And the call of the high-hole comes up from the wood."
It is a loud, strong, sonorous call, and does not seem to imply an
answer, but rather to subserve some purpose of love or music. It is
"Yarup's" proclamation of peace and good-will to all. On looking at
the matter closely, I perceive that most birds, not denominated
songsters, have, in the spring, some note or sound or call that hints
of a song, and answers imperfectly the end of beauty and art. As a
"livelier iris changes on the burnished dove," and the fancy of the
young man turns lightly to thoughts of his pretty cousin...ew...so the same
renewing spirit touches the "silent singers," and they are no longer
dumb; faintly they lisp the first syllables of the marvelous tale.
Witness the clear sweet whistle of the gray-crested titmouse,--the
soft, nasal piping of the nuthatch,--the amorous, vivacious warble of
the bluebird,--the long, rich note of the meadowlark,--the whistle of
the quail,--the drumming of the partridge,--the animation and
loquacity of the swallows, and the like. Even the hen has a homely,
contented carol; and I credit the owls with a desire to fill the night
with music. Al birds are incipient or would be songsters in the
spring. I find corroborative evidence of this even in the crowing of
the cock. The flowering of the maple is not so obvious as that of the
magnolia; nevertheless, there is actual inflorescence.
Few writers award any song to that familiar little sparrow, the
Socialis; yet who that has observed him sitting by the wayside, and
repeating, with devout attitude, that fine sliding chant, does not
recognize the neglect? Who has heard the snowbird sing? Yet he has a
lisping warble very savory to the ear. I have heard him indulge in it
even in February.
Even the cow bunting feels the musical tendency, and aspires to its
expression, with the rest. Perched upon the topmost branch beside his
mate or mates,--for he is quite a polygamist, and usually has two or
three demure little ladies in faded black beside him,--generally in
the early part of the day, he seems literally to vomit up his notes.
Apparently with much labor and effort, they gurgle and blubber up out
of him, falling on the ear with a peculiar subtile ring, as of turning
water from a glass bottle, and not without a certain pleasing cadence.
Neither is the common woodpecker entirely insensible to the wooing of
the spring, and, like the partridge, testifies his appreciation of
melody after quite a primitive fashion. Passing through the woods on
some clear, still morning in March, while the metallic ring and
tension of winter are still in the earth and air, the silence is
suddenly broken by long, resonant hammering upon a dry limb or stub.
It is Downy beating a reveille to spring. In the utter stillness and
amid the rigid forms we listen with pleasure; and, as it comes to my
ear oftener at this season than at any other, I freely exonerate the
author of it from the imputation of any gastronomic motives, and
credit him with a genuine musical performance.
It is to be expected, therefore, that "yellow-hammer" will respond to
the general tendency, and contribute his part to the spring chorus.
His April call is his finest touch, his most musical expression.
I recall an ancient maple standing sentry to a large sugar-bush, that,
year after year, afforded protection to a brood of yellow-hammers in
its decayed heart. A week or two before nesting seemed actually to
have begun, three or four of these birds might be seen, on almost any
bright morning, gamboling and courting amid its decayed branches.
Sometimes you would hear only a gentle persuasive cooing, or a quiet
confidential chattering,--then that long, loud call, taken up by
first one, then another, as they sat about upon the naked
limbs,--anon, a sort of wild, rollicking laughter, intermingled with
various cries, yelps, and squeals, as if some incident had excited
their mirth and ridicule. Whether this social hilarity and
boisterousness is in celebration of the pairing or mating ceremony, or
whether it is only a sort of annual "house-warming" common among
high-holes on resuming their summer quarters, is a question upon which
I reserve my judgment.
Unlike most of his kinsmen, the golden-wing prefers the fields and the
borders of the forest to the deeper seclusion of the woods, and hence,
contrary to the habit of his tribe, obtains most of his subsistence
from the ground, probing it for ants and crickets. He is not quite
satisfied with being a woodpecker. He courts the society of the robin
and the finches, abandons the trees for the meadow, and feeds eagerly
upon berries and grain. What may be the final upshot of this course of
living is a question worth the attention of Darwin. Will his taking to
the ground and his pedestrian feats result in lengthening his legs,
his feeding upon berries and grains subdue his tints and soften his
voice, and his associating with Robin put a song into his heart?
Indeed, what would be more interesting than the history of our birds
for the last two or three centuries. There can be no doubt that the
presence of man has exerted a very marked and friendly influence upon
them, since they so multiply in his society. The birds of California,
it is said, were mostly silent till after its settlement, and I doubt
if the Indians heard the wood thrush as we hear him. Where did the
bobolink disport himself before there were meadows in the North and
rice fields in the South? Was he the same lithe, merry-hearted beau
then as now? And the sparrow, the lark, and the goldfinch, birds that
seem so indigenous to the open fields and so adverse to the woods,--we
cannot conceive of their existence in a vast wilderness and without
But to return. The song sparrow, that universal favorite and
firstling of the spring, comes before April, and its simple strain
gladdens all hearts.
May is the month of the swallows and the orioles. There are many other
distinguished arrivals, indeed nine tenths of the birds are here by
the last week in May, yet the swallows and the orioles are the most
conspicuous. The bright plumage of the latter seems really like an
arrival from the tropics. I see them dash through the blossoming
trees, and all the forenoon hear their incessant warbling and wooing.
The swallows dive and chatter about the barn, or squeak and build
beneath the eaves; the partridge drums in the fresh sprouting woods;
the long, tender note of the meadowlark comes up from the meadow; and
at sunset, from every marsh and pond come the ten thousand voices of
the hylas. May is the transition month, and exists to connect April
and June, the root with the flower.
With June the cup is full, our hearts are satisfied, there is no more
to be desired. The perfection of the season, among other things, has
brought the perfection of the song and the plumage of the birds. The
master artists are all here; and the expectations excited by the robin
and the song sparrow are fully justified. The thrushes have all come;
and I sit down upon the first rock, with hands full of the pink
azalea, to listen. With me the cuckoo does not arrive till June; and
often the goldfinch, the kingbird, the scarlet tanager delay their
coming till then. In the meadows the bobolink is in all his glory; in
the high pastures the field sparrow sings his breezy vesper-hymn; and
the woods are unfolding to the music of the thrushes.
The cuckoo is one of the most solitary birds of our forests, and is
strangely tame and quiet, appearing equally untouched by joy or grief,
fear or anger. Something remote seems ever weighing upon his mind. His
note or call is as of one lost or wandering, and to the farmer is
prophetic of rain. Amid the general joy and the sweet assurance of
things, I love to listen to the strange clairvoyant call. Heard a
quarter of a mile away, from out the depths of the forest, there is
something peculiarly weird and monkish about it. Wordsworth's lines
upon the European species apply equally well to ours:--"O blithe
new-comer! I have heard, I hear thee and rejoice: O cuckoo! shall I
call thee bird? Or but a wandering voice?
"While I am lying on the grass,
Thy loud note smites my ear!
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off and near!
"Thrice welcome, darling of the spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisible thing,
A voice, a mystery."
The black-billed is the only species found in my locality, the
yellow-billed abounds farther south. Their note or call is nearly the
same. The former sometimes suggests the voice of a turkey. The call of
the latter may be suggested thus: k-k-k-k-k-kow, kow, kow-ow, kow-ow.
The yellow-billed will take up his stand in a tree, and explore its
branches till he has caught every worm. He sits on a twig, and with a
peculiar swaying movement of his head examines the surrounding
foliage. When he discovers his prey, he leaps upon it in a fluttering
In June the black-billed makes a tour through the orchard and garden,
regaling himself upon the canker-worms. At this time he is one of the
tamest of birds, and will allow you to approach within a few yards of
him. I have even come within a few feet of one without seeming to
excite his fear or suspicion. He is quite unsophisticated, or else
The plumage of the cuckoo is a rich glossy brown, and is unrivaled in
beauty by any other neutral tint with which I am acquainted. It is
also remarkable for its firmness and fineness.
Notwithstanding the disparity in size and color, the black-billed
species has certain peculiarities that remind one of the passenger
pigeon. His eye, with its red circle, the shape of his head, and his
motions on alighting and taking flight, quickly suggest the
resemblance; though in grace and speed, when on the wing, he is far
inferior. His tail seems disproportionately long, like that of the red
thrush, and his flight among the trees is very still, contrasting
strongly with the honest clatter of the robin or pigeon.
Have you heard the song of the field sparrow? If you have lived in a
pastoral country with broad upland pastures, you could hardly have
missed him. Wilson, I believe, calls him the grass finch, and was
evidently unacquainted with his powers of song. The two white lateral
quills in his tail, and his habit of running and skulking a few yards
in advance of you as you walk through the fields, are sufficient to
identify him. Not in meadows or orchards, but in high, breezy
pasture-grounds, will you look for him. His song is most noticeable
after sundown, when other birds are silent; for which reason he has
been aptly called the vesper sparrow. The farmer following his team
from the field at dusk catches his sweetest strain. His song is not so
brisk and varied as that of the song sparrow, being softer and wilder,
sweeter and more plaintive. Add the best parts of the lay of the
latter to the sweet vibrating chant of the wood sparrow, and you have
the evening hymn of the vesper-bird,--the poet of the plain,
unadorned pastures. Go to those broad, smooth, uplying fields where
the cattle and sheep are grazing, and sit down in the twilight on one
of those warm, clean stones, and listen to this song. On every side,
near and remote, from out the short grass which the herds are
cropping, the strain rises. Two or three long, silver notes of peace
and rest, ending in some subdued trills and quavers, constitute each
separate song. Often, you will catch only one or two of the bars, the
breeze having blown the minor part away. Such unambitious, quiet,
unconscious melody! It is one of the most characteristic sounds in nature. The grass, the stones, the stubble, the furrow, the quiet
herds, and the warm twilight among the hills, are all subtly expressed in this song; this is what they are at last capable of.
You listened to Return of the Birds, a serialized audiobook podcast of Wake-Robin, written by John Burroughs and read by Peter Meddick with bird vocalizations courtesy of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Recording, editing, mastering and post-production by 44 from 26 in Bellingham, Washington. Recorded at One Fine Studio in Bellingham, Washington. Engineered, produced and directed by Peter Meddick. This has been a presentation of 44 from 26, a family owned and operated media experiment.
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