Episode 3: Welcome Back Cuckoos, Warblers & Thrushes

Episode 3: Welcome Back Cuckoos, Warblers & Thrushes
Return of the Birds

00:00 /

Credits & Links:

Click the links below for details about the bird vocalizations used in this episode from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

Intro music: Kai Engel Walking Barefoot on Grass

Outro music: The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps: United States National Anthem (The Star Spangled Banner)

Download Wake-Robin by John Burroughs in e-reader format at gutenberg.org or archive.org.

The Creative Commons and public domain contains a wealth of images, music and more. The images used in these show notes link back to the contributors.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

443 - YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO (6-30-12) with both cormorants, patagonia lake, scc, az -03


Bobolink Birds Hill Park.Manitoba

Black-billed Cuckoo

Black-billed Cuckoo, Miles City, MT, June 3, 2002

Field Sparrow

Birds - Field Sparrow by Laurie Sheppard

Vesper Sparrow

877 - VESPER SPARROW (9-27-10) san rafael valley grasslands, scc, az  (2)

Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow

White-eyed Vireo

Birds - White-eyed Vireo by Jesus Moreno

Winter Wren

694 - WINTER WREN (2-12-2017) patagonia lake, santa cruz co, az -01c

Hooded Warbler

819 - HOODED WARBLER (8-28-09) cerro alto cg road, slo co, ca  (4)

Worm-eating Warbler

Worm-eating Warbler

Water Thrush

WATERTHRUSH, NORTHERN (10-5-09) oceano c g -04

Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

Blue-winged Warbler

802 - BLUE-WINGED WARBLER (5 -25-2015) middlesex co, ma -01

Northern Mockingbird

Northen Mockingbird

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

Episode 2: Welcome Back Flycatchers, Woodpeckers & Thrushes

Episode 2: Welcome Back Flycatchers, Woodpeckers & Thrushes
Return of the Birds

00:00 /

Click or tap to read the Episode 2 transcript

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
royally indifferent.

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.
We invite you to join the growing 44 from 26 community at patreon.com/44from26. It’s a quality place to spend some time. For more updates, visit our patreon page or check out 44from26.com.
Wake-Robinis available for digital download in e-reader format at archive.org and gutenberg.org.
THIS is 44 from 26

Credits & Links:

Click the links below for details about the bird vocalizations used in this episode from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Intro music: Kai Engel Walking Barefoot on Grass

Outro music: The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps: United States National Anthem (The Star Spangled Banner)

Download Wake-Robin by John Burroughs in e-reader format at gutenberg.org or archive.org.

The Creative Commons and public domain contains a wealth of images, music and more. The images used in these show notes link back to the contributors.

American Robin

American Robin

Eastern Phoebe


Eastern Kingbird

eastern kingbird

Northern Flicker

FLICKER, NORTHERN (10-28-10) male, kino springs, scc, az -04

Tuffed Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

White-breasted Nuthatch

Photo of the Week - White-breasted Nuthatch (MA)

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

Northern Bobwhite

Northern Bobwhite, Benton Co., IN

Barn Swallow

The Look

Greater Prairie Chicken

087 - GREATER PRAIRIE-CHICKEN (4-17-2016) yuma county, co -20

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow Portrait

Baltimore Oriole

Photo of the Week - Male Baltimore Oriole

Wood Thrush

746 - WOOD THRUSH (6-10-2017) howell woods learning center, johnston co, nc -01 (1)

Episode 1: Introduction

Episode 1: Introduction
Return of the Birds

00:00 /

Click or tap here to read the Episode 1 transcript

I’m Peter Meddick and you’re listening to episode 1 of Return of the Birds,a serialized audiobook podcast of Wake-Robin, written by John Burroughs. Published in 1871, Wake-Robin is a surprisingly entertaining nature study of birds’ North American spring migration.

Two quick notes before we start. First, any flubs, goofs and mispronunciations or errors are mine. If you want to tell me about them, stop by 44from26.com/contact and click the button to leave a voicemail or send an email.

Second, I want to give a special thank you to the hundreds of women and men in the field who recorded and cataloged the bird calls and songs I used over the course of this audiobook. You are doing selfless and important work. Thank you.

Preface to the First Edition

This is mainly a book about the Birds, or more properly an invitation
to the study of Ornithology, and the purpose of the author will be
carried out in proportion as it awakens and stimulates the interest of
the reader in this branch of Natural History.

Though written less in the spirit of exact science than with the
freedom of love and old acquaintance, yet I have in no instance taken
liberties with facts, or allowed my imagination to influence me to the
extent of giving a false impression or a wrong coloring. I have reaped
my harvest more in the woods than in the study; what I offer, in fact,
is a careful and conscientious record of actual observations and
experiences, and is true as it stands written, every word of it. But
what has interested me most in Ornithology is the pursuit, the chase,
the discovery; that part of it which is akin to hunting, fishing, and
wild sports, and which I could carry with me in my eye and ear
wherever I went.

I cannot answer with much confidence the poet's inquiry,--

"Hast thou named all the birds without a gun?"

but I have done what I could to bring home the "river and sky" with
the sparrow I heard "singing at dawn on the alder bough." In other
words, I have tried to present a live bird,--a bird in the woods or
the fields,--with the atmosphere and associations of the place, and
not merely a stuffed and labeled specimen.

A more specific title for the volume would have suited me better; but
not being able to satisfy myself in this direction, I cast about for a
word thoroughly in the atmosphere and spirit of the book, which I hope
I have found in "Wake-Robin," the common name of the white Trillium,
which blooms in all our woods, and which marks the arrival of all the


In coming before the public with a newly made edition of my writings,
what can I say to my reader at this stage of our acquaintance that
will lead to a better understanding between us? Probably nothing. We
understand each other very well already. I have offered myself as his
guide to certain matters out of doors, and to a few matters indoor,
and he has accepted me upon my own terms, and has, on the whole been
better pleased with me than I had any reason to expect. For this I am
duly grateful; why say more? Yet now that I am upon my feet, so as to
speak, and palaver is the order, I will keep on a few minutes longer.

It is now nearly a quarter of a century since my first book,
"Wake-Robin," was published. I have lived nearly as many years in the
world as I had lived when I wrote its principal chapters. Other
volumes have followed, and still others. When asked how many there
are, I often have to stop and count them up. I suppose the mother of a
large family does not have to count up her children to say how many
there are. She sees their faces all before her. It is said of certain
savage tribes who cannot count above five, and yet who own flocks and
herds, that every native knows when he has got all his own cattle, not
by counting, but by remembering each one individually.

The savage is with his herds daily; the mother has the love of her
children constantly in her heart; but when one's book goes forth from
him, in a sense it never returns. It is like the fruit detached from
the bough. And yet to sit down and talk of one's books as a father
might talk of his sons, who had left his roof and gone forth to make
their own way in the world, is not an easy matter. The author's
relation to his book is a little more direct and personal, after all,
more a matter of will and choice, than a father's relation to his
child. The book does not change, and, whatever it fortunes, it remains
to the end what its author made it. The son is an evolution out of a
long line of ancestry, and one's responsibility of this or that trait
is often very slight; but the book is an actual transcript of his
mind, and is wise or foolish according as he made it so. Hence I trust
my reader will pardon me if I shrink from any discussion of the merits
or demerits of these intellectual children of mine, or indulge in any
very confidential remarks with regard to them.

I cannot bring myself to think of my books as "works," because so
little "work" has gone to the making of them. It has all been play. I
have gone a-fishing, or camping, or canoeing, and new literary
material has been the result. My corn has grown while I loitered or
slept. The writing of the book was only a second and finer enjoyment
of my holiday in the fields or woods. Not till the writing did it
really seem to strike in and become part of me.

A friend of mine, now an old man, who spent his youth in the woods of
northern Ohio, and who has written many books, says, "I never thought
of writing a book, till my self-exile, and then only to reproduce my
old-time life to myself." The writing probably cured or alleviated a
sort of homesickness. Such is a great measure has been my own case. My
first book, "Wake-Robin," was written while I was a government clerk
in Washington. It enabled me to live over again the days I had passed
with the birds and in the scenes of my youth. I wrote the book sitting
at a desk in front of an iron wall. I was the keeper of a vault in
which many millions of bank-notes were stored. During my long periods
of leisure I took refuge in my pen. How my mind reacted from the iron
wall in front of me, and sought solace in memories of the birds and of
summer fields and woods! Most of the chapters of "Winter Sunshine"
were written at the same desk. The sunshine there referred to is of a
richer quality than is found in New York or New England.

Since I left Washington in 1873, instead of an iron wall in front of
my desk, I have had a large window that overlooks the Hudson and the
wooded heights beyond, and I have exchanged the vault for a vineyard.
Probably my mind reacted more vigorously from the former than it does
from the latter. The vineyard winds its tendrils around me and detains
me, and its loaded trellises are more pleasing to me than the closets
of greenbacks.

The only time there is a suggestion of an iron wall in front of me is
in winter, when ice and snow have blotted out the landscape, and I
find that it is in this season that my mind dwells most fondly upon my
favorite themes. Winter drives a man back upon himself, and tests his
powers of self-entertainment.

Do such books as mine give a wrong impression of Nature, and lead
readers to expect more from a walk or a camp in the woods than they
usually get? I have a few times had occasion to think so. I am not
always aware myself how much pleasure I have had in a walk till I try
to share it with my reader. The heat of composition brings out the
color and the flavor. We must not forget the illusions of all art. If
my reader thinks he does not get from Nature what I get from her, let
me remind him that he can hardly know what he has got till he defines
it to himself as I do, and throws about it the witchery of words.
Literature does not grow wild in the woods. Every artist does
something more than copy Nature; more comes out in his account than
goes into the original experience.

Most persons think the bee gets honey from the flowers, but she does
not: honey is a product of the bee; it is the nectar of the flowers
with the bee added. What the bee gets from the flower is sweet water:
this she puts through a process of her own and imparts to it her own
quality; she reduces the water and adds to it a minute drop of formic
acid. It is this drop of herself that gives the delicious sting to her
sweet. The bee is therefore the type of the true poet, the true
artist. Her product always reflects her environment, and it reflects
something her environment knows not of. We taste the clover, the
thyme, the linden, the sumac, and we also taste something that has its
source in none of these flowers.

The literary naturalist does not take liberties with facts; facts are
the flora upon which he lives. The more and the fresher the facts the
better. I can do nothing without them, but I must give them my own
flavor. I must impart to them a quality which heightens and
intensifies them.

To interpret Nature is not to improve upon her: it is to draw her out;
it is to have an emotional intercourse with her, absorb her, and
reproduce her tinged with the colors of the spirit.

If I name every bird I see in my walk, describe its color and ways,
etc., give a lot of facts or details about the bird, it is doubtful if
my reader is interested. But if I relate the bird in some way to human
life, to my own life,--show what it is to me and what it is in the
landscape and the season,--then do I give my reader a live bird and
not a labeled specimen.


Chapter 1 : Return of the Birds



Spring in our northern climate may fairly be said to extend from the
middle of March to the middle of June. At least, the vernal tide
continues to rise until the latter date, and it is not till after the
summer solstice that the shoots and twigs begin to harden and turn to
wood, or the grass to lose any of its freshness and succulency.

It is this period that marks the return of the birds,--one or two of
the more hardy or half-domesticated species, like the song sparrow
and the bluebird, usually arriving in March, while the rarer and more
brilliant wood-birds bring up the procession in June. But each stage
of the advancing season gives prominence to the certain species, as to
certain flowers. The dandelion tells me when to look for the swallow,
the dogtooth violet when to expect the wood-thrush, and when I have
found the wake-robin in bloom I know the season is fairly inaugurated.
With me this flower is associated, not merely with the awakening of
Robin, for he has been awake for some weeks, but with the universal
awakening and rehabilitation of nature.

Yet the coming and going of the birds is more or less a mystery and a
surprise. We go out in the morning, and no thrush or vireo is to be
heard; we go out again, and every tree and grove is musical; yet
again, and all is silent. Who saw them come? Who saw them depart?

This pert little winter wren, for instance, darting in and out the
fence, diving under the rubbish here and coming up yards away,--how
does he manage with those little circular wings to compass degrees and
zones, and arrive always in the nick of time? Last August I saw him in
the remotest wilds of the Adirondacks, impatient and inquisitive as
usual; a few weeks later, on the Potomac, I was greeted by the same
hardy little busybody. Does he travel by easy stages from bush to bush
and from wood to wood? or has that compact little body force and
courage to brave the night and the upper air, and so achieve leagues
at one pull?

And yonder bluebird with the earth tinge on his breast and the sky
tinge on his back,--did he come down out of the heaven on that bright
March morning when he told us so softly and plaintively that, if we
pleased, spring had come? Indeed, there is nothing in the return of
the birds more curious and suggestive than in the first appearance, or
rumors of the appearance, of this little blue-coat. The bird at first
seems a mere wandering voice in the air: one hears its call or carol
on some bright March morning, but is uncertain of its source or
direction; it falls like a drop of rain when no cloud is visible; one
looks and listens, but to no purpose. The weather changes, perhaps a
cold snap with snow comes on, and it may be a week before I hear the
not again, and this time or the next perchance see this bird sitting
on a stake in the fence lifting his wing as he calls cheerily to his
mate. Its notes now become daily more frequent; the birds multiply,
and, flitting from point to point, call and warble more confidently
and gleefully. Their boldness increases till one sees them hovering
with a saucy, inquiring air about barns and out-buildings, peeping
into dove-cotes and stable windows, inspecting knotholes and
pump-trees, intent only on a place to nest. They wage war against
robins and wrens, pick quarrels with swallows, and seem to deliberate
for days over the policy of taking forcible possession of one of the
mud-houses of the latter. But as the season advances they drift more
into the background. Schemes of conquest which they at first seemed
bent upon are abandoned, and the settle down very quietly in their old
quarters in remote stumpy fields.

Not long after the bluebird comes the robin, sometimes in March, but
in most of the Northern States April is the month of the robin. In
large numbers they scour the fields and groves. You hear their piping
in the meadow, in the pasture, on the hillside. Walk in the woods, and
the dry leaves rustle with the whir of their wings the air is vocal
with their cheery call. In excess of joy and vivacity, they run, leap,
scream, chase each other through the air, diving and sweeping among
the trees with perilous rapidity.

In that free, fascinating, half-work and half-play
pursuit,--sugar-making,--a pursuit which still lingers in many parts
of New York, as in New England,--the robin is one's constant
companion. When the day is sunny and the ground bare, you meet him at
all points and hear him at all hours. At sunset, on the tops of the
tall maples, with look heavenward, and in a spirit of utter
abandonment, he carols his simple strain. And sitting thus amid the
stark, silent trees, above the wet, cold earth, with the chill of
winter still in the air, there is no fitter or sweeter songster in the
whole round year. It is in keeping with the scene and the occasion.
How round and genuine the notes are, and how eagerly our ears drink
them in! The first utterance, and the spell of winter is thoroughly
broken, and the remembrance of it afar off.

Robin is one of the most native and democratic of our birds; He is
one of the family, and seems much nearer to us than those rare, exotic
visitants, as the orchard starling or rose-breasted grosbeak, with
their distant, high-bred ways. Hardy, noisy, frolicsome, neighborly,
and domestic in his habits, strong of wing and bold in spirit, he is
the pioneer of the thrush family, and well worthy of the finer artists
whose coming he heralds and in a measure prepares us for.

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.
We invite you to join the growing 44 from 26 community at patreon.com/44from26. It’s a quality place to spend some time. For more updates, visit our patreon page or check out 44from26.com.
Wake-Robinis available for digital download in e-reader format at archive.org and gutenberg.org.
THIS is 44 from 26
Click the links below for details about the bird vocalizations used in this episode from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Intro music: Kai Engel Walking Barefoot on Grass Outro music: The United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps: United States National Anthem (The Star Spangled Banner) Download Wake-Robin by John Burroughs in e-reader format at archive.org. The Creative Commons and public domain contains a wealth of images, music and more. The images used in these show notes link back to the contributors.

Winter Wren

WREN, WINTER (11-4-09) coon creek trail, mdo, slo co, ca -02

Eastern Bluebird


American Robin

American Robin at Goat Lick