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.
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
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
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.
THE 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.