Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/September 1883/Woodland and Water-Course



AN interesting exhibition of a swarm of gnats, just out of their pupal state, playing up and down over a particular stone in the wall like jets of water in a small fountain—dispersing instantly as I strike my hands together in their midst, and reappearing over the same stone, again to commence their sport—has engaged my attention, and furnished a side-entertainment, so to speak, until a bird-note to which I had never before listened reaches my ear. At first it is heard at a distance, but, as the singer approaches, the strain is rich and clear* and I become absorbed in the melody. Presently a bird flies from the copse yonder to a tree near by, and, with the positions of serenaded and serenader reversed, pours out a heart-song, in six short stanzas, uttered at intervals of half a minute, which is interpreted thus:

Chip along—cheer—cheer!"

The words are pronounced with the tongue of a foreigner, it is true, and seem broken; but, considering the artist's recent arrival from Guatemala, he has succeeded admirably in mastering the language. At first, the song is begun in a low tone, as if the musician were doubtful how he might proceed; but, as he advances, it reaches a rapturous climax, and then falls down into the commonplace, ending almost as it began, faltering and inarticulate.

Looking up, I see a spot of white, red, and black among the leaves. Although I have seen the bird at a distance many times, this is my first real introduction to the rose-breasted grossbeak. Knowing what he is after, I seek a covert, to allow him free use of the stream, on the banks of which he soon appears, and, wading into the depths, where is reflected the carmine on his front, scoops up with his deep, broad bill the water needed to clear his throat after such a fine performance. He is a rare minstrel in this woodland, and indeed throughout this part of New England, not more than a pair or two appearing or being established in the same locality, which is generally near a stream of water or in the neighborhood of swampy tracts, for these birds are consummate bathers, and love to have houses with convenient bath-rooms attached.

Passing up the stream, and noting the differently cut patterns of the leaves on shrub and tree, I discover the former home of this singer situated in the central portion of a high, stout cornel, about twenty feet from the ground. It has certainly been rifled, either by oölogists young or old, or by the predaceous squirrel; for this is the season of incubation, and not an egg is to be seen.

The nest is composed of rather coarse material, and is very shallow and loosely constructed, somewhat resembling that of the swamp sparrow, but larger, and not so elaborately built. It being such a simple nest, either the male or female must be on guard to prevent the eggs from rolling out. During the period of incubation, Nature has told the husband to relieve his wife occasionally of the household service, but has evidently forgotten to bestow one apparently essential quality—that is, silence. He is hilarious, even while engaged in his responsibilities, and thus, by his incessant singing, is apt to betray his presence to passing marauders.

The female is dressed in a much plainer suit of brown. Two white stripes, one above and one below the eye, are all she can boast of as head ornamentation, with some sprinkling of saffron about the wings. She is a wise-appearing bird, and does not wear her heart upon her sleeve, like her unwary husband.

It would be interesting to know the circumstances under which Linnæus classified our rose-breasted grossbeak, and gave him the name by which he should be known thereafter to all the nations of the world. The generic Zamelodia signifies singing melody, which is very appropriate; and the specific "Ludoviciana" Louisiana, or relating to Ludovicus. It is likely that Louis XIV was meant, as that King of France took much interest in scientific matters, and invited many of the leading men of science of his day to visit his country. Among them was probably the great Swedish naturalist, who named the bird partly after Louisiana—which was at that time a more extended province than the present State, and where these beautiful songsters are plentiful—partly out of respect for the French monarch, with whom he must have had pleasant associations.

This low ground, where the swamp-roses and tall meadow rue blossom in profusion, is the favorite building-place of the Maryland yellow-throat. Here is one at this moment, the female, moving among the bushes apparently in an anxious state of mind, now darting in and out of sight, now alighting on a twig not ten feet away, her wings quivering with fright or anger, and uttering that peculiar scolding "chip!" which expresses so much distress and solicitude, and which has the power and eloquence behind it to arrest your steps for a time, however good your intentions may be in searching for the nest. Surely it can not be far away. The male has arrived with a spanner in his beak, which does not prevent him from chattering his discomfort at my near approach. A small bird he is, with upper parts much the color of the bark of the shrubs; the breast greenish-yellow, with a broad band of black covering the cheeks, and a narrower light one above it. This ornament the female does not have, and she is somewhat smaller.

The application and meaning of the technical term Geothylpis trichas, by which the yellow-throat is designated in scientific books, is, says Coues, "obscure, its only pertinence being in geo-, earth, signifying the humility of this bird of brake and brier."

Keeping a sharp lookout, I see the pair flit down among the sedges, the white tops of the meadow rue trembling as they push against the stout stems, and go skulking here and there among the tussocks of rushes where their nest is concealed. Approaching cautiously and tenderly, pushing aside every culm and stem, I at last discover their home, exquisitely placed in a tuft of sedge, some of the spears of which are bent over it so as to form a regular canopy. Ornithologists say that the nest is often built over at the top, with a hole for the entrance. This one has no such contrivance, the thick, overbending sedges answering as a dome and portal. The foundation is composed of dead leaves and coarse grasses, very compact, as if the architects were aware of the dampness of the situation, and had taken the necessary precautions to prevent the eggs from spoiling before hatching-time. The cavity is quite deep and wide for the size of the bird, and has the unusual though sparse lining of horse-hair. There are two eggs in the nest, and, though I read from no authority that the general ground color should be of a flesh-tint, it is certainly true of these, the larger end being covered thickly with dark purple and brown blotches. Bending the spikes over the nest again, as naturally as a clumsy hand could perform such a delicate task, I went away, trusting that the disturbed pair had comprehended my purpose of merely looking in upon them. But it was of no use; their nice sense of the proprieties had been disturbed, and a week afterward the ogre had the remorse of gazing into the deserted home from which the songs, confined in their little round prisons, were never to be set free.

The streams and swamps offer more attractive entertainment, at this season, than the dry uplands. Every bird in the vicinity comes here to slake its thirst and bathe. Here is a merry skating carnival of gerris, and a larger party of whirligig water-beetles dodging about in every direction, but never appearing to collide, as they pounce upon the drowning flies, or the twisting, jerking larva? of the gnat. Down through the thick alders and overhanging sprays of sambucus the red eyed vireo flits from water to twig and from twig to water, striking it with her wings, and sipping it as she flutters over the stream. I am inclined to believe that this may be the manner in which all birds belonging to this group perform their ablutions and quench their thirst. They are not groundlings, and shun the earth as the swallows do the foliage.

Ah! here is a small flock of chickadees (Parus atricapillus), that I have surprised, climbing about on the trunk of this patriarchal willow. The black-capped titmouse is a real Mark Tapley among birds, and actually seems to be less joyous in the midst of summer sunshine and foliage than when the cold winds whirl the snows of winter before his door. How wonderful it is that such a wee bit of a bird "should come out so strong under circumstances that would make many of the other birds miserable"! One would suppose a good cold breath from Jack Frost would whiff the life from them. It is true they are wrapped in the best kind of overcoats, with black caps drawn over their ears, and good chest-protectors. But what in the world of wonders saves those little wires of legs and claws? What fiery hearts they must have in their breasts, to force the blood-corpuscles through the tendons in the coldest days! "What pleasant, convivial, round-headed little fellows they are, calling to one another from their holes in the trees, living on the best of terms with their neighbors, and ar ranging picnic-parties with the blue-jay and downy wood-pecker!

By the middle of June all their children have become sufficiently clothed for the summer, and as the season advances they gradually don their flannels for the winter campaign. All that I see now in these woods have thus early in the season formed themselves into flocks, which leads me to believe that they have but one brood in the year. All birds seem to understand each other's alarm-notes, although they may belong to a different genus, and there is something that causes them to congregate from all quarters whenever it is sounded. For birds, like the higher bipeds, are of an inquiring turn of mind, and the same motive prompts them, I believe, to gather at any unusual occurrence in their precincts, which collects a crowd at a fire, or any other excitement, in the streets of a city.

At such times you realize the number and variety of birds that, a moment before, were hidden and silent all around you. Here a female oriole, startled by the close proximity of a meadow-mouse, that like herself has come down to the stream to drink, flies up scolding terribly at the spectacle, and instantly the other birds gather around to inquire the reason of this consternation. The cedar-birds appear suddenly on the spot, silent but observing. The song-sparrow hops upon a twig, from his washing, preens his speckled breast, and curiously eyes his brilliant neighbor. The yellow warbler holds up her head from behind an alder-leaf, and goes skulking through the thick foliage. The indigo-bird looks upon the scene from the lofty spray of yonder elm, and begins a song, when a puff of wind blows him off and cuts it short. The brown thresher, last to come, flies across the opening, flaunts his long tail as he alights on a low branch, and utters a few croaks. Then all is silent as before.