Under the Sun/Visitors in Feathers
VISITORS IN FEATHERS.
AMONG the common objects of my Indian Garden is the Corvus splendens. Such at any rate is the scientific name given by Vieillot to that “trebledated bird,” the common crow of India, and although one naturalist yearned to change it to “shameless” (impudicus), and although another still declares that splendens is inappropriate and tends to bring scientific nomenclature into ridicule, that bird — as was only to be expected from a crow — has kept its mendacious adjective, and in spite of every one is still, in name, as fine a bird in India as it was time out of mind in Olympus. Splendens or not at present, the crow must have had recommendations either of mind or person to have been chosen, as Ovid tells us it was, as the messenger-bird of so artistic a deity as Apollo. But the crow lost paradise — and good looks with it — not for one impulsive act, but for a fortnight’s hard sinning. Now punishment has a hardening influence on some people, and it has had a most dreadful effect on the corvine disposition. Heedless of all moral obligations, gluttonous, and a perverter of truth, Ovid tells us it was, even in its best days; but now it has developed into a whole legion of devilry. Lest a Baboo should think to trip me up by throwing Menu in my teeth and quoting from the great lawgiver, “A good wife should be like a crow,” I would give it as my opinion that Menu, when he said this, referred to that doubtful virtue of the crow that forbids any exhibition of conjugal tenderness before the public eye, — an unnatural instinct and reserve, to my thinking. Crows cannot, like young sweeps, be called “innocent blacknesses,” for their nigritude is the livery of sin, the badge of crime, like the scarlet V on the shoulder of the convict voleur, the dark brand on Cain’s brow, the snow-white leprosy of Gehazi, or the yellow garb of Norfolk Islander; and yet they do not wear their color with humility or even common decency. They swagger in it, pretending they chose that exact shade for themselves. Did they not do this, perhaps Jerdon would not have begrudged them their flattering name, nor Hodgson have called them impudicos, but by their effrontery they have raised every man’s hand against them; and were they anything but crows, they must have had to take, like Ishmael the son of Hagar, to the desert. Perhaps it is that they presume upon their past honors. If so, they should beware. Cole’s dog was too proud to move out of the way of a cart of manure, and South ey has told us his fate. Again, their Greek and Latin glories have had a serious counterpoise in the writings of modern ancients, where the nature of crows is proven as swart as their Ethiop faces. Is it not written in the Singhalese Pratyasataka that nothing can improve a crow? Students of Burton will remember that in the Anatomy of Melancholy devils (including sprites and such like devilkins) are divided into nine classes; for though Bodine declared that all devils must of necessity be spherical in shape, perfect rounds, his theory we are expressly told was quashed by Zaminchus, who proved that they assume divers forms, “sometimes those of cats and crows.” Zaminchus was doubtless right, and no one, therefore, should feel any tenderness for these shreds of Satan, these cinders from Tartarus. Zaminchus superfluously adds that in these forms they are “more knowing than any human being” (quovis homine scientior); and another old writer just as needlessly tells us that these “terrestrial devils” are in the habit of “flapping down platters” and “making strange noises.” Some, however, may urge that because some crows are devils, it does not follow that all are. This is plausible but unworthy of the subject, which should be studied in a liberal spirit and without hair-splitting. When King John killed Jews, he didn’t first finically investigate if they were usurers; he knew they were Jews, and that was enough. Besides, did any one ever see a crow that was not “quovis homine scientior”? If he did, he proved it by putting it to death, and, as dead crows count for nothing, that individual bird cannot be cited as a case in point. Further, do not all crows “flap down platters” (when they get the chance) and “make strange noises”? Are not these unequivocal signs of bedevilment? Do not Zaminchus, Bustius, and Cardan agree on this point? Does not the old Chinese historian lay it down that in the south of Sweden is situate “the land of crows and demons”? Is there not in Norway a fearful hill called Huklebrig, whither and whence fiery chariots are commonly seen by the country people carrying to and fro the souls of bad men in the likeness of crows? Crows, then, are indubitably the connecting link between devils. Class 3, “inventors of all mischief,” Prince Belial at their head, — and Class 4, “malicious devils,” under Prince Asmodeus. An inkling of their fallen state seems to be floating in the cerebra of crows, for they sin naturally and never beg pardon. Did any one ever see a contrite and repentant crow? When taken flagrante delicto does this nobody’s child provoke commiseration by craven and abject postures, deprecating anger by looks of penitence? Quite the contrary. These birds, if put to it, would deny that they stole Cicero’s pillow when he was dying; or that they sat, the abomination of desolation, where they ought not — profaning the Teraphim of John de Montfort, insulting his household gods and desecrating his Penates, while in the next room that great soldier and statesman was receiving the last consolations of Extreme Unction? Yet it is known they did. They tread the earth as if they had been always of it. And yet it pleases me to remember how Indra, in wrath for their tale-bearing, — for had they not carried abroad the secrets of the Councils of the Gods? — hurled the brood down through all the hundred stages of his Heaven. Petruchio thought it hard to be braved in his own house by a tailor, and the tailor by an elephant; how keenly either would have felt the familiarity of Indian crows! In the verandahs they parade the reverend sable which they disgrace; they walk in the odor of sanctity through open doors, sleek as Chadband, wily as Pecksniff. Their step is grave, and they ever seem on the point of quoting Scripture, while their eyes are wandering on carnal matters. Like Stiggins, they keep a sharp lookout for tea-time. They hanker after fleshpots. They are as chary of their persons as the bamboo of its blossom, and distant to strangers. In England they pretend to be rooks (except during rook-shooting), but in India they brazen it out upon their own infamous individuality — for there are no rooks.
Another prominent visitor of my garden is the green parrot. It is, I think, Cervantes who has recorded the fact that Theophrastus complained “of the long life given to crows.” Now the argument of this complaint is not so superficial as at first it seems, and really contains internal evidence of a knowledge of bird-nature. Theophrastus, I take it, grumbled not simply because crows did in a long life get through more mischief than other birds can in a shorter one, but because, if Atropos were only more impartially nimble with her shears, crows would never be able to get through any mischief at all. And in this lies a great point of difference between the sombre crow and the dædal parrot.
The crow requires much time to develop and perfect his misdemeanors; the parrot brings his mischiefs to market in the green leaf. While a crow will spend a week with a view to the ultimate abstraction of a key, the parrot will have scrambled and screeched in a day through a cycle of larcenous gluttonies, and before the crow has finishing reconnoitring the gardener, the parrot has stripped the fruit-tree.
From these differences in the characters of the birds, I hold that Theophrastus chose “crows” advisedly, and made his complaint with judgment; but I wonder that, having thus headed a list of grievances, he did not continue it with a protest against the green color given to parrots. The probable explanation of the oversight is that he never saw a green parrot. But we who do see them have surely a reasonable cause for complaint, when nature creates thieves and then gives them a passport to impunity. For the green parrot has a large brain (some naturalists would like to see the Psittacid family on this account rank first among birds), and he knows that he is green as well as we do, and, knowing it, he makes the most of nature’s injudicious gift. He settles with a screech among your mangoes, and as you approach, the phud! phud! of the falling fruitlings assures you that he is not gone. But where is he? Somewhere in the tree, you may be sure, probably with an unripe fruit in his claw, which is raised half way to his beak, but certainly with a round black eye fixed on you; for, while you are straining to distinguish green feathers from green leaves, he breaks with a sudden rush through the foliage, on the other side of the tree, and is off in an apotheosis of screech to his watch-tower on a distant tree. To give the parrot his due, however, we must remember that he did not choose his own color, — it was thrust upon him; and we must further allow that, snob as he is, he possesses certain manly virtues. He is wanting in neither personal courage, assurance, nor promptitude, but he abuses these virtues by using them in the service of vice. Moreover, he is a glutton, and, unlike his neighbors, the needle of his thoughts and endeavors always points towards his stomach. The starlings, bigots to a claim which they have forged to the exclusive ownership of the croquet ground, divide their attention for a moment between worms and intruders. The kite forbears to flutter the dove-cotes while he squeals his love-song to his mate; the hawk now and again affords healthy excitement to a score of crows who keck at him as he flaps unconcerned on his wide, ragged wings through the air. “Opeechee, the robin,” has found a bird smaller than himself, and is accordingly pursuing it relentlessly through bush and brier; the thinly feathered babblers are telling each other the secret of a mungoose being at that moment in the water-pipe; while the squirrels, sticking head downwards to their respective branches, are having a twopenny-half-penny argument across the garden path. Meanwhile, the green parrot is desolating the fruit-tree. Like the Ettrick Shepherd they never can eat a few of anything, and his luncheons are all heavy dinners. “ That frugal bit of the old Britons of the bigness of a bean,” which could satisfy the hunger and thirst of bur ancestors for a whole day, would not suffice the green parrot for one meal, for not only is his appetite inordinate, but his wastefulness also, and what he cannot eat he destroys. He enters a tree of fruit as the Visigoths entered a building. His motto is, “What I cannot take I will not leave,” and he pillages the branches, gutting them of even their unripest fruit. Dr. Jerdon, in his Birds of India, records the fact that “owls attack these birds by night,” and there is, ill-feeling apart, certainly something very comfortable in the knowledge that while we are warm a-bed owls are most probably garrotting the green parrots.
I have spoken elsewhere, with some inadvertence, of “the Republic of Birds;” although by my own showing — for I write of sovereign eagles and knightly falcons — the constitution of the volucrine world is an unlimited monarchy, of which the despotism is onty tempered by the strong social bonds that lend strength to the lower orders of birds. The tyrant kite is powerless before the corvine Vehm-gericht; and it is with hesitation that the hawk offers violence to a sparrows’ club. But there are undoubtedly among the feathered race some to whom a republic would present itself as the more perfect form of government, and to none more certainly than the mynas. The myna is, although a moderate, a very decided republican, for, sober in mind as in apparel, he sets Ms face against such vain frivolities as the tumbling of pigeons, the meretricious dancing of peafowl, and the gaudt bedizenment of the minivets; holding that life is real, life is earnest, and, while worms are to be found beneath the grass, to be spent in serious work. To quote “ane aunciente clerke,” he “obtests against the chaunting of foolish litanies before the idols of one’s own conceit”; would “chase away all bewildering humors and fancies”; and would say with the clerke “that, though the cautelous tregœtour, or, as the men of France do call him, the jongleur, doth make a very pretty play with two or three balls which seem to live in the air, and which do not depart from him, yet I would rather, after our old English fashion, have the ball tossed from hand to hand, or that one should propulse the ball the little guichet, while another should repel it with the batting staff. This I hold to be the fuller exercise.” The myna therefore views with some displeasure the dilettante hawking of bee-eaters and the leisurely deportment of the crow-pheasant, cannot be brought to see the utility of the luxurious hoopoe’s crest, and loses all patience with the koel-cuckoo for his idle habit of spending his forenoons in tuning his voice. For the patient kingfisher he entertains a moderate respect, and he holds in esteem the industrious woodpecker; but the scapegrace parrot is an abomination to him; and had he the power, the myna would altogether exterminate the race of humming-birds for their persistent trifling over lilies. Life with him is all work, and he makes it, as Souvestre says, “a legal process.” Of course he has a wife, and she celebrates each anniversary of spring by presenting him with a nestful of young mynas, but her company rather subdues and sobers him than makes him frivolous or giddy; for as the myna is, his wife is, — of one complexion of feather and mind. A pair of mynas (for these discreet birds are seldom seen except in pairs) remind one of a Dutch burgher and his frau. They are comfortably dressed, well fed, of a grave deportment, and so respectable that scandal hesitates to whisper their name. In the empty babble of the Seven Sisters, the fruitless controversies of finches, the bickerings of amatory sparrows (every sparrow is at heart a rake), or the turmoil of kites, they take no part, — holding aloof alike from the monarchical exclusiveness of the jealous Raptores and the democratic communism of crows. The gourd will Rot climb on the olive, and the olive-tree, it is said, will not grow near the oak. Between the grape of story and the cabbage there is a like antipathy, “and everlasting hate the vine to ivy bears.” The apple detests the walnut, “whose malignant touch impairs all generous fruit.” So with the myna. It shrinks from the neighborhood of the strong, and resents the companionship of the humble. But among vegetables, if there is antipathy there is also sympathy; for does not the Latin poet say that the elm loves the vine? Country folk declare that the fig grows best near rue; and the legend ballad of the Todas tells us how the cachew apple droops when the cinnamon dies. But among the mynas there is no such profligacy or tenderness, and over the annihilation of the whole world of birds they would be even such “pebble stones” as Launce’s dog. At the same time they are not intrusive with their likes and dislikes. If the squirrel chooses to chirrup all day, they let him do so, and they offer no opposition to the ostentatious combats of robins. Nor do they trespass on their neighbors with idle curiosity. That butterflies should mysteriously migrate in great clouds, moving against the wind across wide waters, and even tempt the ocean itself with nothing more definite than the horizon before them as a resting-place, may set the inquisitive crow thinking, or furnish Humboldt with matter for long conjecturing; but the mynas would express no surprise at the phenomenon. They waste no time wondering with others why the wagtail so continuously wags its tail, nor would they vex the Syrian coney with idle questions as to its preference for rocky places. Such things have set others a-thinking, and would make the leaf-loving squirrel silly with surprise; but the Essene myna! — “Let the world revolve,” he says; “we are here to work, and in the name of the Prophet — worms.” He comes of a race of poor antecedents, and has no lineage worth boasting of. The crow has Greek and Latin memories; and for the antiquity of the sparrow we have the testimony of Holy Writ. It is true that in the stories of India the myna has frequent and honorable mention; but the authors speak of the hill-bird — a notable fowl, with strange powers of mimicry, and always a favorite with the people, — and not of the homely Quaker bird who so diligently searches our grass-plots, and may be seen, from dawn to twilight, busy at his appointed work, the consumption of little grubs. The lust of the green parrot for orchard brigandage, or of the proud-stomached king-crow for battle with his kind, are as whimsical caprices, fancies of the moment, when compared to the steady assiduity with which this Puritan bird pursues the object of his creation. And the result is that the myna has no wit. Like the Germans, he is incomparable at hard, unshowy work, but they — as one, a wit himself, has said of them — are only moderately mirthful in their humor. Intelligence is his, of a high order, for, busy as he may be, the myna descries before all others the far-away speck in the sky which will grow into a hawk, and it is from the myna’s cry of alarm that the garden becomes first aware of the danger that is approaching. But wit he has none. His only way of catching a worm is to lay hold of its tail and pull it out of its hole, — generally breaking it in the middle, and losing the bigger half. He does not tap the ground as the wryneck will tap the tree, to stimulate the insect to run out to be eaten entire; nor like the stork imitate a dead thing, till the frog, tired of waiting for him to move, puts his head above the green pond. “To strange mysterious dulness still the friend,” he parades the croquet lawn, joins in grave converse with another by the roadside, or sits to exchange ignorance with an acquaintance on a rail. At night the mynas socially congregate together, and, with a clamor quite unbecoming their character, make their arrangements for the night, contending for an absolute equality even in sleep.
Has it ever struck you how fortunate it is for the world of birds that of the twenty-four hours some are passed in darkness? And yet without the protection of night the earth would be assuredly depopulated of small birds, and the despots, whom the mynas detest, would be left alone to contest in internecine conflict the dominion of the air.
As busy as the mynas, but less silent in their working, are those sad-colored birds hopping about in the dust and incessantly talking while they hop. They are called by the natives the Seven Sisters, and seem to have always some little difference on hand to settle. But if they gabble till the coming of the Coquecigrues they will never settle it. Fighting? Not at all; do not be misled by the tone of voice. That heptachord clamor is not the expression of any strong feelings. It is only a way they have. They always exchange their commonplaces as if their next neighbor was out of hearing. If they could but be quiet they might pass for the bankers among the birds, — they look so very respectable. But though they dress so soberly, their behavior is unseemly The Prince in Herodotus’s history disappointed the expectations of his friends by dancing head downwards on a table, “gesticulating with his legs.” If Coleridge’s wise-looking friend had preserved his silence through the whole meal, the poet would have remembered him as one of the most intelligent men of his acquaintance; but the apple dumplings, making him speak, burst the bubble of his reputation. His speech bewrayed him, like the Shibboleth at the ford of Jordan, “the bread and cheese” of the Fleming persecution, or the Galilean twang of the impetuous saint. Pythagoreans may, if they will, aver that these birds are the original masons and hodmen of Babel, but I would rather believe that in a former state they were old Hindu women, garrulous and addicted to raking about amongst rubbish heaps, as all old native women seem to be. The Seven Sisters pretend to feed on insects, but that is only when they cannot get peas. Look at them now, — the whole family, a septemvirate of sin, among your marrowfat peas, gobbling and gabbling as if they believed in Dr. Gumming. And it is of no use to expel them — for they will return, and
As oft return: a pert, voracious kind.”
When it is night they will go off with a great deal of preliminary talk to their respective boarding-houses; for these birds, though at times as quarrelsome as Sumatrans during the pepper harvest, are sociable and lodge together. The weak point of this arrangement is that often a bird — perhaps the middle one of a long row of closely packed snoozers — has a bad dream, or loses his balance, and instantly the shock flashes along the line. The whole dormitory blazes up at once with indignation, and much bad language is bandied about promiscuously in the dark. The abusive shower at length slackens, and querulous monosyllables and indistinct animal noises take the place of the septemfluous (Fuller has sanctified the word) vituperation, when some individual, tardily exasperated at the unseemly din, lifts up his voice in remonstrance, and rekindles the smouldering fire. Sometimes he suddenly breaks off, suggesting to a listener the idea that his next neighbor had silently kicked him; but more often the mischief is irreparable, and the din runs its course, again dwindles away, and is again relit, perhaps more than once before all heads are safely again under wing.
- I have here preferred to adopt Burton’s classification, — P. R.
- Sturninæ, the Starlings.
- The Babbler-thrushes, Malacocircus.
- “Ten measures of garrulity” says the Talmud, “came down from heaven, and the women took nine of them.”