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That day, however, I was ignorant even of the name of the bird whose nest I had found. For long I stood and gloated like a miser over the little jewel-casket which the mother-bird had shown me, and for the first time realized that anywhere in the woods and fields I might come upon other treasure-hordes of the same kind. Then and there I became a treasure-hunter. Ever since then I leave my treasures where I find them, so that my recollections of them may not be marred by any memories of fluttering, mourning mother birds. Aside from any sentimental reasons, it has always seemed to me that he who takes the eggs which he has discovered is guilty of the economic error of spending his principal. If left undisturbed, the nest will pay dividends in the way of information and observations which are worth more than the mere possession of the pierced and empty eggs.
All the time that I was studying this nest both the parent birds were moving around me in anxious circles. At times the mother bird would drop her wings and scurry along just in front of me, pretending that she was wounded nigh unto death and that, if I would but follow her away from the nest, she could easily be caught. Both the birds had brown backs and buff breasts and sides spotted with black, and constantly tilted their tails and walked instead of hopping. As soon as I came back to the farmhouse, I rummaged through colored charts and bird-books until I had decided that the nest was that of a fox sparrow, which also has a brown back and a spotted breast. It was not until another year that I learned that the fox sparrow nests in the far North and that the bird whose home I had discovered was none other than the oven-bird – or golden-crowned accentor, to give him his more sonorous title. This is the bird which comes in late April or early May and sings all through the woods the best example of a crescendo song in all bird-music. His nest on the ground usually has a domed overhanging roof which makes it resemble an old-fashioned Dutch oven.
In spite of my ignorance there followed the happiest week of my life. I forgot that I was an invalid, as well as all the injunctions of my doctor. From morning until night I hunted birds’ nests. As usual fortune favored the novice, and I found nests that first week which I have found but few times since.
The very next morning, on the other side of Pond Hill I turned a sudden corner of the path through the dim green silence, and stepped right into a breakfast-party. Mrs. Ruffed Grouse, known in that part of the country as partridge, was breakfasting in the open path with at least a dozen little grouse – or is it greese. Although taken by surprise, neither she nor her children hesitated for the fraction of a second. Falling upon the ground, she rolled and flapped as if in the last agonies of death, whining like a puppy and dragging herself almost to my feet. I looked away from the covey for a minute, to watch the bird struggling and whining at my very feet.As I stretched my hand out toward her, she feebly flopped away, still apparently well within reach. I took a step or so after her, to see if she would really permit herself to be caught. Suddenly realizing that she was only decoying me away from her brood, I turned back. Although I had gone less than six feet, and the little birds had been huddled together close to me on the bare path, they had absolutely disappeared. It seemed impossible that in a few seconds they could have gained the shelter of the woods or could have found cover in the scanty grass and scattered leaves close at hand. Not one could I find although I searched and searched. When I turned back the mother grouse was gone also, although I could hear her whining through the bushes.
Years later, again at the edge of the woods, one day early in June, I came upon another mother grouse leading a covey of little chicks, evidently just hatched, in single file out from the woods into the open, probably to catch grasshoppers. She went through the same performance as the first one, but this time I selected the two nearest chicks, which stood directly in front of me, and resolved that nothing would make me take my eyes away from them. Even as I watched, they melted away into the grass. One I found lying motionless on its side under a big brown leaf, looking exactly like its covering. The other I never did find. At first the leaf-hidden partridge refused to move even when I touched it, until I picked it up. Then it gave a shrill peep almost like a little chicken. Instantly the poor mother bird rushed up to my very feet and dashed her wings frantically against my legs, jumping up from the ground and whining so piteously that, after I had stroked her fuzzy, soft little chick, I put it back on the ground without any further examination. At once it disappeared, and the mother bird, still whining, also sidled away into the woods.
I hid behind an apple tree and waited nearly half an hour. At last from the woods sounded a low “Cluck, cluck, cluck,” and instantly nine little partridge chicks, one by one, started up from the most impossible hiding-places. It was like watching a resurrection. Some came from under leaves, others out of clumps of grass, and two or three rose from the almost bare ground, where they had lain in perfect concealment. Falling into single file, they hurried like little ghosts into the thicket, and the last I heard of that little family was a few soft and very satisfied clucks from the hidden mother bird.
During that golden week of treasure-hunting I found a number of common nests which, although everyday affairs to an experienced ornithologist, were then, as they are now, a source of never-ending interest. There was the robin’s nest partly made of wool, which I found in a thorn-bush in the sheep-pasture, with its four long, sky-blue eggs. Over in the woods, just back of the deserted house where Nat Bunker, the Indian, used to weave wonderful baskets out of maiden-hair stems, I found the nest of a wood thrush in a witch-hazel about seven feet from the ground, by the simple process of running my head against the bush while going through the thick undergrowth. This accident bunted the mother thrush off the nest; and pulling the bush down, I peered in and saw three light-blue eggs.
If I had taken these eggs, as some bird’s-nesters do, I never should have had the experience of actually seeing a little wood thrush come into the world. It was the last morning of my stay, and I had been making my round of nests, examining each one and beginning the bird-notes which I have kept up ever since. As I pulled the nest down and looked at the three eggs, I suddenly saw a tiny black speck appear out of the side of one. Then the shell cracked and split, and I realized that what I had seen was the beak of the little bird within. In a moment the crack spread, and finally, with a tremendous effort, one half of the blue shell slid off and there in front of me, snugly resting in the other half of the shell, was the naked baby-thrush, its long neck curled down beside its round stomach. Raising its blind head, it pressed against the confining shell, while its whole bare body shook with the heart-throbs of a new life. I realized that before my eyes this bare, blind bird was passing from one world into another; and when the birth was finally accomplished and, free from the prisoning shell, the little thrush lay panting on the bottom of the soft nest, I turned away with a certain sense of uplift that I had watched a fellow creature win a battle for a higher life.
It was another wood thrush’s nest that same week, in the deep of a thicket, that gave me still another experience. The nest was in a tiny bush much lower than I have ever found a wood thrush’s nest since. When the mother thrush left the nest, she wasted no time in idle alarm-notes, but, circling around the bush, flew straight for my face. I ducked, and she went over me, only to turn and come back; and if I had not guarded myself by striking at her with my hands, I have no manner of doubt that she would have struck me with her beak.
In only one other instance in many years of bird’s-nesting have I ever been actually attacked by a nesting bird. Once in the twilight I had found my first and last nest of a Kentucky warbler on the edge of a wood. Taking a short cut through the trees, I was instantly assailed by a pair of screech-owls, which flew directly at my face, snapping their beaks and making little wailing notes. The light was so dim and their flight so swift, that I actually ran out into the open, fearing lest they might land with beak or claw on my eyes.
It was on the third day that I found in a white-thorn bush the little horse-hair nest of the chipping sparrow. This last summer, in the depths of Northern Canada, while hunting for such rare nests as the bay-breasted, the yellow-palm and the Tennessee warblers, I found the same little horse-hair home of the chipping sparrow. I thought with this my last, as I did with my first, that there are no eggs of American birds more beautiful than those little blue, brown-flecked eggs of the dear gentle little chippy.
That same day, on the edge of the thick woods near the schoolhouse, I found swinging from maple saplings, four and five feet from the ground, the beautiful little woven baskets, thatched on the outside with white birch-bark and lined within with pine-needles, of the red-eyed vireo, with the black line through and the white line above her red eye. In the vast, bare hardhack pasture on the slope of Pond Hill, I watched a field sparrow fly down under a hardhack bush with a bug in its beak. Hurrying there, I found on the ground, concealed by the bush, her little nest of woven grass, with four little field sparrows inside, whose gaping beaks kept both father and mother field sparrow busy all day to fill them. As the parent birds flitted around me, I could see plainly the pink beak which distinguishes the field sparrow from all others of its family. Beside the brook, among the cat-tails on the ground, I found the rough nest of the red-winged blackbird, with its four eggs scrawled with strange black hieroglyphics.
The fourth day was another treasure-trove day. Just at dawn, in a dew-drenched thicket of spirea, I found three nests not six feet apart. In one, root-lined and thatched with strips of grape-vine bark, glowed the four deep blue eggs of the cat bird. The next nest, singularly deep and made of dried grass, was owned by a black-blue indigo bunting who, in spite of his intense coloring, seemed content with three washed-out white eggs and a light-brown wife. On the last nest the bird was brooding, and showed the golden-crowned head and the chestnut band along the side which has given its name to the chestnut-sided warbler. The nest, a humble affair of grass and hair, sheltered four wonderful eggs, pink-white, spotted at the largest end with flecks of chocolate and lilac and umber. Back of the thickets tottered an old, old house. For fifty years it had been leased to the wild-folk. As I looked at it, one of them flitted out of the cellar-way, a gray bird whose name-note was ph?be. Just within the doorway, on an oak beam, I found her new-finished nest of fresh, bright, green moss.
All that morning I followed orchid-haunted paths through dim aisles of high pine trees without finding a nest. When I gave up hunting for them, they appeared. Toward noon I had put together a pocket rod and was wading down the bed of a little brook, to catch a few trout for lunch. In a little pool at the foot of a laurel bush, I landed a plump jeweled fish. I cast again, and my hook caught a low hanging branch. I gave the bough a shake, and from the foot of the bush a pale brown bird stole out. A moment later I was looking at my first veery’s nest. It seemed strange to meet face to face this dweller in the dark woods. Usually I had heard his weird harp-notes from the cool green depths of the thicket, but with never a glimpse of the singer. To-day he sat on a low branch within six feet, and I could plainly see the faintly marked breast and the white spot under the beak which are the field-marks of the veery, or Wilson’s thrush. Both birds flittered around me like ghosts, saying faintly, “Wheer! wheer! wheer!” The nest was built just off the ground and lined with brown leaves, and held four of the most vivid blue eggs owned by any of the bird-folk. The eggs of the cat-bird are of a deeper blue, but the strange vivid brightness of the veery’s eggs makes all other blue eggs look faded by contrast.
All too soon my glorious week of treasure-hunting drew to a close. For the last day were reserved the best two of my bird-adventures. During the morning I had followed a wood-road which led through dark woods into a marsh, and then up a wooded slope. I sat down to rest, and suddenly saw a gray bird fly up into a tree, alight on a limb, and before my eyes suddenly disappear. Bringing my field-glasses to bear, I discovered saddled on that limb a lichen-covered nest, which looked so exactly like the limb itself that, if the bird had not shown me her home, I would never by any chance have discovered it. It was a far climb for an invalid, but I felt that life was not worth living unless I could have a closer look at this strange nest which had flashed into sight right before my eyes. Gruntingly I clambered up the trunk, and for the first time looked into the beautiful nest of the wood pewee. It was lined with down and held four perfect eggs, pearly-white and flecked with heavy brown and black spots.
For a long time I sat perched aloft, rejoicing over every perfect detail of that nest and the eggs, and studying the gentle, silent, anxious parent birds, of a dark-brownish-gray with two white wing-bars and whitish under-parts. I went back to lunch feeling that my last day had been well spent. However, the best was yet to be. I realize from later experiences in bird’s nesting that all this has an impossible sound, but I can only say that I am setting down the happenings of this week of treasure-hunting exactly as they came, and as they appear in the battered canvas-bound note-book in which I scrawled my field-notes that summer. The Wild Folk had evidently decided to celebrate my discovery of their world by granting me seven days of nest-finding rarely vouchsafed even to veteran ornithologists.
THE JEWEL-BOX OF THE WOOD PEWEE
It was at twilight, and I stood on the edge of an old orchard where grew a white-oak tree. As I looked away across the valley, I heard a humming noise, and through the dimming light saw a tiny bird buzzing through the air just overhead. As I watched, she alighted on a long limb about ten feet from the ground, and even an ignoramus like myself could recognize the long curved beak of the hummingbird. This one had a white instead of a crimson throat, which, I was to learn, marked the female. For an instant the little bird perched on the limb just over my head, and then suddenly sidled toward what seemed a tiny knot, but was not. Lest I be betrayed into further puns unworthy the fair fame of a bird-student, I hasten to add that I had found the nest of a ruby-throated hummingbird.
It was too dark that evening to examine it more closely, but by sunrise the next morning I was on the spot with a step-ladder, and with more delight than I have ever had in a nest since, looked down into the tiny lichen-covered, cobweb-stitched, thistle-down-lined nest of this smallest of all our birds. Within were two tiny white eggs. The opening of the nest was just about the size of a quarter of a dollar, and it did not seem possible that two little birds could later be brooded and fed and reared in such a tiny cradle. The nest itself was saddled on the limb, which was perhaps four inches in diameter.
It was so placed that the bottom of the nest did not rest directly on the limb, but hung a little to one side, so that the future little birds would rest in the swing of a hammock rather than on the hard foundation of the branch itself. The nest was lashed to the limb with strand after strand of cobwebs carried and wound around and around, until the whole structure was firmly anchored by myriads of almost invisible but tough little ropes. Inside, it was lined with the soft yellowish-white fluffy fleece found inside milkweed pods. Next came a layer of reddish-brown seed-husks, all bound and lashed together with a network of cobwebs. On the outside was a layer of dull ashy-green lichen-scales. Each minute separate fragment was fitted into a mosaic which covered the whole nest. Outside of everything was another almost invisible network of cobwebs, like the net of a balloon which holds the round globe within. There must have been hundreds of gossamer strands making up this network, all so fine that only by the closest examination could they be seen.
Every bird’s nest is a miracle, but I don’t know any that is such a marvel of industry and ingenuity and beauty as that of the ruby-throated bird. Later on, when Mrs. Hummingbird was through with her home, I collected it, and had an opportunity of seeing just what the building of that nest meant to her – for, sad to say, Mr. H. B. never moves a claw to help in home-building. The labor of collecting the spider-webs alone, to say nothing of the hundreds of lichen-flecks and seed-husks, would seem to be almost impossible. On the outside of the nest I counted over a hundred separate bits of lichen, and then undoubtedly overlooked many; while in the next layer of seed-husks there were probably at least three times as many. Bit by bit, flake by flake, the little worker had gathered her material, and from it had spun, and woven and built a nest which was not only soft and secure for her little ones, but, when finished, was absolutely disguised. No prowler on the ground or pirate of the air could tell that nest from a lichen-covered knot, unless, as had been my fortune, the little mother herself showed it to them.
So endeth the tale of my first treasure-hunting. If you are not one of us, don’t let another summer go by without joining our Order. You will find a wealth of happiness which no thief can steal nor misfortune lose, and which, as the years go by, pays ever-increasing dividends of joyous memories.