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An essay by John Burroughs


Title:     Birds'-Nesting
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]

Birds's-nesting is by no means a failure, even though you find no birds'-nests. You are sure to find other things of interest, plenty of them. A friend of mine says that, in his youth, he used to go hunting with his gun loaded for wild turkeys, and, though he frequently saw plenty of smaller game, he generally came home empty-handed, because he was loaded only for turkeys. But the student of ornithology, who is also a lover of Nature in all her shows and forms, does not go out loaded for turkeys merely, but for everything that moves or grows, and is quite sure, therefore, to bag some game, if not with his gun, then with his eye, or his nose, or his ear. Even a crow's nest is not amiss, or a den in the rocks where the coons or the skunks live, or a log where a partridge drums, or the partridge himself starting up with spread tail, and walking a few yards in advance of you before he goes humming through the woods, or a woodchuck hole, with well beaten and worn entrance, and with the saplings gnawed and soiled about it, or the strong, fetid smell of the fox, which a sharp nose detects here and there, and which is a good perfume in the woods. And then it is enough to come upon a spring in the woods and stoop down and drink of the sweet, cold water, and bathe your hands in it, or to walk along a trout brook, which has absorbed the shadows till it has itself become but a denser shade. Then I am always drawn out of my way by a ledge of rocks, and love nothing better than to explore the caverns and dens, or to sit down under the overhanging crags and let the wild scene absorb me.

There is a fascination about ledges! They are an unmistakable feature, and give emphasis and character to the scene. I feel their spell, and must pause awhile. Time, old as the hills and older, looks out of their scarred and weather-worn face. The woods are of to-day, but the ledges, in comparison, are of eternity. One pokes about them as he would about ruins, and with something of the same feeling. They are ruins of the fore world. Here the foundations of the hills were laid; here the earth-giants wrought and builded. They constrain one to silence and meditation; the whispering and rustling trees seem trivial and impertinent.

And then there are birds'-nests about ledges, too, exquisite mossy tenements, with white, pebbly eggs, that I can never gaze upon without emotion. The little brown bird, the phoebe, looks at you from her niche till you are within a few feet of her, when she darts away. Occasionally you may find the nest of some rare wood-warbler forming a little pocket in the apron of moss that hangs down over the damp rocks.

The sylvan folk seem to know when you are on a peaceful mission, and are less afraid than usual. Did not that marmot to-day guess that my errand did not concern him as he saw me approach from his cover in the bushes? But when he saw me pause and deliberately seat myself on the stone wall immediately over his hole, his confidence was much shaken. He apparently deliberated awhile, for I heard the leaves rustle as if he were making up his mind, when he suddenly broke cover and came for his hole full tilt. Any other animal would have taken to his heels and fled; but a woodchuck's heels do not amount to much for speed, and he feels his only safety is in his hole. On he came in the most obstinate and determined manner, and I dare say if I had sat down in his hole, would have attacked me unhesitatingly. This I did not give him a chance to do; but, not to be entirely outdone, attempted to set my feet on him in no very gentle manner; but he whipped into his den beneath me with a defiant snort. Farther on, a saucy chipmunk presumed upon my harmless character to an unwonted degree also. I had paused to bathe my hands and face in a little trout brook, and had set a tin cup, which I had partly filled with strawberries as I crossed the field, on a stone at my feet, when along came the chipmunk as confidently as if he knew precisely where he was going, and, perfectly oblivious of my presence, cocked himself up on the rim of the cup and proceeded to eat my choicest berries. I remained motionless and observed him. He had eaten but two when the thought seemed to occur to him that he might be doing better, and he began to fill his pockets. Two, four, six, eight of my berries quickly disappeared, and the cheeks of the little vagabond swelled. But all the time he kept eating, that not a moment might be lost. Then he hopped off the cup, and went skipping from stone to stone till the brook was passed, when he disappeared in the woods. In two or three minutes he was back again, and went to stuffing himself as before; then he disappeared a second time, and I imagined told a friend of his, for in a moment or two along came a bobtailed chipmunk, as if in search of something, and passed up, and down, and around, but did not quite hit the spot. Shortly, the first returned a third time, and had now grown a little fastidious, for he began to sort over my berries, and to bite into them, as if to taste their quality. He was not long in loading up, however, and in making off again. But I had now got tired of the joke, and my berries were appreciably diminishing, so I moved away. What was most curious about the proceeding was, that the little poacher took different directions each time, and returned from different ways. Was this to elude pursuit, or was he distributing the fruit to his friends and neighbors about, astonishing them with strawberries for lunch?

But I am making slow headway toward finding the birds'-nests, for I had set out on this occasion in hopes of finding a rare nest,--the nest of the black-throated blue-backed warbler, which, it seemed, with one or two others, was still wanting to make the history of our warblers complete. The woods were extensive, and full of deep, dark tangles, and looking for any particular nest seemed about as hopeless a task as searching for a needle in a haystack, as the old saying is. Where to begin, and how? But the principle is the same as in looking for a hen's nest,--first find your bird, then watch its movements.

The bird is in these woods, for I have seen him scores of times, but whether he builds high or low, on the ground or in the trees, is all unknown to me. That is his song now,--"twe-twea-twe-e-e-a," with a peculiar summer languor and plaintiveness, and issuing from the lower branches and growths. Presently we--for I have been joined by a companion--discover the bird, a male, insecting in the top of a newly fallen hemlock. The black, white, and blue of his uniform are seen at a glance. His movements are quite slow compared with some of the warblers. If he will only betray the locality of that little domicile where his plainly clad mate is evidently sitting, it is all we will ask of him. But this he seems in no wise disposed to do. Here and there, and up and down; we follow him, often losing him, and as often refinding him by his song; but the clew to his nest, how shall we get it? Does he never go home to see how things are getting on, or to see if his presence is not needed, or to take madam a morsel of food? No doubt he keeps within earshot, and a cry of distress or alarm from the mother bird would bring him to the spot in an instant. Would that some evil fate would make her cry, then! Presently he encounters a rival. His feeding-ground infringes upon that of another, and the two birds regard each other threateningly. This is a good sign, for their nests are evidently near.

Their battle-cry is a low, peculiar chirp, not very fierce, but bantering and confident. They quickly come to blows, but it is a very fantastic battle, and, as it would seem, indulged in more to satisfy their sense of honor than to hurt each other, for neither party gets the better of the other, and they separate a few paces and sing, and squeak, and challenge each other in a very happy frame of mind. The gauntlet is no sooner thrown down than it is again taken up by one or the other, and in the course of fifteen or twenty minutes they have three or four encounters, separating a little, then provoked to return again like two cocks, till finally they withdraw beyond hearing of each other,--both, no doubt, claiming the victory. But the secret of the nest is still kept. Once I think I have it. I catch a glimpse of a bird which looks like the female, and near by, in a small hemlock about eight feet from the ground, my eye detects a nest. But as I come up under it, I can see daylight through it, and that it is empty,--evidently only part finished, not lined or padded yet. Now if the bird will only return and claim it, the point will be gained. But we wait and watch in vain. The architect has knocked off to-day, and we must come again, or continue our search.

While loitering about here we were much amused by three chipmunks, who seemed to be engaged in some kind of game. It looked very much as if they were playing tag. Round and round they would go, first one taking the lead, then another, all good-natured and gleeful as schoolboys. There is one thing about a chipmunk that is peculiar: he is never more than one jump from home. Make a dive at him anywhere and in he goes. He knows where the hole is, even when it is covered up with leaves. There is no doubt, also, that he has his own sense of humor and fun, as what squirrel has not? I have watched two red squirrels for a half hour coursing through the large trees by the roadside where branches interlocked, and engaged in a game of tag as obviously as two boys. As soon as the pursuer had come up with the pursued, and actually touched him, the palm was his, and away he would go, taxing his wits and his speed to the utmost to elude his fellow.

Despairing of finding either of the nests of the two males, we pushed on through the woods to try our luck elsewhere. Before long, just as we were about to plunge down a hill into a dense, swampy part of the woods, we discovered a pair of the birds we were in quest of. They had food in their beaks, and, as we paused, showed great signs of alarm, indicating that the nest was in the immediate vicinity. This was enough. We would pause here and find this nest, anyhow. To make a sure thing of it, we determined to watch the parent birds till we had wrung from them their secret. So we doggedly crouched down and watched them, and they watched us. It was diamond cut diamond. But as we felt constrained in our movements, desiring, if possible, to keep so quiet that the birds would, after a while, see in us only two harmless stumps or prostrate logs, we had much the worst of it. The mosquitoes were quite taken with our quiet, and knew us from logs and stumps in a moment. Neither were the birds deceived, not even when we tried the Indian's tactics, and plumed ourselves with green branches. Ah, the suspicious creatures, how they watched us with the food in their beaks, abstaining for one whole hour from ministering that precious charge which otherwise would have been visited every moment! Quite near us they would come at times, between us and the nest, eying us so sharply. Then they would move off, and apparently try to forget our presence. Was it to deceive us, or to persuade himself and mate that there was no serious cause for alarm, that the male would now and then strike up in full song and move off to some distance through the trees? But the mother bird did not allow herself to lose sight of us at all, and both birds, after carrying the food in their beaks a long time, would swallow it themselves. Then they would obtain another morsel and apparently approach very near the nest, when their caution or prudence would come to their aid, and they would swallow the food and hasten away. I thought the young birds would cry out, but not a syllable from them. Yet this was, no doubt, what kept the parent birds away from the nest. The clamor the young would have set up on the approach of the old with food would have exposed everything.

After a time I felt sure I knew within a few feet where the nest was concealed. Indeed, I thought I knew the identical bush. Then the birds approached each other again and grew very confidential about another locality some rods below. This puzzled us, and, seeing the whole afternoon might be spent in this manner, and the mystery unsolved, we determined to change our tactics and institute a thorough search of the locality. This procedure soon brought things to a crisis, for, as my companion clambered over a log by a little hemlock, a few yards from where we had been sitting, with a cry of alarm out sprang the young birds from their nest in the hemlock, and, scampering and fluttering over the leaves, disappeared in different directions. This brought the parent birds on the scene in an agony of alarm. Their distress was pitiful. They threw themselves on the ground at our very feet, and fluttered, and cried, and trailed themselves before us, to draw us away from the place, or distract our attention from the helpless young. I shall not forget the male bird, how bright he looked, how sharp the contrast as he trailed his painted plumage there on the dry leaves. Apparently he was seriously disabled. He would start up as if exerting every muscle to fly away, but no use; down he would come, with a helpless, fluttering motion, before he had gone two yards, and apparently you had only to go and pick him up. But before you could pick him up, he had recovered somewhat and flown a little farther; and thus, if you were tempted to follow him, you would soon find yourself some distance from the scene of the nest, and both old and young well out of your reach. The female bird was not less solicious, and practiced the same arts upon us to decoy us away, but her dull plumage rendered her less noticeable. The male was clad in holiday attire, but his mate in an every-day working-garb.

The nest was built in the fork of a little hemlock, about fifteen inches from the ground, and was a thick, firm structure, composed of the finer material of the woods, with a lining of very delicate roots or rootlets. There were four young birds and one addled egg. We found it in a locality about the head-waters of the eastern branch of the Delaware, where several other of the rarer species of warblers, such as the mourning ground, the Blackburnian, the chestnut-sided, and the speckled Canada, spend the summer and rear their young.

Defunct birds'-nests are easy to find; when the leaves fall, then they are in every bush and tree; and one wonders how he missed them; but a live nest, how it eludes one! I have read of a noted criminal who could hide himself pretty effectually in any room that contained the usual furniture; he would embrace the support of a table so as to seem part of it. The bird has studied the same art: it always blends its nest with the surroundings, and sometimes its very openness hides it; the light itself seems to conceal it. Then the birds build anew each year, and so always avail themselves of the present and latest combination of leaves and screens, of light and shade. What was very well concealed one season may be quite exposed the next.

Going a-fishing or a-berrying is a good introduction to the haunts of the birds, and to their nesting-places. You put forth your hand for the berries, and there is a nest; or your tread by the creeks starts the sandpiper or the water-thrush from the ground where its eggs are concealed, or some shy wood-warbler from a bush. One day, fishing down a deep wooded gorge, my hook caught on a limb overhead, and on pulling it down I found I had missed my trout, but had caught a hummingbird's nest. It was saddled on the limb as nicely as if it had been a grown part of it.

Other collectors beside the ooelogists are looking for birds'-nests,-- the squirrels and owls and jays and crows. The worst depredator in this direction I know of is the fish crow, and I warn him to keep off my premises, and charge every gunner to spare him not. He is a small sneak-thief, and will rob the nest of every robin, wood thrush, and oriole he can come at. I believe he fishes only when he is unable to find birds' eggs or young birds. The genuine crow, the crow with the honest "caw," "caw," I have never caught in such small business, though the kingbird makes no discrimination between them, but accuses both alike.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Birds'-Nesting