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An essay by John Burroughs

Birds And Birds

Title:     Birds And Birds
Author: John Burroughs [More Titles by Burroughs]


There is an old legend which one of our poets has made use of about the bird in the brain,--a legend based, perhaps, upon the human significance of our feathered neighbors. Was not Audubon's brain full of birds, and very lively ones, too? A person who knew him says he looked like a bird himself; keen, alert, wide-eyed. It is not unusual to see the hawk looking out of the human countenance, and one may see or have seen that still nobler bird, the eagle. The song-birds might all have been brooded and hatched in the human heart. They are typical of its highest aspirations, and nearly the whole gamut of human passion and emotion is expressed more or less fully in their varied songs. Among our own birds, there is the song of the hermit thrush for devoutness and religious serenity; that of the wood thrush for the musing, melodious thoughts of twilight; the song sparrow's for simple faith and trust, the bobolink's for hilarity and glee, the mourning dove's for hopeless sorrow, the vireo's for all-day and every-day contentment, and the nocturne of the mockingbird for love. Then there are the plaintive singers, the soaring, ecstatic singers, the confident singers, the gushing and voluble singers, and the half-voiced, inarticulate singers. The note of the wood pewee is a human sigh; the chickadee has a call full of unspeakable tenderness and fidelity. There is pride in the song of the tanager, and vanity in that of the catbird. There is something distinctly human about the robin; his is the note of boyhood. I have thoughts that follow the migrating fowls northward and southward, and that go with the sea-birds into the desert of the ocean, lonely and tireless as they. I sympathize with the watchful crow perched yonder on that tree, or walking about the fields. I hurry outdoors when I hear the clarion of the wild gander; his comrade in my heart sends back the call.


Here comes the cuckoo, the solitary, the joyless, enamored of the privacy of his own thoughts; when did he fly away out of this brain? The cuckoo is one of the famous birds, and is known the world over. He is mentioned in the Bible, and is discussed by Pliny and Aristotle. Jupiter himself once assumed the form of the cuckoo in order to take advantage of Juno's compassion for the bird.

We have only a reduced and modified cuckoo in this country. Our bird is smaller, and is much more solitary and unsocial. Its color is totally different from the Old World bird, the latter being speckled, or a kind of dominick, while ours is of the finest cinnamon-brown or drab above, and bluish white beneath, with a gloss and richness of texture in the plumage that suggests silk. The bird has also mended its manners in this country, and no longer foists its eggs and young upon other birds, but builds a nest of its own and rears its own brood like other well-disposed birds.

The European cuckoo is evidently much more of a spring bird than ours is, much more a harbinger of the early season. He comes in April, while ours seldom appears till late in May, and hardly then appears. He is printed, as they say, but not published. Only the alert ones know he is here. This old English rhyme on the cuckoo does not apply this side the Atlantic:--

"In April
Come he will,
In flow'ry May
He sings all day,
In leafy June
He changes his tune,
In bright July
He's ready to fly,
In August
Go he must."

Our bird must go in August, too, but at no time does he sing all day. Indeed, his peculiar guttural call has none of the character of a song. It is a solitary, hermit-like sound, as if the bird were alone in the world, and called upon the Fates to witness his desolation. I have never seen two cuckoos together, and I have never heard their call answered; it goes forth into the solitudes unreclaimed. Like a true American, the bird lacks animal spirits and a genius for social intercourse. One August night I heard one calling, calling, a long time, not far from my house. It was a true night sound, more fitting then than by day.

The European cuckoo, on the other hand, seems to be a joyous, vivacious bird. Wordsworth applies to it the adjective "blithe," and says:--

"I hear thee babbling to the vale
Of sunshine and of flowers."

English writers all agree that its song is animated and pleasing, and the outcome of a light heart. Thomas Hardy, whose touches always seem true to nature, describes in one of his books an early summer scene from amid which "the loud notes of three cuckoos were resounding through the still air." This is totally unlike our bird, which does not sing in concert, but affects remote woods, and is most frequently heard in cloudy weather. Hence the name of rain-crow that is applied to him in some parts of the country. I am more than half inclined to believe that his call does indicate rain, as it is certain that of the tree-toad does.

The cuckoo has a slender, long-drawn-out appearance on account of the great length of tail. It is seldom seen about farms or near human habitations until the June canker-worm appears, when it makes frequent visits to the orchard. It loves hairy worms, and has eaten so many of them that its gizzard is lined with hair.

The European cuckoo builds no nest, but puts its eggs out to be hatched, as does our cow blackbird, and our cuckoo is master of only the rudiments of nest-building. No other bird in the woods builds so shabby a nest; it is the merest makeshift,--a loose scaffolding of twigs through which the eggs can be seen. One season, I knew of a pair that built within a few feet of a country house that stood in the midst of a grove, but a heavy storm of rain and wind broke up the nest.

If the Old World cuckoo had been as silent and retiring a bird as ours is, it could never have figured so conspicuously in literature as it does,--having a prominence that we would give only to the bobolink or to the wood thrush,--as witness his frequent mention by Shakespeare, or the following early English ballad (in modern guise):--

"Summer is come in,
Loud sings the cuckoo;
Groweth seed and bloweth mead,
And springs the wood now.
Sing, cuckoo;
The ewe bleateth for her lamb,
The cow loweth for her calf,
The bullock starteth.
The buck verteth,
Merrily sings the cuckoo,
Cuckoo, cuckoo;
Well sings the cuckoo,
Mayest thou never cease."


I think it will be found, on the whole, that the European birds are a more hardy and pugnacious race than ours, and that their song-birds have more vivacity and power, and ours more melody and plaintiveness. In the song of the skylark, for instance, there is little or no melody, but wonderful strength and copiousness. It is a harsh strain near at hand, but very taking when showered down from a height of several hundred feet.

Daines Barrington, the naturalist of the last century, to whom White of Selborne addressed so many of his letters, gives a table of the comparative merit of seventeen leading song-birds of Europe, marking them under the heads of mellowness, sprightliness, plaintiveness, compass, and execution. In the aggregate, the songsters stand highest in sprightliness, next in compass and execution, and lowest in the other two qualities. A similar arrangement and comparison of our songsters, I think, would show an opposite result,--that is, a predominance of melody and plaintiveness. The British wren, for instance, stands in Barrington's table as destitute of both these qualities; the reed sparrow also. Our wren-songs, on the contrary, are gushing and lyrical, and more or less melodious,--that of the winter wren being preeminently so. Our sparrows, too, all have sweet, plaintive ditties, with but little sprightliness or compass. The English house sparrow has no song at all, but a harsh chatter that is unmatched among our birds. But what a hardy, prolific, pugnacious little wretch it is! These birds will maintain themselves where our birds will not live at all, and a pair of them will lie down in the gutter and fight like dogs. Compared with this miniature John Bull, the voice and manners of our common sparrow are gentle and retiring. The English sparrow is a street gamin, our bird a timid rustic.

The English robin redbreast is tallied in this country by the bluebird, which was called by the early settlers of New England the blue robin. The song of the British bird is bright and animated, that of our bird soft and plaintive.

The nightingale stands at the head in Barrington's table, and is but little short of perfect in all the qualities. We have no one bird that combines such strength or vivacity with such melody. The mockingbird doubtless surpasses it in variety and profusion of notes; but falls short, I imagine, in sweetness and effectiveness. The nightingale will sometimes warble twenty seconds without pausing to breathe, and when the condition of the air is favorable, its song fills a space a mile in diameter. There are, perhaps, songs in our woods as mellow and brilliant, as is that of the closely allied species, the water-thrush; but our bird's song has but a mere fraction of the nightingale's volume and power.

Strength and volume of voice, then, seem to be characteristic of the English birds, and mildness and delicacy of ours. How much the thousands of years of contact with man, and familiarity with artificial sounds, over there, have affected the bird voices, is a question. Certain it is that their birds are much more domestic than ours, and certain it is that all purely wild sounds are plaintive and elusive. Even of the bark of the fox, the cry of the panther, the voice of the coon, or the call and clang of wild geese and ducks, or the war-cry of savage tribes, is this true; but not true in the same sense of domesticated or semi-domesticated animals and fowls. How different the voice of the common duck or goose from that of the wild species, or of the tame dove from that of the turtle of the fields and groves! Where could the English house sparrow have acquired that unmusical voice but amid the sounds of hoofs and wheels, and the discords of the street? And the ordinary notes and calls of so many of the British birds, according to their biographers, are harsh and disagreeable; even the nightingale has an ugly, guttural "chuck." The missel-thrush has a harsh scream; the jay a note like "wrack," "wrack;" the fieldfare a rasping chatter; the blackbird, which is our robin cut in ebony, will sometimes crow like a cock and cackle like a hen; the flocks of starlings make a noise like a steam saw-mill; the white-throat has a disagreeable note; the swift a discordant scream; and the bunting a harsh song. Among our song-birds, on the contrary, it is rare to hear a harsh or displeasing voice. Even their notes of anger and alarm are more or less soft.

I would not imply that our birds are the better songsters, but that their songs, if briefer and feebler, are also more wild and plaintive,--in fact, that they are softer-voiced. The British birds, as I have stated, are more domestic than ours; a much larger number build about houses and towers and outbuildings. The titmouse with us is exclusively a wood-bird; but in Britain three or four species of them resort more or less to buildings in winter. Their redstart also builds under the eaves of houses; their starling in church steeples and in holes in walls; several thrushes resort to sheds to nest; and jackdaws breed in the crannies of the old architecture, and this in a much milder climate than our own.

They have in that country no birds that answer to our tiny, lisping wood-warblers,--genus _Dendroica,_--nor to our vireos, _Vireonidoe._ On the other hand, they have a larger number of field-birds and semi-game-birds. They have several species like our robin; thrushes like him, and some of them larger, as the ring ouzel, the missel-thrush, the fieldfare, the throstle, the redwing, White's thrush, the blackbird,--these, besides several species in size and habits more like our wood thrush.

Several species of European birds sing at night besides the true nightingale,--not fitfully and as if in their dreams, as do a few of our birds, but continuously. They make a business of it. The sedge-bird ceases at times as if from very weariness; but wake the bird up, says White, by throwing a stick or stone into the bushes, and away it goes again in full song. We have but one real nocturnal songster, and that is the mockingbird. One can see how this habit might increase among the birds of a long-settled country like England. With sounds and voices about them, why should they be silent, too? The danger of betraying themselves to their natural enemies would be less than in our woods.

That their birds are more quarrelsome and pugnacious than ours I think evident. Our thrushes are especially mild-mannered, but the missel-thrush is very bold and saucy, and has been known to fly in the face of persons who have disturbed the sitting bird. No jay nor magpie nor crow can stand before him. The Welsh call him master of the coppice, and he welcomes a storm with such a vigorous and hearty song that in some countries he is known as storm-cock. He sometimes kills the young of other birds and eats eggs,--a very unthrushlike trait. The whitethroat sings with crest erect, and attitudes of warning and defiance. The hooper is a great bully; so is the greenfinch. The wood-grouse--now extinct, I believe--has been known to attack people in the woods. And behold the grit and hardihood of that little emigrant or exile to our shores, the English sparrow! Our birds have their tilts and spats also; but the only really quarrelsome members in our family are confined to the flycatchers, as the kingbird and the great crested flycatcher. None of our song-birds are bullies.

Many of our more vigorous species, as the butcherbird, the crossbills, the pine grosbeak, the redpoll, the Bohemian chatterer, the shore lark, the longspur, the snow bunting, etc., are common to both continents.

Have the Old World creatures throughout more pluck and hardihood than those that are indigenous to this continent? Behold the common mouse, how he has followed man to this country and established himself here against all opposition, overrunning our houses and barns, while the native species is rarely seen. And when has anybody seen the American rat, while his congener from across the water has penetrated to every part of the continent! By the next train that takes the family to some Western frontier, arrives this pest. Both our rat and mouse or mice are timid, harmless, delicate creatures, compared with the cunning, filthy, and prolific specimens that have fought their way to us from the Old World. There is little doubt, also, that the red fox has been transplanted to this country from Europe. He is certainly on the increase, and is fast running out the native gray species.

Indeed, I have thought that all forms of life in the Old World were marked by greater prominence of type, or stronger characteristic and fundamental qualities, than with us,--coarser and more hairy and virile, and therefore more powerful and lasting. This opinion is still subject to revision, but I find it easier to confirm it than to undermine it.


But let me change the strain and contemplate for a few moments this feathered bandit,--this bird with the mark of Cain upon him, _Lanius borealis,_--the great shrike or butcher-bird. Usually the character of a bird of prey is well defined; there is no mistaking him. His claws, his beak, his head, his wings, in fact his whole build, point to the fact that he subsists upon live creatures; he is armed to catch them and to slay them. Every bird knows a hawk and knows him from the start, and is on the lookout for him. The hawk takes life, but he does it to maintain his own, and it is a public and universally known fact. Nature has sent him abroad in that character, and has advised all creatures of it. Not so with the shrike; here she has concealed the character of a murderer under a form as innocent as that of the robin. Feet, wings, tail, color, head, and general form and size are all those of a songbird,--very much like that master songster, the mockingbird,--yet this bird is a regular Bluebeard among its kind. Its only characteristic feature is its beak, the upper mandible having two sharp processes and a sharp hooked point. It cannot fly away to any distance with the bird it kills, nor hold it in its claws to feed upon it. It usually impales its victim upon a thorn, or thrusts it in the fork of a limb. For the most part, however, its food seems to consist of insects,--spiders, grasshoppers, beetles, etc. It is the assassin of the small birds, whom it often destroys in pure wantonness, or merely to sup on their brains, as the Gaucho slaughters a wild cow or bull for its tongue. It is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Apparently its victims are unacquainted with its true character and allow it to approach them, when the fatal blow is given. I saw an illustration of this the other day. A large number of goldfinches in their fall plumage, together with snowbirds and sparrows, were feeding and chattering in some low bushes back of the barn. I had paused by the fence and was peeping through at them, hoping to get a glimpse of that rare sparrow, the white-crowned. Presently I heard a rustling among the dry leaves as if some larger bird was also among them. Then I heard one of the goldfinches cry out as if in distress, when the whole flock of them started up in alarm, and, circling around, settled in the tops of the larger trees. I continued my scrutiny of the bushes, when I saw a large bird, with some object in its beak, hopping along on a low branch near the ground. It disappeared from my sight for a few moments, then came up through the undergrowth into the top of a young maple where some of the finches had alighted, and I beheld the shrike. The little birds avoided him and flew about the tree, their pursuer following them with the motions of his head and body as if he would fain arrest them by his murderous gaze. The birds did not utter the cry or make the demonstration of alarm they usually do on the appearance of a hawk, but chirruped and called and flew about in a half-wondering, half-bewildered manner. As they flew farther along the line of trees the shrike followed them as if bent on further captures. I then made my way around to see what the shrike had caught, and what he had done with his prey. As I approached the bushes I saw the shrike hastening back. I read his intentions at once. Seeing my movements, he had returned for his game. But I was too quick for him, and he got up out of the brush and flew away from the locality. On some twigs in the thickest part of the bushes I found his victim,--a goldfinch. It was not impaled upon a thorn, but was carefully disposed upon some horizontal twigs,--laid upon the shelf, so to speak. It was as warm as in life, and its plumage was unruffled. On examining it I found a large bruise or break in the skin on the back of the neck, at the base of the skull. Here the bandit had no doubt griped the bird with his strong beak. The shrike's blood-thirstiness was seen in the fact that he did not stop to devour his prey, but went in quest of more, as if opening a market of goldfinches. The thicket was his shambles, and if not interrupted, he might have had a fine display of titbits in a short time.

The shrike is called a butcher from his habit of sticking his meat upon hooks and points; further than that, he is a butcher because he devours but a trifle of what he slays.

A few days before, I had witnessed another little scene in which the shrike was the chief actor. A chipmunk had his den in the side of the terrace above the garden, and spent the mornings laying in a store of corn which he stole from a field ten or twelve rods away. In traversing about half this distance, the little poacher was exposed; the first cover going from his den was a large maple, where he always brought up and took a survey of the scene. I would see him spinning along toward the maple, then from it by an easy stage to the fence adjoining the corn; then back again with his booty. One morning I paused to watch him more at my leisure. He came up out of his retreat and cocked himself up to see what my motions meant. His forepaws were clasped to his breast precisely as if they had been hands, and the tips of the fingers thrust into his vest pockets. Having satisfied himself with reference to me, he sped on toward the tree. He had nearly reached it, when he turned tail and rushed for his hole with the greatest precipitation. As he neared it, I saw some bluish object in the air closing in upon him with the speed of an arrow, and, as he vanished within, a shrike brought up in front of the spot, and with spread wings and tail stood hovering a moment, and looking in, then turned and went away. Apparently it was a narrow escape for the chipmunk, and, I venture to say, he stole no more corn that morning. The shrike is said to catch mice, but it is not known to attack squirrels. He certainly could not have strangled the chipmunk, and I am curious to know what would have been the result had he overtaken him. Probably it was only a kind of brag on the part of the bird,--a bold dash where no risk was run. He simulated the hawk, the squirrel's real enemy, and no doubt enjoyed the joke.

On another occasion, as I was riding along a mountain road early in April, a bird started from the fence where I was passing, and flew heavily to the branch of a near apple-tree. It proved to be a shrike with a small bird in his beak. He thrust his victim into a fork of a branch, then wiped his bloody beak upon the bark. A youth who was with me, to whom I pointed out the fact, had never heard of such a thing, and was much incensed at the shrike. "Let me fire a stone at him," said he, and jumping out of the wagon, he pulled off his mittens and fumbled about for a stone. Having found one to his liking, with great earnestness and deliberation he let drive. The bird was in more danger than I had imagined, for he escaped only by a hair's breadth; a guiltless bird like the robin or sparrow would surely have been slain; the missile grazed the spot where the shrike sat, and cut the ends of his wings as he darted behind the branch. We could see that the murdered bird had been brained, as its head hung down toward us.

The shrike is not a summer bird with us in the Northern States, but mainly a fall and winter one; in summer he goes farther north. I see him most frequently in November and December. I recall a morning during the former month that was singularly clear and motionless; the air was like a great drum. Apparently every sound within the compass of the horizon was distinctly heard. The explosions back in the cement quarries ten miles away smote the hollow and reverberating air like giant fists. Just as the sun first showed his fiery brow above the horizon, a gun was discharged over the river. On the instant a shrike, perched on the topmost spray of a maple above the house, set up a loud, harsh call or whistle, suggestive of certain notes of the blue jay. The note presently became a crude, broken warble. Even this scalper of the innocents had music in his soul on such a morning. He saluted the sun as a robin might have done. After he had finished, he flew away toward the east.

The shrike is a citizen of the world, being found in both hemispheres. It does not appear that the European species differs essentially from our own. In Germany he is called the nine-killer, from the belief that he kills and sticks upon thorns nine grasshoppers a day.

To make my portrait of the shrike more complete, I will add another trait of his described by an acute observer who writes me from western New York. He saw the bird on a bright midwinter morning when the thermometer stood at zero, and by cautious approaches succeeded in getting under the apple-tree upon which he was perched. The shrike was uttering a loud, clear note like _clu-eet, clu-eet, clu-eet,_ and, on finding he had a listener who was attentive and curious, varied his performance and kept it up continuously for fifteen minutes. He seemed to enjoy having a spectator, and never took his eye off him. The observer approached within twenty feet of him. "As I came near," he says, "the shrike began to scold at me, a sharp, buzzing, squeaking sound not easy to describe. After a little he came out on the end of the limb nearest me, then he posed himself, and, opening his wings a little, began to trill and warble under his breath, as it were, with an occasional squeak, and vibrating his half-open wings in time with his song." Some of his notes resembled those of the bluebird, and the whole performance is described as pleasing and melodious.

This account agrees with Thoreau's observation, where he speaks of the shrike "with heedless and unfrozen melody bringing back summer again." Sings Thoreau:--

"His steady sails he never furls
At any time o' year,
And perching now on winter's curls,
He whistles in his ear."

But his voice is that of a savage,--strident and disagreeable.

I have often wondered how this bird was kept in check; in the struggle for existence it would appear to have greatly the advantage of other birds. It cannot, for instance, be beset with one tenth of the dangers that threaten the robin, and yet apparently there are a thousand robins to every shrike. It builds a warm, compact nest in the mountains and dense woods, and lays six eggs, which would indicate a rapid increase. The pigeon lays but two eggs, and is preyed upon by both man and beast, millions of them meeting a murderous death every year; yet always some part of the country is swarming with untold numbers of them. [Footnote: This is no longer the case. The passenger pigeon now seems on the verge of extinction (1895).] But the shrike is one of our rarest birds. I myself seldom see more than two each year, and before I became an observer of birds I never saw any.

In size the shrike is a little inferior to the blue jay, with much the same form. If you see an unknown bird about your orchard or fields in November or December of a bluish grayish complexion, with dusky wings and tail that show markings of white, flying rather heavily from point to point, or alighting down in the stubble occasionally, it is pretty sure to be the shrike.


Nature never tires of repeating and multiplying the same species. She makes a million bees, a million birds, a million mice or rats, or other animals, so nearly alike that no eye can tell one from another; but it is rarely that she issues a small and a large edition, as it were, of the same species. Yet she has done it in a few cases among the birds with hardly more difference than a foot-note added or omitted. The cedar-bird, for instance, is the Bohemian waxwing or chatterer in smaller type, copied even to the minute, wax-like appendages that bedeck the ends of the wing-quills. It is about one third smaller, and a little lighter in color, owing perhaps to the fact that it is confined to a warmer latitude, its northward range seeming to end about where that of its larger brother begins. Its flight, its note, its manners, its general character and habits, are almost identical with those of its prototype. It is confined exclusively to this continent, while the chatterer is an Old World bird as well, and ranges the northern parts of both continents. The latter comes to us from the hyperborean regions, brought down occasionally by the great cold waves that originate in those high latitudes. It is a bird of Siberian and Alaskan evergreens, and passes its life for the most part far beyond the haunts of man. I have never seen the bird, but small bands of them make excursions every winter down into our territory from British America. Audubon, I believe, saw them in Maine; other observers have seen them in Minnesota. It has the crest of the cedar-bird, the same yellow border to its tail, but is marked with white on its wings, as if a snowflake or two had adhered to it from the northern cedars and pines. If you see about the evergreens in the coldest, snowiest weather what appear to be a number of very large cherry-birds, observe them well, for the chances are that visitants from the circumpolar regions are before your door. It is a sign, also, that the frost legions of the north are out in great force and carrying all before them.

Our cedar or cherry bird is the most silent bird we have. Our neutral-tinted birds, like him, as a rule are our finest songsters; but he has no song or call, uttering only a fine bead-like note on taking flight. This note is the cedar-berry rendered back in sound. When the ox-heart cherries, which he has only recently become acquainted with, have had time to enlarge his pipe and warm his heart, I shall expect more music from him. But in lieu of music, what a pretty compensation are those minute, almost artificial-like, plumes of orange and vermilion that tip the ends of his wing quills! Nature could not give him these and a song too. She has given the hummingbird a jewel upon his throat, but no song, save the hum of his wings.

Another bird that is occasionally borne to us on the crest of the cold waves from the frozen zone, and that is repeated on a smaller scale in a permanent resident, is the pine grosbeak; his _alter ego,_ reduced in size, is the purple finch, which abounds in the higher latitudes of the temperate zone. The color and form of the two birds are again essentially the same. The females and young males of both species are of a grayish brown like the sparrow, while in the old males this tint is imperfectly hidden beneath a coat of carmine, as if the color had been poured upon their heads, where it is strongest, and so oozed down and through the rest of the plumage. Their tails are considerably forked, their beaks cone-shaped and heavy, and their flight undulating. Those who have heard the grosbeak describe its song as similar to that of the finch, though no doubt it is louder and stronger. The finch's instrument is a fife tuned to love and not to war. He blows a clear, round note, rapid and intricate, but full of sweetness and melody. His hardier relative with that larger beak and deeper chest must fill the woods with sounds. Audubon describes its song as exceedingly rich and full.

As in the case of the Bohemian waxwing, this bird is also common to both worlds, being found through Northern Europe and Asia and the northern parts of this continent. It is the pet of the pine-tree, and one of its brightest denizens. Its visits to the States are irregular and somewhat mysterious. A great flight of them occurred in the winter of 1874-75. They attracted attention all over the country. Several other flights of them have occurred during the century. When this bird comes, it is so unacquainted with man that its tameness is delightful to behold. It thrives remarkably well in captivity, and in a couple of weeks will become so tame that it will hop down and feed out of its master's or mistress's hand. It comes from far beyond the region of the apple, yet it takes at once to this fruit, or rather to the seeds, which it is quick to divine, at its core.

Close akin to these two birds, and standing in the same relation to each other, are two other birds that come to us from the opposite zone,--the torrid,--namely, the blue grosbeak and his petit duplicate, the indigo-bird. The latter is a common summer resident with us,--a bird of the groves and bushy fields, where his bright song may be heard all through the long summer day. I hear it in the dry and parched August when most birds are silent, sometimes delivered on the wing and sometimes from the perch. Indeed, with me its song is as much a midsummer sound as is the brassy crescendo of the cicada. The memory of its note calls to mind the flame-like quiver of the heated atmosphere and the bright glare of the meridian sun. Its color is much more intense than that of the common bluebird, as summer skies are deeper than those of April, but its note is less mellow and tender. Its original, the blue grosbeak, is an uncertain wanderer from the south, as the pine grosbeak is from the north. I have never seen it north of the District of Columbia. It has a loud, vivacious song, of which it is not stingy, and which is a large and free rendering of the indigo's, and belongs to summer more than to spring. The bird is colored the same as its lesser brother, the males being a deep blue and the females a modest drab. Its nest is usually placed low down, as is the indigo's, and the male carols from the tops of the trees in its vicinity in the same manner. Indeed, the two birds are strikingly alike in every respect except in size and in habitat, and, as in each of the other cases, the lesser bird is, as it were, the point, the continuation, of the larger, carrying its form and voice forward as the reverberation carries the sound.

I know the ornithologists, with their hair-splittings, or rather feather-splittings, point out many differences, but they are unimportant. The fractions may not agree, but the whole numbers are the same.

[The end]
John Burroughs's essay: Birds And Birds