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An essay by Elizabeth Brightwen


Title:     Birdie
Author: Elizabeth Brightwen [More Titles by Brightwen]

Amongst all the different birds which are kept in cages, either for their beauty or song, there is one which to my mind far excels all others, not only in its vocal powers, which are remarkable, but for its very unusual intelligence. I refer to the Virginian nightingale. It is a handsome, crimson plumaged bird, rather smaller than a starling, not unfrequently seen in bird-sellers' collections, but seen there to the worst possible advantage, for, being extremely shy and sensitive, and taking keen notice of everything around, the slightest voice or movement in the shop will make it flutter against the bars of its cage in an agony of fright, and it therefore looks a most unlikely bird to become an interesting pet; but I will try to show what may be done by gentle kindness to overcome this natural timidity. This will be seen in the history of Birdie, my first Virginian nightingale, my daily companion for fourteen years.

He had belonged to a relative, and there was no way of tracing the age of the bird when first obtained; I can therefore only speak of those years in which he was in my possession. Birdie had been accustomed to live in a cage on a high shelf in the kitchen, well cared for, no doubt, but, untamed and unnoticed, he led a lonely life, and was one of the wildest birds I ever met with. For many months his flutterings, when any one came near his cage, could not be calmed, but by always speaking to him when entering the room, and if possible giving him a few hemp-seeds or any little dainty, he grew to endure one's presence; then, later on, he would begin to greet one with a little clicking note, though still retreating to the furthest corner of the cage, and a year or two passed by before he would take anything out of my hand, but this was attained by offering him his one irresistible temptation, _i.e._, a lively spider; this he would seize and hold in his beak while he hopped about the cage, clicking loudly with delight. After a time I began to let him out for an hour or two, first releasing him when he was moulting and could not fly very easily. He learned to go back to his cage of his own accord, and was rewarded by always finding some favourite morsel there. Thus, by slow degrees, he lost all fear, and attached himself to me with a strength of affection that expressed itself in many endearing little ways. When called by name he would always answer with a special chirp and look up expectantly, either to receive something or to be let out. His song was very similar to the English nightingale, extremely liquid and melodious, with the same "jug-jug," but more powerful and sustained. On my return to the room after a short absence he would greet me with delight, fluttering his outspread wings and singing his sweetest song, looking intently at me, swaying his head from side to side, and whilst this ecstasy of song lasted he would even refuse to notice his most favourite food, as if he must express his joy before appetite could be gratified. After a few years he seemed to adopt me as a kind of mate! for as spring came round he endeavoured to construct a nest by stealing little twigs out of the grate and flying with them to a chosen retreat behind an ornamental scroll at the top of the looking-glass. He spent a great deal of time fussing about this nest, which never came to anything, but he very obligingly attended to my supposed wants by picking up an occasional fly, or piece of sugar, and, hovering before me on the wing, would endeavour to put it into my mouth; or, if he was in his cage, would mince up a spider or caterpillar with water, and then, with his beak full of the delicious compound, would call and chirp unceasingly until I came near and "made believe" to taste it, and not till then would he be content to enjoy it himself.

During an absence from home, Birdie once escaped out of doors, and was seen on the roof of the house singing in high glee; the servants called him, the cage was put out, but all to no purpose, he evidently meant to have "a real good time," and kept flying from one tree to another until he was a quarter of a mile from home. A faithful servant kept him in sight for three hours, by which time hunger made him return to our garden, where he feasted on some raspberries, took a leisurely bath in a tub of water, and at length flew in at a bedroom window, where he was safely caged. I never knew a bird with so much intelligence, one might almost say reasoning power. He was once very thirsty after being out of his cage for many hours, and at luncheon he went to an empty silver spoon and time after time pretended to drink, looking fixedly at me as if he felt sure I should know what he meant, and waited quietly until I put water into the spoon. Another curious trait was his sense of humour. Whilst I was writing one day he went up to a rose, which was at the far end of the table, and began pecking at the leaves. I told him not to do it, when, to my surprise, he immediately ran the whole length of the table and made a scolding noise up in my face, and then, just like a naughty child, went back and did it again. He would sometimes try to tease me away from my writing by taking hold of my pen and tugging at a corner of the paper, and whenever the terrible operation of cutting his claws had to be gone through, he quietly curled up his toes and held the scissors with his beak, so that it needed two people to circumvent his clever resistance. He had wonderfully acute vision, and would let me know directly a hawk was in sight, though it might be but the merest speck in the sky. He once had a narrow escape, for a sparrow-hawk made a swoop at him in his cage just outside the drawing-room window, and had no one been at hand would probably have dragged him through the bars. Whenever he saw a jay or magpie, a jackdaw or cat, his clicking note always told me of some enemy in sight. For many years Birdie was my cherished pet, never was there a closer friendship. As I passed his cage each night I put my hand in to stroke his feathers, and was always greeted with a low, murmuring note of affection never heard in the daytime.

It was with deep concern that I watched Birdie's declining strength; there was no disease, only weakness, and at last appetite failed, but even then he would take whatever I offered him and hold it in his beak as if to show that even to the last he would try to please me as far as he could, but he wanted nothing but the quiet rest which came at length, and dear little Birdie is now only a cherished memory of true friendship.

[The end]
Elizabeth Brightwen's essay: Birdie