Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
O Wondrous Singers
By Harriet Mann (Olive Thorne) Miller (18311918)
[Born in Auburn, N. Y., 1831. Died in Los Angeles, Cal., 1918. In Nesting Time. By Olive Thorne Miller. 1888.]
I FEEL considerable reluctance in approaching the subject of my small thrushes. None but a poet should speak of themso beautiful, so enchanting in song. Yet I cannot bear to let their lovely lives pass in silence; therefore, if they must needs remain unsung, they shall at least be chronicled.
There were two: one the gray-cheeked thrush, the other the veery or Wilsons, and they passed a year in my house, filling it with a marvellous rippling music like the sweet babble of a brook over stones; like the gentle sighing of the wind in pine trees; like other of natures enchanting sounds, which I really must borrow a poets words to characterize:
The gray-cheeked, most charming in every look and motion, uttered his notes in a free sweep or crescendo, which began low, gathered force as he went on, and then gradually died out; all in one long slur, without a defined or staccato note, making a wonderful resemblance to wind-sounds; as Emerson expresses it:
The song of the veery was quite different, low, rapid, interspersed with a louder, wild-sounding cry, or, as aptly described by a listener, like the gurgling sounds made by blowing through a tube into soft water, with occasional little explosions. The soft, whispered warble of a brown thrush added a certain undertone which combined and harmonized both these, forming with them a rhapsody of a rippling, bubbling character impossible to describe, but constantly reminding one of running streams and gentle waterfalls, and coming nearer to put my woods in song than any other bird-notes whatever. Neither of the performers opened his mouth, so that the trio was very lowa true whisper-song.
It was somewhat curious that with one exception all the birds in the room through these months sang whisper-songs also, without opening the bill. There were six of them, and every one delighted in singing; the three thrushes, a bluebird, a female orchard oriole, and a Mexican clarin. To the thrushes, music seemed necessary to life; hour after hour they stood on their respective perches across the room, puffed out into balls, pouring out their souls, and entrancing us not only with their suggestive melody, but with graceful and poetical movements, and a beauty of look and bearing that moved one deeply. During the aria both birds stood motionless, one with wings drooping, and accenting every note, the other with tail slightly jerking for the same purpose.
In character no less than in song the birds differed; bright, active, and high-spirited, the gray cheeked delighted in the freedom of the room, feared nothing, came upon the desk freely, and calmly met ones eyes with his own, brave, free soul that he was, while his vis-à-vis was timid and shy, could not be induced to leave the shelter of his home though the door stood open all day. He never resented the intrusion of a neighbor, nor disputed the possession of his own dish.
Almost as interesting as his song was a bewitching dance with which the gray-cheeked charmed every one fortunate enough to see him. His chosen hour was the approach of evening, when, with body very erect and head thrown up in ecstasy, he lifted his wings high above his back, fluttering them rapidly with a sound like soft patter of summer rain, while he moved back and forth on his perch with the daintiest of little steps and hops: now up, now down, now across the cage, with gentle noise of feet and wings. No music accompanied it, and none was neededit was music itself. Not only did he dance away the long hours of twilight, till so dark he could not be seen, but he greeted the dawn in the same way; long before any other bird stirred, before the hideous morning call of the first sparrow in the street, the soft flutter of his wings, the light patter of his feet was heard. In the night also, if gas was lighted, however dimly, dancing began and was continued in the darkness, long after the light was out and every other feather at rest. A sudden light stopped the motion, but revealed the dancer agitated, stirred, with soft dark eyes fixed upon the observer. This dance was not an attempt or indication of a desire to escape, as I am sure for several reasons. I can tell the instant that longing for freedom sets in. It was a fresh sign of the strange, mysterious emotion with which all thrushes greet the rising and setting of the sun.
The singular use of the feet by this bird was very peculiar, and not confined to his dancing hours. While standing on the edge of the bathing-dish, longing, yet dreading to enter the water, on alighting upon an unaccustomed perch, or venturing on to the desk, many times a day he took the little steps, lifting first one, then the other foot very slightly, and bringing it down with a sound without changing his position. It seemed to be an evidence of excitement, as another bird might exhibit by a quivering of the wings. The veery was also a dancer, but in a different way. He fanned his wings violently and moved back and forth across the top of a cage, but always in daylight, and then only on the rare occasions when, by placing his food outside, he was coaxed from his cage.
Bathing was, next to singing, the dear delight of the gray-cheekeds life, yet no bird ever had more misgivings about taking the fatal plunge. His first movement on leaving the cage was to go to the bath, around which he hovered, now this side, now that, one moment on the perch above, the next on the edge of the dish, plainly longing to be in, yet the mere approach of the smallest bird in the room drove him away. Not that he was afraid; he was not in the least a coward; he met everybody and everything with the dignity and bravery of a true thrush. Neither was it that he was disabled when wet, which makes some birds hesitate; he was never at all disordered by his bath, and however long he soaked, or thoroughly he spattered, his plumage remained in place and he was perfectly able to fly at once. It appeared simply that he could not make up his mind to go in. Then, too, it soon became apparent that he noticed his reflection in the water. He often stood on the edge after bathing, as well as before, looking intently upon the image. Before the glass he did the same, looking earnestly, and in a low tone uttering his thoughts to the ideal bird which he fancied he saw before him. Indeed, I think this ideal thrush was a great comfort to him.
Once having decided to go into the bath, he enjoyed it exceedingly, though in an unusual way, fluttering and splashing vigorously for a moment, then standing motionless up to his body in the water, not shaking or pluming himself, not alarmed, but quietly enjoying the soaking. After several fits of splashing alternated with soaking, he went to a perch and shook and plumed himself nearly dry, and just when one would think he had entirely finished, he returned to the dish, and began againhesitating on the brink, coquetting with the ideal thrush in the water, and in fact doing the whole thing over again.
My bird had a genuine thrushs love of quiet and dislike of a crowd, preferred unfrequented places to alight on, and was quite ingenious in finding them. The ornamental top of a gas-fixture a few inches below the ceiling, which was cup-shaped and nearly hid him, was a favorite place. So was also the loose edge of a hanging card-board map which, having been long rolled, hung out from the wall like a half-open scroll. This he liked best, for no other bird ever approached it, and here he passed much time swinging, as if he enjoyed the motion which he plainly made efforts to keep up. His plan was to fly across the room and alight suddenly upon it, when, of course, it swayed up and down with his weight. The moment it came to a rest, he flew around the room in a wide circle and came down again heavily, holding on with all his might, and keeping his balance with wings and tail. He enjoyed it so well that he often swung for a long time.
Later he found another snug retreat where no bird ever intruded. He discovered it in this way: one day, on being suddenly startled by an erratic dash around the room of the brown thrush, which scattered the smaller birds like leaves before the wind, he brought up under the bed on the floor. The larger bird had evidently marked the place of his retreat, for he followed him, and in his mad way rushed under when the gray-cheeked disappeared. The bedstead was a light iron one, high from the floor, so that all this was plainly seen. No one being in sight, the brown thrush came out and turned to his regular business of stirring up the household, while the little thrush was not to be seen, and perfect silence seemed to indicate that he was not there at all. After some search, aided by an indiscreet movement on his part, he was found perched on the framework, between the mattress and the wall. This narrow retreat, apparently discovered by accident, soon became a favorite retiring place when he did not care for society.
This interesting bird, with all his dignity, had a playful disposition. Nothing pleased him better than rattling and tearing to bits a newspaper or the paper strips over a row of books, although he had to stand on the latter while he worked at it; and notwithstanding it not only rustled, but disturbed his footing as well, he was never discouraged. A more violent jerk than usual sometimes startled him so that he bounded six or eight inches into the air in his surprise, but he instantly returned to the play, and never rested till he had picked holes, torn pieces out, and reduced it to a complete wreck.
All through the long winter this charming thrush, with his two neighbors, delighted the house with his peculiar and matchless music, and endeared himself by his gentle and lovely disposition. No harsh sound was ever heard from him; there was no intrusion upon the rights of others, and no vulgar quarrels disturbed his serene soul. But as spring began to stir his blood he changed a little; he grew somewhat belligerent, refused to let any one alight in his chosen places, and even drove others away from his side of the room. Now, too, he added to his already melting song an indescribable trill, something so spiritual, so charged with the wildness of the woods, that no wordseven of a poetcan do it justice. Now, too, he began to turn longing glances out of the window, and evidently his heart was no longer with us. So, on the first perfect day in May he was taken to a secluded nook in a park and his door set open. His first flight was to a low tree, twenty feet from the silent spectator, who waited, anxious to see if his years captivity had unfitted him for freedom.
Perching on the lowest branch, the thrush instantly crouched in an attitude of surprise and readiness for anything, which was common with him, his bill pointed up at an angle of forty-five degrees, head sunk in the shoulders, and tail standing out stiffly, thus forming a perfectly straight line from the point of his beak to the tip of his tail. There he stood, perfectly motionless, apparently not moving so much as an eyelid for twenty minutes, trying to realize what had happened to him, and in the patient, deliberate manner of a thrush to adjust himself to his new conditions. In the nook were silence and delicious odors of the woods; from a thick shrub on one side came the sweet erratic song of a cat-bird, and at a little distance the rich organ-tones of the wood-thrush. All these entered the soul of the emancipated bird; he listened, he looked, and at last he spoke, a low, soft wee-o. That broke the spell, he drew himself up, hopped about the tree, flew to a shrub, all the time posturing and jerking wings and tail in extreme excitement and no doubt happiness to the tips of his toes. At last he dropped to the ground and fell to digging and revelling in the soft, loose earth with enthusiasm. The loving friend looking on was relieved; this was what she had waited for, to be assured that he knew where to look for supplies, and though she left his familiar dish full of food where he could see it in case of accident, she came away feeling that he had not been incapacitated for a free life by his months with her.
One more glimpse of him made it clear also that he could fly as well as his wild neighbors, and removed the last anxiety about him. A wood-thrush, after noticing the stranger for some minutes, finally braved the human presence and made a rush for the little fellow about half his size. Whether war or welcome moved him was not evident, for away they flew across the nook, not more than a foot apart, now sweeping low over the grass, then mounting higher to pass over the shrubs that defined it. A hundred feet or more the chase continued, and then the smaller bird dropped into a low bush, and the larger one passed on.
Then lonely, with empty cage and a happy heart-ache, his friend turned away and left the beautiful bird to his fate, assured that he was well able to supply his needs and to protect himselfin a word, to be free.