Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Sharp Eyes
By John Burroughs (1837–1921)
From ‘Locusts and Wild Honey’

NOTING how one eye seconds and reinforces the other, I have often amused myself by wondering what the effect would be if one could go on opening eye after eye, to the number, say, of a dozen or more. What would he see? Perhaps not the invisible—not the odors of flowers or the fever germs in the air—not the infinitely small of the microscope or the infinitely distant of the telescope. This would require not so much more eyes as an eye constructed with more and different lenses; but would he not see with augmented power within the natural limits of vision? At any rate, some persons seem to have opened more eyes than others, they see with such force and distinctness; their vision penetrates the tangle and obscurity where that of others fails, like a spent or impotent bullet. How many eyes did Gilbert White open? how many did Henry Thoreau? how many did Audubon? how many does the hunter, matching his sight against the keen and alert senses of a deer, or a moose, or a fox, or a wolf? Not outward eyes, but inward. We open another eye whenever we see beyond the first general features or outlines of things—whenever we grasp the special details and characteristic markings that this mask covers. Science confers new powers of vision. Whenever you have learned to discriminate the birds, or the plants, or the geological features of a country, it is as if new and keener eyes were added.  1
  Of course one must not only see sharply, but read aright what he sees. The facts in the life of nature that are transpiring about us are like written words that the observer is to arrange into sentences. Or, the writing is a cipher and he must furnish the key. A female oriole was one day observed very much preoccupied under a shed where the refuse from the horse stable was thrown. She hopped about among the barn fowls, scolding them sharply when they came too near her. The stable, dark and cavernous, was just beyond. The bird, not finding what she wanted outside, boldly ventured into the stable, and was presently captured by the farmer. What did she want? was the query. What but a horse-hair for her nest, which was in an apple-tree near by? and she was so bent on having one that I have no doubt she would have tweaked one out of the horse’s tail had he been in the stable. Later in the season I examined her nest, and found it sewed through and through with several long horse-hairs, so that the bird persisted in her search till the hair was found.  2
  Little dramas and tragedies and comedies, little characteristic scenes, are always being enacted in the lives of the birds, if our eyes are sharp enough to see them. Some clever observer saw this little comedy played among some English sparrows, and wrote an account of it in his newspaper. It is too good not to be true: A male bird brought to his box a large, fine goose-feather, which is a great find for a sparrow and much coveted. After he had deposited his prize and chattered his gratulations over it, he went away in quest of his mate. His next-door neighbor, a female bird, seeing her chance, quickly slipped in and seized the feather,—and here the wit of the bird came out, for instead of carrying it into her own box she flew with it to a near tree and hid it in a fork of the branches, then went home, and when her neighbor returned with his mate, was innocently employed about her own affairs. The proud male, finding his feather gone, came out of his box in a high state of excitement, and with wrath in his manner and accusation on his tongue, rushed into the cot of the female. Not finding his goods and chattels there as he had expected, he stormed around awhile, abusing everybody in general and his neighbor in particular, and then went away as if to repair the loss. As soon as he was out of sight, the shrewd thief went and brought the feather home and lined her own domicile with it….  3
  The bluebird is a home bird, and I am never tired of recurring to him. His coming or reappearance in the spring marks a new chapter in the progress of the season; things are never quite the same after one has heard that note. The past spring the males came about a week in advance of the females. A fine male lingered about my grounds and orchard all that time, apparently awaiting the arrival of his mate. He called and warbled every day, as if he felt sure she was within earshot and could be hurried up. Now he warbled half angrily or upbraidingly; then coaxingly; then cheerily and confidently, the next moment in a plaintive and far-away manner. He would half open his wings, and twinkle them caressingly as if beckoning his mate to his heart. One morning she had come, but was shy and reserved. The fond male flew to a knot-hole in an old apple-tree and coaxed her to his side. I heard a fine confidential warble—the old, old story. But the female flew to a near tree and uttered her plaintive, homesick note. The male went and got some dry grass or bark in his beak and flew again to the hole in the old tree, and promised unremitting devotion; but the other said “Nay,” and flew away in the distance. When he saw her going, or rather heard her distant note, he dropped his stuff and cried out in a tone that said plainly enough, “Wait a minute: one word, please!” and flew swiftly in pursuit. He won her before long, however, and early in April the pair were established in one of the four or five boxes I had put up for them, but not until they had changed their minds several times. As soon as the first brood had flown, and while they were yet under their parents’ care, they began to nest in one of the other boxes, the female as usual doing all the work and the male all the complimenting. A source of occasional great distress to the mother-bird was a white cat that sometimes followed me about. The cat had never been known to catch a bird, but she had a way of watching them that was very embarrassing to the bird. Whenever she appeared, the mother bluebird set up that pitiful melodious plaint. One morning the cat was standing by me, when the bird came with her beak loaded with building material, and alighted above me to survey the place before going into the box. When she saw the cat she was greatly disturbed, and in her agitation could not keep her hold upon all her material. Straw after straw came eddying down, till not half her original burden remained. After the cat had gone away the bird’s alarm subsided; till presently, seeing the coast clear, she flew quickly to the box and pitched in her remaining straws with the greatest precipitation, and without going in to arrange them as was her wont, flew away in evident relief.  4
  In the cavity of an apple-tree but a few yards off, and much nearer the house than they usually build, a pair of high-holes, or golden-shafted woodpeckers, took up their abode. A knot-hole which led to the decayed interior was enlarged, the live wood being cut away as clean as a squirrel would have done it. The inside preparations I could not witness, but day after day as I passed near I heard the bird hammering away, evidently beating down obstructions and shaping and enlarging the cavity. The chips were not brought out, but were used rather to floor the interior. The woodpeckers are not nest-builders, but rather nest-carvers.  5
  The time seemed very short before the voices of the young were heard in the heart of the old tree,—at first feebly, but waxing stronger day by day, until they could be heard many rods distant. When I put my hand upon the trunk of the tree they would set up an eager, expectant chattering; but if I climbed up it toward the opening, they soon detected the unusual sound and would hush quickly, only now and then uttering a warning note. Long before they were fully fledged they clambered up to the orifice to receive their food. As but one could stand in the opening at a time, there was a good deal of elbowing and struggling for this position. It was a very desirable one, aside from the advantages it had when food was served; it looked out upon the great shining world, into which the young birds seemed never tired of gazing. The fresh air must have been a consideration also, for the interior of a high-hole’s dwelling is not sweet. When the parent birds came with food, the young one in the opening did not get it all; but after he had received a portion, either on his own motion or on a hint from the old one, he would give place to the one behind him. Still, one bird evidently outstripped his fellows, and in the race of life was two or three days in advance of them. His voice was the loudest and his head oftenest at the window. But I noticed that when he had kept the position too long, the others evidently made it uncomfortable in his rear, and after “fidgeting” about awhile he would be compelled to “back down.” But retaliation was then easy, and I fear his mates spent few easy moments at the outlook. They would close their eyes and slide back into the cavity as if the world had suddenly lost all its charms for them.  6
  This bird was of course the first to leave the nest. For two days before that event he kept his position in the opening most of the time, and sent forth his strong voice incessantly. The old ones abstained from feeding him almost entirely, no doubt to encourage his exit. As I stood looking at him one afternoon and noticing his progress, he suddenly reached a resolution,—seconded, I have no doubt, from the rear,—and launched forth upon his untried wings. They served him well, and carried him about fifty yards up-hill the first heat. The second day after, the next in size and spirit left in the same manner; then another, till only one remained. The parent birds ceased their visits to him, and for one day he called and called till our ears were tired of the sound. His was the faintest heart of all: then he had none to encourage him from behind. He left the nest and clung to the outer hole of the tree, and yelped and piped for an hour longer; then he committed himself to his wings and went his way like the rest.  7
  A young farmer in the western part of New York sends me … some interesting observations about the cuckoo. He says a large gooseberry-bush, standing in the border of an old hedge-row in the midst of the open fields, and not far from his house, was occupied by a pair of cuckoos for two seasons in succession; and after an interval of a year, for two seasons more. This gave him a good chance to observe them. He says the mother-bird lays a single egg and sits upon it a number of days before laying the second, so that he has seen one young bird nearly grown, a second just hatched, and a whole egg all in the nest at once. “So far as I have seen, this is the settled practice,—the young leaving the nest one at a time, to the number of six or eight. The young have quite the look of the young of the dove in many respects. When nearly grown they are covered with long blue pin-feathers as long as darning needles, without a bit of plumage on them. They part on the back and hang down on each side by their own weight. With its curious feathers and misshapen body the young bird is anything but handsome. They never open their mouths when approached, as many young birds do, but sit perfectly still, hardly moving when touched.” He also notes the unnatural indifference of the mother-bird when her nest and young are approached. She makes no sound, but sits quietly on a near branch in apparent perfect unconcern.  8
  These observations, together with the fact that the egg of the cuckoo is occasionally found in the nest of other birds, raise the inquiry whether our bird is slowly relapsing into the habit of the European species, which always foists its egg upon other birds; or whether on the other hand it be not mending its manners in this respect. It has but little to unlearn or forget in the one case, but great progress to make in the other. How far is its rudimentary nest—a mere platform of coarse twigs and dry stalks of weeds—from the deep, compact, finely woven and finely modeled nest of the goldfinch or king-bird, and what a gulf between its indifference toward its young and their solicitude! Its irregular manner of laying also seems better suited to a parasite like our cow-bird, or the European cuckoo, than to a regular nest-builder.  9
  This observer, like most sharp-eyed persons, sees plenty of interesting things as he goes about his work. He one day saw a white swallow, which is of rare occurrence. He saw a bird, a sparrow, he thinks, fly against the side of a horse and fill his beak with hair from the loosened coat of the animal. He saw a shrike pursue a chickadee, when the latter escaped by taking refuge in a small hole in a tree. One day in early spring he saw two hen-hawks that were circling and screaming high in air, approach each other, extend a claw, and grasping them together, fall toward the earth flapping and struggling as if they were tied together; on nearing the ground they separated and soared aloft again. He supposed that it was not a passage of war but of love, and that the hawks were toying fondly with each other.  10
  When the air is damp and heavy, swallows frequently hawk for insects about cattle and moving herds in the field. My farmer describes how they attended him one foggy day, as he was mowing in the meadow with a mowing-machine. It had been foggy for two days, and the swallows were very hungry and the insects stupid and inert. When the sound of his machine was heard, the swallows appeared and attended him like a brood of hungry chickens. He says there was a continual rush of purple wings over the “cutter-bar,” and just where it was causing the grass to tremble and fall. Without his assistance the swallows would have gone hungry yet another day.  11
  Of the hen-hawk he has observed that both the male and female take part in incubation. “I was rather surprised,” he says, “on one occasion, to see how quickly they change places on the nest. The nest was in a tall beech, and the leaves were not yet fully out. I could see the head and neck of the hawk over the edge of the nest, when I saw the other hawk coming down through the air at full speed. I expected he would alight near by, but instead of that he struck directly upon the nest, his mate getting out of the way barely in time to avoid being hit; it seemed almost as if he had knocked her off the nest. I hardly see how they can make such a rush on the nest without danger to the eggs.”  12
  The kingbird will worry the hawk as a whiffet dog will worry a bear. It is by his persistence and audacity, not by any injury he is capable of dealing his great antagonist. The kingbird seldom more than dogs the hawk, keeping above and between his wings and making a great ado; but my correspondent says he once “saw a kingbird riding on a hawk’s back. The hawk flew as fast as possible, and the kingbird sat upon his shoulders in triumph until they had passed out of sight,”—tweaking his feathers, no doubt, and threatening to scalp him the next moment.  13
  That near relative of the king-bird, the great crested fly-catcher, has one well-known peculiarity: he appears never to consider his nest finished until it contains a cast-off snake-skin. My alert correspondent one day saw him eagerly catch up an onion skin and make off with it, either deceived by it or else thinking it a good substitute for the coveted material.  14
  One day in May, walking in the woods, I came upon a nest of whippoorwill, or rather its eggs,—for it builds no nest,—two elliptical whitish spotted eggs lying upon the dry leaves. My foot was within a yard of the mother-bird before she flew. I wondered what a sharp eye would detect curious or characteristic in the ways of the bird, so I came to the place many times and had a look. It was always a task to separate the bird from her surroundings, though I stood within a few feet of her, and knew exactly where to look. One had to bear on with his eye, as it were, and refuse to be baffled. The sticks and leaves, and bits of black or dark-brown bark, were all exactly copied in the bird’s plumage. And then she did sit so close and simulate so well a shapeless decaying piece of wood or bark! Twice I brought a companion, and guiding his eye to the spot, noted how difficult it was for him to make out there, in full view upon the dry leaves, any semblance to a bird. When the bird returned after being disturbed, she would alight within a few inches of her eggs and then, after a moment’s pause, hobble awkwardly upon them.  15
  After the young had appeared, all the wit of the bird came into play. I was on hand the next day, I think. The mother-bird sprang up when I was within a pace of her, and in doing so fanned the leaves with her wings till they sprang up too; as the leaves started the young started, and, being of the same color, to tell which was the leaf and which the bird was a trying task to any eye. I came the next day, when the same tactics were repeated. Once a leaf fell upon one of the young birds and nearly hid it. The young are covered with a reddish down like a young partridge, and soon follow their mother about. When disturbed they gave but one leap, then settled down, perfectly motionless and stupid, with eyes closed. The parent bird, on these occasions, made frantic efforts to decoy me away from her young. She would fly a few paces and fall upon her breast, and a spasm like that of death would run through her tremulous outstretched wings and prostrate body. She kept a sharp eye out the meanwhile to see if the ruse took, and if it did not she was quickly cured, and moving about to some other point tried to draw my attention as before. When followed she always alighted upon the ground, dropping down in a sudden peculiar way. The second or third day both old and young had disappeared.  16
  The whippoorwill walks as awkwardly as a swallow, which is as awkward as a man in a bag, and yet she manages to lead her young about the woods. The latter, I think, move by leaps and sudden spurts, their protective coloring shielding them most effectively. Wilson once came upon the mother-bird and her brood in the woods, and though they were at his very feet, was so baffled by the concealment of the young that he was about to give up the search, much disappointed, when he perceived something “like a slight moldiness among the withered leaves, and, on stooping down, discovered it to be a young whippoorwill, seemingly asleep.” Wilson’s description of the young is very accurate, as its downy covering does look precisely like a “slight moldiness.” Returning a few moments afterward to the spot to get a pencil he had forgotten, he could find neither old nor young.  17
  It takes an eye to see a partridge in the woods, motionless upon the leaves; this sense needs to be as sharp as that of smell in hounds and pointers, and yet I know an unkempt youth that seldom fails to see the bird and shoot it before it takes wing. I think he sees it as soon as it sees him, and before it suspects itself seen. What a training to the eye is hunting! To pick out the game from its surroundings, the grouse from the leaves, the gray squirrel from the mossy oak limb it hugs so closely, the red fox from the ruddy or brown or gray field, the rabbit from the stubble, or the white hare from the snow, requires the best powers of this sense. A woodchuck motionless in the fields or upon a rock looks very much like a large stone or bowlder, yet a keen eye knows the difference at a glance, a quarter of a mile away.  18
  A man has a sharper eye than a dog, or a fox, or than any of the wild creatures; but not so sharp an ear or nose. But in the birds he finds his match. How quickly the old turkey discovers the hawk, a mere speck against the sky, and how quickly the hawk discovers you if you happen to be secreted in the bushes, or behind the fence near which he alights! One advantage the bird surely has; and that is, owing to the form, structure, and position of the eye, it has a much larger field of vision—indeed, can probably see in nearly every direction at the same instant, behind as well as before. Man’s field of vision embraces less than half a circle horizontally, and still less vertically; his brow and brain prevent him from seeing within many degrees of the zenith without a movement of the head; the bird, on the other hand, takes in nearly the whole sphere at a glance.  19
  I find I see, almost without effort, nearly every bird within sight in the field or wood I pass through (a flit of the wing, a flirt of the tail, are enough, though the flickering leaves do all conspire to hide them), and that with like ease the birds see me, though unquestionably the chances are immensely in their favor. The eye sees what it has the means of seeing, truly. You must have the bird in your heart before you can find it in the bush. The eye must have purpose and aim. No one ever yet found the walking-fern who did not have the walking-fern in his mind. A person whose eye is full of Indian relics picks them up in every field he walks through.  20
  One season I was interested in the tree-frogs, especially the tiny pipers that one hears about the woods and brushy fields—the hylas of the swamps become a denizen of trees; I had never seen him in this new rôle. But this season having them in mind, or rather being ripe for them, I several times came across them. One Sunday, walking amid some bushes, I captured two. They leaped before me as doubtless they had done many times before, but though not looking for or thinking of them, yet they were quickly recognized, because the eye had been commissioned to find them. On another occasion, not long afterward, I was hurriedly loading my gun in the October woods in hopes of overtaking a gray squirrel that was fast escaping through the treetops, when one of these Lilliput frogs, the color of the fast-yellowing leaves, leaped near me. I saw him only out of the corner of my eye, and yet bagged him, because I had already made him my own.  21
  Nevertheless, the habit of observation is the habit of clear and decisive gazing; not by a first casual glance, but by a steady, deliberate aim of the eye are the rare and characteristic things discovered. You must look intently and hold your eye firmly to the spot, to see more than do the rank and file of mankind. The sharpshooter picks out his man and knows him with fatal certainty from a stump, or a rock, or a cap on a pole. The phrenologists do well to locate not only form, color, weight, etc., in the region of the eye, but a faculty which they call individuality—that which separates, discriminates, and sees in every object its essential character. This is just as necessary to the naturalist as to the artist or the poet. The sharp eye notes specific points and differences,—it seizes upon and preserves the individuality of the thing.  22
  We think we have looked at a thing sharply until we are asked for its specific features. I thought I knew exactly the form of the leaf of the tulip-tree, until one day a lady asked me to draw the outlines of one. A good observer is quick to take a hint and to follow it up. Most of the facts of nature, especially in the life of the birds and animals, are well screened. We do not see the play, because we do not look intently enough.  23
  Birds, I say, have wonderfully keen eyes. Throw a fresh bone or a piece of meat upon the snow in winter, and see how soon the crows will discover it and be on hand. If it be near the house or barn, the crow that first discovers it will alight near it, to make sure that he is not deceived; then he will go away and soon return with a companion. The two alight a few yards from the bone, and after some delay, during which the vicinity is sharply scrutinized, one of the crows advances boldly to within a few feet of the coveted prize. Here he pauses, and if no trick is discovered, and the meat be indeed meat, he seizes it and makes off.  24
  One midwinter I cleared away the snow under an apple-tree near the house, and scattered some corn there. I had not seen a bluejay for weeks, yet that very day they found my corn, and after that they came daily and partook of it, holding the kernels under their feet upon the limbs of the trees and pecking them vigorously.  25
  Of course the woodpecker and his kind have sharp eyes. Still I was surprised to see how quickly Downy found out some bones that were placed in a convenient place under the shed to be pounded up for the hens. In going out to the barn I often disturbed him making a meal off the bits of meat that still adhered to them.  26
  “Look intently enough at anything,” said a poet to me one day, “and you will see something that would otherwise escape you.” I thought of the remark as I sat on a stump in the opening of the woods one spring day. I saw a small hawk approaching; he flew to a tall tulip-tree and alighted on a large limb near the top. He eyed me and I eyed him. Then the bird disclosed a trait that was new to me; he hopped along the limb to a small cavity near the trunk, when he thrust in his head and pulled out some small object and fell to eating it. After he had partaken of it some minutes he put the remainder back in his larder and flew away. I had seen something like feathers eddying slowly down as the hawk ate, and on approaching the spot found the feathers of a sparrow here and there clinging to the bushes beneath the tree. The hawk then—commonly called the chicken hawk—is as provident as a mouse or squirrel, and lays by a store against a time of need; but I should not have discovered the fact had I not held my eye to him.  27
  An observer of the birds is attracted by any unusual sound or commotion among them. In May and June, when other birds are most vocal, the jay is a silent bird; he goes sneaking about the orchards and the groves as silent as a pickpocket; he is robbing birds’-nests and he is very anxious that nothing should be said about it, but in the fall none so quick and loud to cry “Thief, thief” as he. One December morning a troop of them discovered a little screech-owl secreted in the hollow trunk of an old apple-tree near my house. How they found the owl out is a mystery, since it never ventures forth in the light of day; but they did, and proclaimed the fact with great emphasis. I suspect the bluebirds first told them, for these birds are constantly peeping into holes and crannies, both spring and fall. Some unsuspecting bird probably entered the cavity, prospecting for a place for next year’s nest, or else looking out a likely place to pass a cold night, when it has rushed with very important news. A boy who should unwittingly venture into a bear’s den when Bruin was at home could not be more astonished and alarmed than a bluebird would be on finding itself in the cavity of a decayed tree with an owl. At any rate, the bluebirds joined the jays, in calling the attention of all whom it might concern to the fact that a culprit of some sort was hiding from the light of day in the old apple-tree. I heard the notes of warning and alarm and approached to within eyeshot. The bluebirds were cautious, and hovered about uttering their peculiar twittering calls; but the jays were bolder, and took turns looking in at the cavity and deriding the poor shrinking owl. A jay would alight in the entrance of the hole, and flirt and peer and attitudinize, and then fly away crying “Thief, thief, thief,” at the top of his voice.  28
  I climbed up and peered into the opening, and could just descry the owl clinging to the inside of the tree. I reached in and took him out, giving little heed to the threatening snapping of his beak. He was as red as a fox and as yellow-eyed as a cat. He made no effort to escape, but planted his claws in my forefinger and clung there with a grip that soon grew uncomfortable. I placed him in the loft of an out-house in hopes of getting better acquainted with him. By day he was a very willing prisoner, scarcely moving at all even when approached and touched with the hand, but looking out upon the world with half-closed sleepy eyes. But at night what a change; how alert, how wild, how active! He was like another bird; he darted about with wild fearful eyes, and regarded me like a cornered cat. I opened the window, and swiftly, but as silently as a shadow, he glided out into the congenial darkness, and perhaps ere this has revenged himself upon the sleeping jay or bluebird that first betrayed his hiding-place.  29

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