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Ways of Wood Folk by 


 

 
[Illustration]

[181]

T
HE Christmas carol, sung by a chorus of fresh children's voices, is perhaps the most perfect expression of the spirit of Christmastide. Especially is this true of the old English and German carols, which seem to grow only sweeter, more mellow, more perfectly expressive of the love and good-will that inspired them, as the years go by. Yet always at Christmas time there is with me the memory of one carol sweeter than all, which was sung to me alone by a little minstrel from the far north, with the wind in the pines humming a soft accompaniment.


Doubtless many readers have sometimes seen in winter flocks of stranger birds—fluffy gray visitors, almost as large as a robin— flying about the lawns with soft whistling calls, or feeding on the ground, so tame and fearless that they barely move aside as you [182] approach. The beak is short and thick; the back of

the head and a large patch just above the tail are golden brown; and across the wings are narrow double bars of white. All the rest is soft gray, dark above and light beneath. If you watch them on the ground, you will see that they have a curious way of moving about, like a golden-winged woodpecker in the same position. Sometimes they put one foot before the other, in a funny little attempt at a dignified walk, like the blackbirds; again they hop like a robin, but much more awkwardly, as if they were not accustomed to walking, and did not quite know how to use their feet— which is quite true.

The birds are pine-grosbeaks, and are somewhat irregular winter visitors from the far north. Only when the cold is most severe, and the snow lies deep about Hudson Bay, do they leave their nesting places to spend a few weeks in bleak New England as a winter resort. Their stay with us is short and uncertain. Long ere the first bluebird has whistled to us from the old fence rail that, if we please, spring is coming, the grosbeaks are whistling of spring, and singing their love songs in the forests of Labrador.

A curious thing about the flocks we see in winter is that they are composed almost entirely of females. The male bird is very rare with us. You can tell him instantly by his brighter color and his beautiful [183] crimson breast. Sometimes the flocks contain a few young males, but until the first mating season has tipped their breast feathers with deep crimson they are almost indistinguishable from their sober colored companions.

This crimson breast shield, by the way, is the family mark or coat of arms of the grosbeaks, just as the scarlet crest marks all the woodpeckers. And if you ask a Micmac, deep in the woods, how the grosbeak got his shield, he may tell you a story that will interest you as did the legend of Hiawatha and the woodpecker in your childhood days.

If the old male, with his proud crimson, be rare with us, his beautiful song is still more so. Only in the deep forests, by the lonely rivers of the far north, where no human ear ever hears, does he greet the sunrise from the top of some lofty spruce. There also he pours into the ears of his sober little gray wife the sweetest love song of the birds. It is a flood of soft warbling notes, tinkling like a brook deep under the ice, tumbling over each other in a quiet ecstasy of harmony; mellow as the song of the hermit-thrush, but much softer, as if he feared lest any should hear but her to whom he sang. Those who know the music of the rose-breasted grosbeak (not his robin-like song of spring, but the exquisitely soft warble to his brooding mate) may multiply its sweetness indefinitely, [184] and so form an idea of what the pine-grosbeak's song is like.

But sometimes he forgets himself in his winter visit, and sings as other birds do, just because his world is bright; and then, once in a lifetime, a New England bird lover hears him, and remembers; and regrets for the rest of his life that the grosbeak's northern country life has made him so shy a visitor.


One Christmas morning, a few years ago, the new-fallen snow lay white and pure over all the woods and fields. It was soft and clinging as it fell on Christmas eve. Now every old wall and fence was a carved bench of gleaming white; every post and stub had a soft white robe and a tall white hat; and every little bush and thicket was a perfect fairyland of white arches and glistening columns, and dark grottoes walled about with delicate frostwork of silver and jewels. And then the glory, dazzling beyond all words, when the sun rose and shone upon it!

Before sunrise I was out. Soon the jumping flight and cheery good-morning of a downy woodpecker led me to an old field with scattered evergreen clumps. There is no better time for a quiet peep at the birds than the morning after a snow-storm, and no better place than the evergreens. If you can find them at all (which is not certain, for they have mysterious [185] ways of disappearing before a storm), you will find them unusually quiet, and willing to bear your scrutiny indifferently, instead of flying off into deeper coverts.

I had scarcely crossed the wall when I stopped at hearing a new bird song, so amazingly sweet that it could only be a Christmas message, yet so out of place that the listener stood doubting whether his ears were playing him false, wondering whether the music or the landscape would not suddenly vanish as an unreal thing. The song was continuous— a soft melodious warble, full of sweetness and suggestion but suggestion of June meadows and a summer sunrise, rather than of snow-packed evergreens and Christmastide. To add to the unreality, no ear could tell where the song came from; its own muffled quality disguised the source perfectly. I searched the trees in front; there was no bird there. I looked behind; there was no place for a bird to sing I remembered the redstart, how he calls sometimes from among the rocks, and refuses to show himself and runs and hides when you look for him I searched the wall; but not a bird track marked the snow. All the while the wonderful carol went on now in the air, now close beside me, growing more and more bewildering as I listened. It took me a good half-hour to locate the sound; then I understood.

[186] Near me was a solitary fir tree with a bushy top. The bird, whoever he was, had gone to sleep up there, close against the trunk, as birds do, for protection. During the night the soft snow gathered thicker and thicker upon the flexible branches. Their tips bent with the weight till they touched the trunk below, forming a green bower, about which the snow packed all night long, till it was completely closed in. The bird was a prisoner inside, and singing as the morning sun shone in through the walls of his prison-house.

As I listened, delighted with the carol and the minstrel's novel situation, a mass of snow, loosened by the sun, slid from the snow bower, and a pine-grosbeak appeared in the doorway. A moment he seemed to look about curiously over the new, white, beautiful world; then he hopped to the topmost twig and, fuming his crimson breast to the sunrise, poured out his morning song; no longer muffled, but sweet and clear as a wood-thrush bell ringing the sunset.

Once, long afterward, I heard his softer love song, and found his nest in the heart of a New Brunswick forest. Till then it was not known that he ever built south of Labrador. But even that, and the joy of discovery, lacked the charm of this rare sweet carol, coming all unsought and unexpected, as good things do, while our own birds were spending the Christmas time and singing the sunrise in Florida.


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