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THE MOTHER MURRE
BY DALLAS LORE SHARP
ONE of the most striking cases of mother-love which has ever
come under my observation, I saw in the summer of 1912 on
the bird rookeries of the Three-Arch Rocks Reservation off
the coast of Oregon.
We were making our slow way toward the top of the outer
rock. Through rookery after rookery of birds, we climbed
until we reached the edge of the summit. Scrambling over
this edge, we found ourselves in the midst of a great colony
of nesting murres—hundreds of them—covering this steep
rocky part of the top.
As our heads appeared above the rim, many of the colony took
wing and whirred over us out to sea, but most of them sat
close, each bird upon its egg or over its chick, loath to
leave, and so expose to us the hidden treasure.
The top of the rock was somewhat cone-shaped,
 and in order to reach the peak and the colonies on the west
side we had to make our way through this rookery of the
murres. The first step among them, and the whole colony was
gone, with a rush of wings and feet that sent several of the
top-shaped eggs rolling, and several of the young birds
toppling over the cliff to the pounding waves and ledges far
We stopped, but the colony, almost to a bird, had bolted,
leaving scores of eggs, and scores of downy young squealing
and running together for shelter, like so many beetles under
a lifted board.
But the birds had not every one bolted, for here sat two of
the colony among the broken rocks. These two had not been
frightened off. That both of them were greatly alarmed, any
one could see from their open beaks, their rolling eyes,
their tense bodies on tiptoe for flight. Yet here they sat,
their wings out like props, or more like gripping hands, as
if they were trying to hold themselves down to the rocks
against their wild desire to fly.
And so they were, in truth, for under their extended wings I
saw little black feet moving. Those two mother murres were
not going to forsake their babies! No, not even for these
approaching monsters, such as they had never before seen,
clambering over their rocks.
What was different about these two? They had
 their young ones to protect. Yes, but so had every bird in
the great colony its young one, or its egg, to protect, yet
all the others had gone. Did these two have more mother-love
than the others? And hence, more courage, more intelligence?
We took another step toward them, and one of the two birds
sprang into the air, knocking her baby over and over with
the stroke of her wing, and coming within an inch of hurling
it across the rim to be battered on the ledges below. The
other bird raised her wings to follow, then clapped them
back over her baby. Fear is the most contagious thing in the
world; and that flap of fear by the other bird thrilled her,
too, but as she had withstood the stampede of the colony, so
she caught herself again and held on.
She was now alone on the bare top of the rock, with ten
thousand circling birds screaming to her in the air above,
and with two men creeping up to her with a big black camera
that clicked ominously. She let the multitude scream, and
with threatening beak watched the two men come on. A
motherless baby, spying her, ran down the rock squealing for
his life. She spread a wing, put her bill behind him and
shoved him quickly in out of sight with her own baby. The
man with the camera saw the act, for I heard his machine
click, and I heard him say something under his breath
 that you would hardly expect a mere man and a game-warden to
say. But most men have a good deal of the mother in them;
and the old bird had acted with such decision, such courage,
such swift, compelling instinct, that any man, short of the
wildest savage, would have felt his heart quicken at the
"Just how compelling might that mother-instinct be?" I
wondered. "Just how much would that mother-love stand?" I
had dropped to my knees, and on all fours had crept up
within about three feet of the bird. She still had chance
for flight. Would she allow me to crawl any nearer? Slowly,
very slowly, I stretched forward on my hands, like a
measuring-worm, until my body lay flat on the rocks, and my
fingers were within three inches of her. But her wings were
twitching, a wild light danced in her eyes, and her head
turned toward the sea.
For a whole minute I did not stir. I was watching—and the
wings again began to tighten about the babies, the wild
light in the eyes died down, the long, sharp beak turned
once more toward me.
Then slowly, very slowly, I raised my hand, touched her
feathers with the tip of one finger—with two fingers—with
my whole hand, while the loud camera click-clacked,
click-clacked hardly four feet away!
It was a thrilling moment. I was not killing
 anything. I had no long-range rifle in my hands, coming up
against the wind toward an unsuspecting creature hundreds of
yards away. This was no wounded leopard charging me; no
mother-bear defending with her giant might a captured cub.
It was only a mother-bird, the size of a wild duck, with
swift wings at her command, hiding under those wings her own
and another's young, and her own boundless fear!
For the second time in my life I had taken captive with my
bare hands a free wild bird. No, I had not taken her
captive. She had made herself a captive; she had taken
herself in the strong net of her mother-love.
And now her terror seemed quite gone. At the first touch of
my hand I think she felt the love restraining it, and
without fear or fret she let me reach under her and pull out
the babies. But she reached after them with her bill to tuck
them back out of sight, and when I did not let them go, she
sidled toward me, quacking softly, a language that I
perfectly understood, and was quick to respond to. I gave
them back, fuzzy and black and white. She got them under
her, stood up over them, pushed her wings down hard around
them, her stout tail down hard behind them, and together
with them pushed in an abandoned egg that was close at hand.
Her own baby, some one else's baby, and some one else's
forsaken egg! She
 could cover no more; she had not feathers enough. But she
had heart enough; and into her mother's heart she had
already tucked every motherless egg and nestling of the
thousands of frightened birds, screaming and wheeling in the
air high over her head.