Dover Book

Text Box with description of Book

    As I read through the first chapter, I was thrilled. This man wrote about these beautiful creatures, the birds, as if they were his beloved children, praising their lovely singing and adoring their antics. I thought, a man after my own heart. I love birds, he loves birds . . . . By the second chapter, he has a gun, and freely shoots "specimens." A short love affair it was. I struggled through this book, loving the beautiful pictures he painted with words, hearing the music—the songs and warbles and chirps in my head as he described them, then the next minute, hating him because, the beautiful nesting couple he has spent two pages describing, he shoots the male. How could this be? How could anyone, first of all, shoot a bird? Such divine creatures! And shooting a male that had a family to care for? But then he would go on with something else, and again, the beauty of his descriptions enraptured me. In the end, I forgave him because I realized he lived in an era where country people hunted and fished for their meals, and did not have the same sensitivity about taking a life, as more and more people have today. Animal lives are precious, as are people's. Are there times when we must kill? Self defense? To save a pet from an attack? Yes. But that is not the same as shooting an innocent animal so you can take the body home to add to your collection.
    Now that I have gotten that off my chest, I will try to not mention it again.

John Burroughs was born on the family farm in the Catskill Mountains, near Roxbury, New York, in 1837. He died in 1921, just a few days short of his 84th birthday, while on a train near Kingsville, Ohio, and is buried at the foot of his special rock in Roxbury, which he called "Boyhood Rock." Woodchuck Lodge, located there, was his last home and is now a historic house. He did not spend his whole life, however, in the Catskills. This book, his first nature book, and second published book, was written in 1871. At that time he was living in Washington D.C. In 1873, he moved to West Park, New York—a farm where he built his Riverby estate and a cabin called "Slabsides." He later renovated the old farmhouse near his birthplace, which he called Woodchuck Lodge. It was his summer residence for the rest of his life. The essays in this collection take place in the Adirondacks, Washington D.C. and nearby mountains which he explored. Throughout the book, he refers to himself as an Ornithologist , but Wikipedia calls him a Naturalist.
    I took pages and pages of notes, but I will obviously not be able to cover everything he wrote about. And there was a lot of repetition, since the individual essays were written at different times. There are eight in all. I was delighted, as I sat out on the porch finishing this book, that one of my robins, a female that I have named Mrs. Robin-son, was perched in the huge silver maple near the driveway. She just sang her sweet heart out to me, creating the perfect atmosphere to read! So, here is just a bit about each chapter. Incidentally, "Wake-Robin" is actually a flower. Burroughs calls it white trillium, but Wikipedia says it is the red trillium, which can have color variations, such as white. Both say it heralds spring, which is the meaning for Burroughs. In the first chapter, he takes us through the year in the Adirondacks.
The Return of the Birds
    In the Preface, Burroughs says, "what I offer, in fact, is a careful and conscientious record of actual observations and experiences, and is true as it stands written, every word of it." But along the way, he has a very colorful way of describing what he observes, often giving the birds very human qualities. And so this first chapter introduces us to the birds of the area, including those that stay year-round, and those that breed, nest, or pass through. He describes all aspects of them, their physical traits, their nests, eggs, behavior, songs, and just about everything one would want to know about birds. However, keep in mind that this book was written nearly 150 years ago, and many names he uses are no longer accurate, and much has been updated in classifying these birds, and some, no doubt, are probably extinct or very rare.
    Because this first chapter provides an overview of the rest of the book, I will spend the most words on it, and just highlight important points for the others. Robin is the herald of spring for many of us. Burroughs describes him as:

Hardy, noisy, frolicsome, neighborly and domestic in his habits, strong of wing and bold in spirit, he is the pioneer of the thrush family, and well worthy of the finer artists whose coming he heralds and in a measure prepares us for.

    He compares the king-bird's song "whose harsh jingle, compared with Robin's evening melody, is as the clatter of pots and kettles beside the tone of a flute." And as for the cow-bunting he says, "Perched upon the topmost branch, beside his mate or mates,—for he is quite a polygamist and usually has two or three demure little ladies in faded black beside him,—generally in the early part of the day, he seems literally to vomit up his notes. He also makes the point along the way that birds sing most delightfully in the spring, and I heartily agree.
    In this next quote, he speaks of yellow-hammers (woodpeckers), in the heat of their courting and nesting.

Sometimes you would hear only a gentle, persuasive cooing, or a quiet, confidential chattering; then that long, loud call, taken up by first one, then another, as they sat about upon the naked limbs; anon, a sort of wild, rollicking laughter, intermingled with various cries, yelps, and squeals, as if some incident had excited their mirth and ridicule.

    As you can see, he seems to love these birds so much, which leaves me befuddled on how he could kill them. Here he describes the call of the cuckoo:

Something remote seems ever weighing on his mind. His note or call is as of one lost or wandering, and to the farmer is prophetic of rain. Amid the general joy and the sweet assurance of things, I love to listen to the strange clairvoyant call.

    He also comments on the birds' relationship to humans, which, in this day and age I must heartily disagree! He says, "There can be no doubt that the presence of man has exerted a very marked and friendly influence upon them, since they so multiply in his society." All one has to do is look at the devastating effects humans had on the Galapagos Islands, where before they were "discovered" the animals prospered just fine.
    He comments on the habit of some birds to build their nest on the ground in an open field, where people or cattle may tread upon it. His reasoning is that the real enemies, skunks and foxes, would be searching for nests hidden in the brush, and ignore the ones in plain sight. Hmm. Don't know if I agree.
    At this point, he has worked his way through spring and is in mid-to-late summer. He comments that in different neighborhoods, or even areas within a neighborhood, the distribution of birds can be markedly different. I have noticed that. I often see or hear birds that are perhaps not common to my area, especially when I try to identify them, and there are other regular birds that I rarely see. And I do try to pay attention to bird life here on the farm.
    It is obvious that he favors the hermit thrush, because he offers it praise throughout the book, especially its song. He also praises the mockingbird, which imitates the songs of other birds, and has "all the freshness and sweetness of the originals." Here he compares the hermit thrush to the wood thrush:

His instrument is a silver horn, which he winds in the most solitary places. The song of the wood thrush is more golden and leisurely. Its tone comes near to that of some rare stringed instrument.

    While walking with a friend, they heard one particular wood thrush whose musical talents were unsurpassed.

It was not different in quality so much as in quantity. Such a flood of it! Such copiousness! Such long, trilling, accelerating preludes! Such sudden ecstatic overtures would have intoxicated the dullest ear.

    He makes long commentary on the catbird and her song, which he finds "the least sincere and genuine of the sylvan minstrels, as if she had taken up music only to be in the fashion, or not to be outdone by the robins and thrushes." He also notes that in mid-July, when the cricket has commenced to drone, the birds become more quiet or silent. I, too, have noticed that and wondered if it was normal or related to all the spraying and climate issues. He talks about the hen-hawk who, when attacked by crows will fly higher and higher until out of range!
    By the time autumn begins, many birds are now leaving, but others are returning from the north.
In the Hemlocks
    In this chapter he writes about the deep, dark fertile forest which houses about forty varieties of summer inhabitants, some from as far away as Mexico, Central and South America and the Islands. He writes how the climate, latitude, and altitude make a difference in the species of not only birds but mammals. He tells how the woods were exploited by settlers, then abandoned.

Ravished and torn by the tanner in his thirst for bark, preyed upon by the lumberman, assaulted and beaten back by the settler, still their spirit has never been broken, their energies never paralyzed. Not many years ago a public highway passed through them, but it was at no time a tolerable road; trees fell across it, mud and limbs choked it up, till finally travellers took the hint and went around; and now, walking along its deserted course, I see only the footprints of coons, foxes, and squirrels.

    He spends much of the chapter just describing the birds, their songs, and their habits. I have made a list to look them up. I have a good bird website linked at the bottom, from Cornell University, which also includes a recording of their songs.
    Burroughs visited these mountains in summer, 1863, when he was in the "first flush" of his ornithological studies. He notes that, "The birds for the most part prefer the vicinity of settlements and clearings, and it was at such places that I saw the greatest number and variety." He also notes that up in the mountains it is mostly silent.
    He visits the site of the Adirondac Iron Works, now abandoned. A company from New Jersey had purchased sixty thousand acres thirty years earlier along the Adirondac (which is the way Burroughs spells it), River, rich in magnetic iron ore. The Upper Works was the only one in operation, the Lower Works at one time contained a pile of wood containing hundreds of cords for the furnaces, but when he visited it, it was only an overgrown mound. What a waste. There was a village at one time in the Upper Works, but by 1863, the company was paying one family to live in the desolation, an Irish-American man by the name of Hunter, his Scottish wife and five or six children, including two grown daughters. Their habitation was comfortable, but to reach any civilization was at least twenty-five miles. He worked a successful farm for his own use, because transporting his products would have been too difficult and he rarely had communication with the outside world.
    Obviously this chapter is about birds and their nests, but it is also about their behavior and quarrels. Burroughs' writing is often humorous, especially, as I have mentioned since he gives the birds human emotional qualities.
    He tells of cedar birds gathering wool from local sheep for their nests, and woodpeckers excavating a trunk or branch of a decaying tree. He also observes them carrying out poop from the nest, holding the disgusting object far from their body, and dropping it far away. Well, I dunno, I think he may have humanized them too much.
    He spoke of birds that built their nests practically on the road, within reach of passing carriages. Apparently they felt more secure there, because, as he says, "The truth is, birds are the greatest enemies of birds." Well, I can understand that, as I have had birds nest on my porch light less than a foot from my front door, and many nest in my greenhouse. He also tells the story of a man from Pennsylvania who hung out skeins of many-colored zephyr-yarn for a nearby nesting oriole, who ended up with an extremely colorful and beautiful nest!
    He then tells a humorous story of a female oriole diligently building her nest as her mate looked on, but eventually, an intruding female lures him away.

I could not help observing this female and a second, continually vociferating, apparently in strife. At last she was observed to attack this second female very fiercely, who slyly intruded herself at times into the same tree where she was building.

    In the end other bachelors show up and everyone ends up with a mate. There are usually more males than females, so if a female loses her mate, or if he dies or is killed, another male will take over.
Spring at the Capital
    In 1863, Burroughs moved to Washington (D.C.). His first shock is to encounter a three-inch flying grasshopper! He writes of the mild climate and the fact that there are flowers to be seen every month. In fact, in this chapter, he spends quite a bit of time describing plants and flowers, along with local birds. But what I found most interesting was his description of Washington in those days. If only it had stayed that way, huh?

The national capital is situated in such a vast spread of wild, wooded, or semi-cultivated country, with its parks and large government reservations, that an unusual number of birds find their way into it in the course of the season. Rare warblers, as the black-poll, the yellow red-poll, and the bay-breasted, pausing in May on their northward journey, pursue their insect game in the very heart of the town.

    I just want to make one more comment from this chapter, and it is the humorous way Burroughs has of describing the yellow-breasted chat—one noisy little bird. I can't imagine how many times he had to listen to create that sound-list. I listened to it on the link provided below, and must say, it was not nearly as interesting!

Now he barks like a puppy, then quacks like a duck, then rattles like a kingfisher, then squalls like a fox, the caws like a crow, then mews like a cat.

In less than half a minute, he darts into the bushes again, and again tunes up, no Frenchman rolling his r's so fluently: C-r-r-r-r-r,—whrr,—that's it,—chee,—quack, cluck,—yit-yit-yit,—now hit it,—tr-r-r-r,—when, caw, caw,—cut, cut,—tea-boy,—who, who,—mew, mew,—and so on until you are tired of listening.

Birch Browsings
    I won't say much about this chapter even though it was one of my favorites. It is a humorous re-telling of the hike from hell, up in unfamiliar mountains with a less than knowledgeable guide, who conveniently leaves them with iffy directions to reach their goal. Without food. I have to say, it is this chapter that made me just a bit more forgiving of the fact that someone who seems to love birds so much could shoot them. As a hunter, fisher, and woodsman, especially from the era in which he lived, there was an attitude that whatever was alive on earth was man's for the taking, and they saw no wrong in it. It is not quite the same now, as I will explain later.
The Bluebird
    As expected, this chapter is devoted to one bird, of which there are variations depending on what part of the country one lives. Here, he speaks of the inequality of the sexes!!

There was never a happier or more devoted husband than the male bluebird is. But among nearly all our familiar birds the serious cares of life seem to devolve almost entirely upon the female. The male is hilarious and demonstrative; the female, serious and anxious about her charge. The male is the attendant of the female, following her wherever she goes. He never leads, never directs, but only seconds and applauds. If his life is all poetry and romance, hers is all business and prose. She has no pleasure but her duty, and no duty but to look after her nest and brood.

    Haha! Sounds like a workable relationship to me!! He writes of a bluebird couple that was forced from their nest for some reason, then stole one belonging to swallows. But the swallows get their revenge by sealing up the entrance to the nest while the bluebirds were inside. Oh, my!
This one is almost funnier, in a bittersweet sort of way. It tells of an exuberant wren couple (as wrens are). Burroughs says:

I know of no other bird that so throbs and palpitates with music as this little vagabond. And the pair I speak of seemed exceptionally happy, and the male had a small tornado of song in his crop that kept him "ruffled" every moment in the day. But before their honeymoon was over, the bluebirds returned. I knew something was wrong before I was up in the morning. Instead of that voluble and gushing song outside the window, I heard the wrens scolding and crying at a fearful rate, and going out saw the bluebirds in possession of the box. The poor wrens were in despair; they wrung their hands and tore their hair, after the wren fashion, but chiefly did they rattle out their disgust and wrath at the intruders.

    I will not tell the rest of the story, as it is rather tragic, but the wrens did win back their little house.
The Invitation
    This final chapter is the perfect complement to the first, recapping information on important birds of the area, plus encouraging others to take up the study. He speaks of Audubon, probably the most well-known bird observer/artist in history, and yet, he only covered a small area, and hundreds more birds have been added to his lists, probably thousands by now.
    Here is a link to get you started in learning bird songs and calls to match up with their physical appearance from Cornell University.
    And here is a nasty vengeance taken upon a bird "specialist" who shot a rare bird to "study." I agree with their rage. Sorry. I cannot condone the behavior of scientists in these matters. Capturing the bird, photographing it, banding it, with perhaps a computer chip on the band, so further studies could be made—yeah, I have nothing against that. But we need to change the attitude on this planet that nature is ours to do whatever we please. We are finding out the hard way that that is the wrong path to take. Humans are NOT a superior species, and the web of life, in order to survive, requires all creatures to live in harmony and balance. Fortunately, we now have the internet to call out atrocious behavior such as this. Although, I have to admit, this one went way too far. Resorting to violence is as bad as the original offense and solves nothing.
The Ornithologist the Internet Called a Murderer
    This second article is a bit more calm.
Scientist Takes First-Ever Photo of Rare Bird, Then Kills It in the Name of Science
    Here is the page from Project Gutenberg where you can download this book and numerous others by Burroughs for free.


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