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singular voices, of which that of only one species, the Whippoorwill, can be considered musical. They are known in all parts of the world, but are particularly numerous in the warmer parts of America.
The Whippoorwill (Caprimulgus vociferus) is well known to the inhabitants of this part of the world, on account of his nocturnal song. This is heard only in densely wooded and retired situations, and is associated with the solitude of the forest, as well as the silence of night. The Whippoorwill is, therefore, emblematic of the rudeness of primitive Nature, and his voice always reminds us of seclusion and retirement. Sometimes he wanders away from the wood into the precincts of the town, and sings near some dwelling-house. Such an incident was formerly the occasion of superstitious alarm, being regarded as an omen of some evil to the inmates of the dwelling. The true cause of these irregular visits is probably the accidental abundance of a particular kind of insects, which the bird has followed from his retirement.
I believe the Whippoorwill, in this part of the country, is first heard in May, and continues vocal until the middle of July. He begins to sing at dusk, and we usually hear his note soon after the Veery, the Philomel of our summer evenings, has become silent. His song consists of three notes, in a sort of triple or waltz time, with a slight pause after the first note in the bar, as given below:
SONG OF THE WHIPPOORWILL.
Whip-poor-Will Whip-p'r-Will Whip-p'r-Will Whip
I should remark, that the bird usually commences his song with the second syllable of his name, or the second note in the bar. Some birds fall short of these intervals; but there seems to be an endeavor, on the part of each individual, to
So great is the general similarity of the notes of these two birds, that those of the Quail need only to be repeated several times in succession, without pause, to be mistaken for those of the Whippoorwill. They are uttered with similar intonations; but the voice of the nocturnal bird is more harsh, and his song consists of three notes instead of two.
The song of the Whippoorwill, though wanting in mellowness of tone, as may be perceived when he is only a short distance from us, is to most people very agreeable, notwithstanding the superstitions associated with it. Some persons are not disposed to rank the Whippoorwill among singing-birds, regarding him as more vociferous than musical. But it would be difficult to determine in what respect his notes differ from the songs of other birds, except that they approach more nearly to the precision of artificial music. Yet it will be admitted that considerable distance is required to “lend enchantment" to the sound of his voice. In some retired and solitary districts, the Whippoorwills are often so numerous as to be annoying by their vociferations; but in those places where only two or three individuals are heard during the season, their music is the source of a great deal of pleasure, and is a kind of recommendation to the place.
I was witness of this, some time since, in one of my botanical rambles in the town of Beverly, which is, for the most
part, too densely populated to suit the habits of these solitary birds. On one of these excursions, after walking several hours over a rather unattractive region, I arrived at a very romantic spot, known by the unpoetical name of Black Swamp. Nature uses her most ordinary materials to form her most delightful landscapes, and often keeps in reserve prospects of enchanting beauty, and causes them to rise up, as it were, by magic, where we should least expect them. Here I suddenly found myself encompassed by a charming amphitheatre of hills and woods, and in a valley so beautiful that I could not have imagined anything equal to it. A neat cottage stood alone in this spot, without a single architectural decoration, which I am confident would have dissolved the spell that made the whole scene so attractive. It was occupied by a shoemaker, whom I recognized as an old acquaintance and a worthy man, who resided here with his wife and children. I asked them if they could live contented so far from other families. The wife of the cottager replied, that they suffered in the winter from their solitude, but in the spring and summer they preferred it to the town," for in this place we hear all the singing-birds, early and late, and the Whippoorwill sings here every night during May and June." It was the usual practice of these birds, they told me, to sing both in the morning and the evening twilight; but if the moon rose late in the evening, after they had become silent, they would begin to sing anew, as if to welcome her rising. May the birds continue to sing to this happy family, and may the voice of the Whippoorwill never bode them any misfortune!
The Night-Hawk, or Piramidig, (Caprimulgus Americanus,) is similar in many points to the Whippoorwill, and the two species were formerly considered identical. The former, however, is a smaller bird; he has no song, and exhibits more of the ways of the Swallow. He is marked by a white spot on his wings, which is very apparent during his flight. He takes his prey in a higher part of the atmos
phere,-being frequently seen, at twilight and in cloudy weather, soaring above the house-tops in quest of insects. The Whippoorwill finds his subsistence chiefly in the woods, and takes a part of it from the branches of trees, while poising himself on the wing, like a Humming-Bird. I believe he is never seen circling aloft like the Night-Hawk.
The movements of the Night-Hawk, during this flight, are performed, for the most part, in circles, and are very picturesque. The birds are usually seen in pairs, at such times, but occasionally there are numbers assembled together; and one might suppose they were engaged in a sort of aerial dance, or that they were emulating each other in their attempts at soaring to a great height. It is evident that these evolutions proceed in part from the pleasure of motion; but they are also connected with their courtship. While they are soaring and circling in the air, they occasionally utter the shrill and broken note which has been supposed to resemble the word Piramidig, whence the name is derived,- and now and then they dart suddenly aside, to seize a passing insect.
While performing these circumvolutions, the male frequently dives almost perpendicularly downwards, a distance of forty feet or more, uttering, when he turns at the bottom of his descent, a singular note, resembling the twang of a viol-string. This sound has been supposed to proceed from the action of the air, as the bird dives swiftly through it with open mouth; but this supposition is rendered improbable by the fact that the European species makes a similar sound while sitting on its perch. It has also been alleged that the diving motion of this bird is an act designed to intimidate those who seem to be approaching his nest; but this cannot be true, because the bird performs the manœuvre when he has no nest to defend. This habit is peculiar to the male, and it is probably one of those fantastic motions which are noticeable among the males of the gallinaceous birds, and are evidently their ar
tifices to attract the attention of the female; very many of these motions may be observed in the manners of tame Pig
The twanging note produced during the precipitate descent of the Night-Hawk is one of the picturesque sounds of Nature, and is heard most frequently in the morning twilight, when the birds are busy collecting their repast of insects. During an early morning walk, while they are circling about, we may hear their cry frequently repeated, and occasionally the booming sound, which, if one is not accustomed to it, and is not acquainted with this habit of the bird, affects him with a sensation of mystery, and excites his curiosity in an extraordinary degree.
The sound produced by the European species is a sort of drumming or whizzing note, like the hum of a spinningwheel. The male commences this performance about dusk, and continues it at intervals during a great part of the night. It is effected while the breast is inflated with air, like that of a cooing Dove. The Piramidig has the power of inflating himself in the same manner, and he utters this whizzing note when one approaches his nest.
The American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a more interesting bird than we should infer from his general appearance and physiognomy. He is mainly nocturnal in his habits, and his ways are worthy of study and observation. He obtains his food by scratching up the leaves and rubbish that lie upon the surface of the ground in damp and wooded places, and by boring into the earth for worms. He remains concealed in the wood during the day, and comes out to feed at twilight, choosing the open ploughed lands where worms are abundant; though it is probable that in the shade of the wood he is more or less busy in scratching among the leaves in the daytime.
The Woodcock does not commonly venture abroad in the open day, unless he be disturbed and driven from his retreats. He makes his first appearance here in the latter part of April, and at this season we
may observe that soaring habit which renders him one of the picturesque objects of Nature. This soaring takes place soon after sunset, continues during twilight, and is repeated at the corresponding hour in the morning. If you listen at this time near the places of his resort, he will soon reveal himself by a lively peep, frequently uttered, from the ground. While repeating this note, he may be seen strutting about, like a turkey-cock, with fantastic jerkings of the tail and a frequent bowing of the head; and his mate, I believe, is at this time not far off. Suddenly he springs upward, and with a wide circular sweep, uttering at the same time a rapid whistling note, he rises in a spiral course to a great height in the air. At the summit of his ascent, he hovers about with irregular motions, chirping a medley of broken notes, like imperfect warbling. This continues about ten or fifteen seconds, when it ceases, and he descends rapidly to the ground. We seldom hear him while in his descent, but receive the first intimation of it by hearing a repetition of his peep, resembling the sound produced by those minute wooden trumpets sold at the German toy-shops.
No person could watch this playful flight of the Woodcock without interest; and it is remarkable that a bird with short wings and difficult flight should be capable of mounting to so great an altitude. It affords me a vivid conception of the pleasure with which I should witness the soaring and singing of the Skylark, known to me only by description. I have but to imagine the chirruping of the Woodcock to be a melodious series of notes, to feel that I am listening to that bird, which is so familiarized to our imaginations by English poetry that in our early days we always expect his greetings with a summer sunrise. It is with sadness that we first learn in our youth that the Skylark is not an inhabitant of the New World; and our mornings seem divested of a great portion of their charms, for the want of this poetical accompaniment.
There is another circumstance connect
ed with the habits of the Woodcock which increases his importance as an actor in the melodrame of Nature. When we stroll away from the noise and din of the town, where the stillness permits us to hear distinctly all those faint sounds which are turned by the silence of night into music, we may hear at frequent intervals the hum produced by the irregular flights of the Woodcock, as he passes over short distances in the wood, where he is collecting his repast. It resembles the sound of the wings of Doves, rendered distinct by the stillness of all other things, and melodious by the distance. There is a feeling of mystery attached to these musical flights that yields a savor of romance to the quiet voluptuousness of a summer evening.
It is on such occasions, if we are in a moralizing mood, that we may be keenly impressed with the truth of the saying, that the secret of happiness consists in keeping alive our susceptibilities by frugal indulgences, rather than by seeking a multitude of pleasures, that pall in exact proportion to their abundance. The stillness and darkness of a quiet night produce this enlivening effect upon our minds. Our susceptibility is then awakened to such a degree, that slight sounds and feeble sparks of light convey to our souls an amount of pleasure which we seldom experience in the daytime from sights and sounds of the most pleasing description. Thus the player in an orchestra can enjoy such music only as would deafen common ears by its crash of sounds, in which they perceive no connection or harmony; while the simple rustic listens to the rude notes of a flageolet in the hands of a clown with feelings of ineffable delight. Nature, if the seekers after luxurious and exciting pleasures could but understand her language, would say to them," Except ye become as this simple rustic, ye cannot enter into my paradise."
The American Snipe has some of the nocturnal habits of the Woodcock, and the same habit of soaring at twilight, when he performs a sort of musical medley,
which Audubon has very graphically described in the following passage :-"The birds are met with in meadows and low grounds, and, by being on the spot before sunrise, you may see both (male and female) mount high, in a spiral manner, now with continuous beats of the wings, now in short sailings, until more than a hundred yards high, when they whirl round each other with extreme velocity, and dance, as it were, to their own music; for, at this juncture, and during the space of five or six minutes, you hear rolling notes mingled together, each more or less distinct, perhaps, according to the state of the atmosphere. The sounds produced are extremely pleasing, though they fall faintly on the ear. I know not how to describe them; but I am well assured that they are not produced simply by the beatings of their wings, as at this time the wings are not flapped, but are used in sailing swiftly in a circle, not many feet in diameter. A person might cause a sound somewhat similar by blowing rapidly and alternately, from one end to another, across a set of small pipes, consisting of two or three modulations. This performance is kept up till incubation terminates; but I have never observed it at any other period."
Among the Heron family we discover a few nocturnal birds, which, though not very well known, have some ways that are singular and interesting. Goldsmith considered one of these birds worthy of introduction into his "Deserted Village,” as contributing to the poetic conception of desolation. Thus, in his description of the grounds which were the ancient site of the village, we read,—
"Along its glades, a solitary guest, The hollow-sounding Bittern guards its
"The Bittern is a shy and solitary bird; it is never seen on the wing in the daytime, but sits, generally with the head erect, hid among the reeds and rushes of extensive marshes, from whence it will not stir, unless disturbed by the sports
When it changes its haunts, it removes in the dusk of the evening, and then, rising in a spiral direction, soars to a vast height. It flies in the same heavy manner as the Heron, and might be mistaken for that bird, were it not for the singularly resounding cry which it utters, from time to time, while on the wing: but this cry is feeble when compared with the hollow booming noise which it makes during the night, in the breeding season, from its swampy retreats. From the loudness and solemnity of its note, an erroneous notion prevails with the vulgar, that it either thrusts its head into a reed, which serves as a pipe for swelling its note beyond its natural pitch, or that it immerges its head in water, and then produces its boomings by blowing with all its might."
The American Bittern is a smaller bird, but is probably a variety of the European species. It exhibits the same nocturnal habits, and has received at the South the name of Dunkadoo, from the resemblance of its common note to these syllables. This is a hollow-sounding noise, but not so loud as the voice of the Bittern to which Goldsmith alludes. I have heard it by day proceeding from the wooded swamps, and am at a loss to explain how so small a bird can produce so low and hollow a note. Among this family of birds are one or two other nocturnal species, including the Qua-Bird, which is common to both continents; but there is little to be said of it that would be interesting in this connection. The Herons, however, and their allied species, are birds of remarkable habits, the enumeration and account of which would occupy a considerable space. In an essay on the flight of birds in particular, the Herons would furnish a multitude of very interesting facts.
Let us now turn our attention to those diurnal birds that sing in the night as well as in the day, and which might be comprehended under the general appellation of Nightingales. These birds do not confine their singing to the night, like the
true nocturnal birds, and are most vocal when inspired by the light of the moon. Europe has several of these minstrels of the night. Beside the true Philomel of poetry and romance, the Reed-Thrush and the Woodcock are of this character. In the United States, the Mocking-Bird enjoys the greatest reputation; the Rosebreasted Grosbeak and the New York Thrush are also nocturnal songsters.
The Mocking-Bird (Turdus polyglottus) is well known in the Middle and Southern States, but seldom passes a season in New England, except in the southern part of Rhode Island and Connecticut, which seem to be the northern limit of its migrations. Probably, like the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, which is constantly extending its limits in an eastern direction, the Mocking-Bird may be gradually making progress northwardly, so that fifty years hence both of these birds may be common in Massachusetts. The Mocking-Bird is familiar in his habits, frequenting gardens and orchards, and perching on the roofs of houses when singing, like the common Robin. Like the Robin, too, who sings at all hours excepting those of darkness, he is a persevering songster, and seems to be inspired by living in the vicinity of man. In his manners, however, he bears more resemblance to the Red Thrush, being distinguished by his vivacity, and the courage with which he repels the attacks of his enemies.
The Mocking-Bird is celebrated throughout the world for his musical powers; but it is difficult to ascertain precisely the character and quality of his original notes. Hence some naturalists have contended that he has no song of his own, but confines himself to imitations. That this is an error, all persons who have listened to him in his native wild-wood can testify. I should say, from my own observations, not only that he has a distinct song, peculiarly his own, but that his imitations are far from being equal to his original notes. Yet it is seldom we hear him except when he is engaged in mimicry. In his native woods, and especially at an early hour in the morning, when he is