May 8, 1910. Omaha Sunday Bee 39(47): 3-E. Typographic errors corrected.
Birds on Our Street
Feathered Choristers Who Salute the Coming Day With Notes of Joy - Busy Hustlers Into Whose Lives the Noise of a Great City Brings No Terror - Omaha has a Great Variety of Them in Its Many Shade Trees.
By Emily Wood.
Our street is a quiet byway, shaded by young elms and maples. Here and there a great cottonwood stands, marking the site of some farm house of early days. A car line crosses the street; the transfer point of three lines is nearby. The hum of the trolley and the noise of traffic upon pavements are audible all day and far into the night, yet our trees shelter more than thirty varieties of birds. We are kindly folk on our street and the wild creatures have grown used to us. They are molested by cats, of course, but a bird seems to look upon a cat as we do upon appendicitis. It is a constant menace, threatening both the just and the unjust and not to be averted by taking thought. No man moves because his neighbor has died of appendicitis; why should a bird move because his neighbor had died - of a cat!
The plum, peach and cherry trees in our yard, the roses, clematis and honeysuckles climbing about our porches furnish shelter and abundant food for many immigrants. The vacant lots nearby, just now ne plowed, attract the sturdier birds.
Before the dawn has come the bird life of the street is astir. The catbird wakens first. At half past 2 he begins a series of dreamy gurglings. For half an hour his is the only voice heard. Then far away the field sparrow wakes and trills his clear notes so fraught with the spirit of solitude. The sunlight touches the cottonwoods beside the car line and the robins face the east with their full-toned praise of the morn.
Soon the whole colony is awake. A downy woodpecker works his way about the rough crevices in the bark. A red-headed woodpecker drums vigorously upon some dead limb or with a raucous shriek dashes away at the sound of the first car. Flickers make the welkin ring. (I think we have a welkin on our street; at any rate I know it rings.) Blue jays bounce lightly up the maple trees and swing upon some plant bough. They shout murder and sudden death at the world and at the same moment exchange sweet confidences in soft tones of love. I believe Dean Swift to have been the only other creature who could make the change from Billingsgate to love's "little language" with equal rapidity and grace.
A flock of cowbirds settles upon the cottonwoods. Sidling about with many grotesque bows, they exchange empty compliments of the day. Thoreau once said of the grackles chattering. "As nature is becoming, these notes may become melodious at last," and there is the same basis for belief that the cowbird may evolve into a songster of degree. He may even learn to conform to the conventions of the bird world and cease to be a disreputable hanger-on in society. Just now his field of usefulness is limited and his economic value very small. It is, however, a pleasing thing to see that it is not only among men that utter inefficiency is combined with perfect complacency.
Next to the corner a half dozen cherry trees attract the chickadees the year round. All winter this familiar call greets one. Now they cry, "See me! See me!" as they swing head downward from some larvae-laden twig.
Bluebirds sit upon our telephone wires rolling out their plaintive "truely, truely." Their sapphire flight brings a dozen lively sayings to one's mind, Maurice Thompson said. "His flight is a poem in itself. As he goes trembling and wavering along through the air and sunshine, he adds to a May day just the touch which makes it perfect." Thoreau calls the bluebird's warble "The accent of the south wind. Its vernacular," and again "Blue birds warble curls through the air."
Kingbirds contend noisily over some hapless insect. Their satin-white breasts, black coats and severe attitude as they perch upon wires or fence posts, give them a ministerial air. The topsy-turvy antics as they follow the erratic flight of their insect prey make us suspect the clown beneath the clerk's dress.
In the new ploughed fields where soon the rose-breasted grosbeak will be harvesting potato beetles the meadowlark moves about sedately. He searches for cut and wire worms, the while whistling his few notes of absolute purity. He is so careful to hide his yellow throat and jet black collar that the children on the street refuse to believe that these belong with the dull brownish black and white marked tail with which they are familiar.
Flourishing families of wrens pervade our yards all summer. They quarrel among themselves, blackyard cats and men without fear or favor, and in rare moments of peace, ravish the ear with the most joyous flood of song known to birddom.
Before the first of May we have had only the winter residents and the hardier spring birds, the seed eaters and destroyers of grubs and larvae. With the coming of the oriole the first week of May there begins the great migration of the insect eaters. Some stay with us all summer, but many go on to the northern woods to nest. This week we hear the pipe of the oriole and joy in his black and orange glory as he flashes about the maple trees. Many frequent the street, but no two have just the same notes. One bird, which visited us for two summers seemed to have a regular sound to follow each day. His song was so different from others on the street that we could trace him as he worked his way from tree to tree.
The yellow-throat, gay little masker, flits among the weeds or perches upon the fencing of our chicken yards, flinging his "Which way, sir?" at each passerby. Goldfinches undulate above as calling tremulously. Now and then one sits him down to sing. This is no desultory performance. He uses all the trills and quavers the syncopations and crescendos of a house canary; if the jet black cap he wears upon his yellow head were a trifle less jaunty in its effect, we might take him more seriously for his song is an imposing effect. Appearances are against him, however. Nature has destined him for comic opera though his soul longeth to produce Wagnerian strains.
Summer warblers, or "wild canaries," as the children call them, devote themselves to the lettuce beds across the way. Five or six may be seen there assimilating aphidae.
The red-eyed vireo, Wilson Flagg's "preacher bird," delivers his staccato mandates from the chickadees' cherry trees and the warbling vireo rolls out his rich notes, dropping the last one "as if it were red hot." All the vireos are dull green in color and act upon the precept that it is best for little birds to be heard and not seen. They are very hard to distinguish from one another, but this year gives us a chance to learn them. They are due this week and the foliage is so thin that they can scarcely escape the watchful eye. Their songs are very characteristic and so unlike that once associated with the personality of their owners they will always betray them to the bird student.
The third week of May brings a flock of Tennessee warblers. They are very tiny, grayish-green birds with white underparts so lightly washed with yellow to seem merely a soiled white when observed through an opera glass. Their song, like the wren's, with a fairy buzz-saw attached, rises continually from the Crimson Rambler vines. They spend the hour from 6 to 7 with the rose parasites, then hunt about the maples a while and hen disappear to return at the same time next day. Sometimes a Nashville warbler comes too. He is identified by the distinctly yellow underparts, bluish-gray head and olive back. He sometimes spends a whole morning up a maple tree working about the branches and missing very few twigs in his search.
For a day or two the red start maddens us with his varied tones so hard for the amateur to place. He can not puzzle one long, though, for the orange patches upon his black wings and tail and his incessant movement make him very conspicuous.
The yellow billed cuckoo comes occasionally. His hoarse "kou kou" foreboding rain, they say, bears the association of thick woods and breathless July afternoons. He slips about so quietly that one rarely sees the yellow lower mandibles and white "thumb marks" on his tail which identify him.
It may be possible to add many species to the list of birds seen on our street - or your street. This year the leaves have been killed and the birds must hunt in trees almost as bare as they usually are in March. Whether the list is long or short matters little, however. What count are the rest and refreshment which come into our busy lives as we watch our neighbors over head.
We are working men and women on our street, but we stop a minute or so in the morning to hear the brown thrasher pour out his glorious love song. His is the voice of the May. All the rapture and unrest of the spring thrill through his enchanting song. it is the revelation of youth, and joy, and love. At night, while barn swallows dart and wheel about the lawns, the wood thrush sounds his tranquil note. It is the voice of the cello, vibrant with the deep meanings of life. The ecstasy of the morning is forgotten as the quiet tone falls like a benediction through the gathering dusk.
The night comes - the birds are silent, but there is still one astir. A tiny owl drifts silently among the trees or sits upon a cottonwood limb at the corner, turning fascinated eyes upon the trolley car as it rushes by, a sort of owlish cyclops.
May 2, 1910. Emily Wood.
Birds to be seen on an Omaha street before the last week of April: Bluebird, robin, chickadee, nuthatch, shrike, cardinal, junco, field sparrow, chipping sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, goldfinch, meadow lark, red-winged blackbird, cowbird, crow, jay, flicker, downy, hairy and red-headed woodpeckers, screech owl, saw-whet owl.
Later arrivals: Wood thrush, olive-backed thrush, wren, thrasher, red start, Maryland yellow throat, myrtle warbler, yellow warbler, Tennessee warbler, Nashville warbler, warbling vireo, red-eyed vireo, barn swallow, purple martin, dickcissel, indigo bird, rose-breasted grosbeak, oriole, king bird, cuckoo, mourning dove.
Total number, forty-four.