Gateway to the Classics: Winter by Dallas Lore Sharp
 
Winter by  Dallas Lore Sharp

Chickadee

I WAS crunching along through the January dusk toward home. The cold was bitter. A half-starved partridge had just risen from the road and fluttered off among the naked bushes—a bit of life vanishing into the winter night of the woods. I knew the very hemlock in which he would roost; but what were the thick, snow-bent boughs of his hemlock, and what were all his winter feathers in such a night as this?—this night of cutting winds and frozen snow!

The road dipped from the woods down into a wide, open meadow, where the winds were free. The cold was driving, numbing here, with a power for death that the thermometer could not mark. I backed against the gale and sidewise hastened forward toward the double line of elms that arched the road in front of the house. Already I could hear them creak and rattle like things of glass. It was not the sound of life. Nothing was alive; for what could live in this long darkness and fearful cold?

The question was hardly thought, when an answer was whirled past me into the nearest of the naked elms. A chickadee! He caught for an instant on a dead stub of a limb that stuck out over the road, scrambled along to its broken tip, and whisked into a hole that ran straight down the centre of the old stub, down, for I don't know how far.


[Illustration]

I stopped. The limb lay out upon the wind, with only an eddy of the gale sucking at the little round hole in the broken end, while somewhere far down in its hollow heart, huddling himself into a downy, dozy ball for the night, had crept the chickadee. I knew by the very way he struck the limb and by the way he turned in at the hole that he had been there before. He knew whither, across the sweeping meadows, he was being blown. He had even helped the winds as they whirled him, for, having tarried along the roads until late, he was in a great hurry to get home. But he was safe for the night now, in the very bed, it may be, where he was hatched last summer, and where at this moment, who knows, were crowded half a dozen other chickadees, the rest of that last summer's brood, unharmed still, and still sharing the old home hollow, where they were as snug and warm this fierce, wild night as ever they were in the soft May days when they nestled here together.

The cold drove me on; but the sight of the chickadee had warmed me, and all my shivering world of night and death. And so he ever does. For the winter has yet to be that drives him seeking shelter to the sunny south. I never knew it colder than in January and February of 1904. During both of those months I drove morning and evening through a long mile of empty, snow-buried woods. For days at a time I would not see even a crow, but morning and evening at a certain dip in the road two chickadees would fly from bush to bush across the hollow and cheer me on my way.

They came out to the road, really to pick up whatever scanty crumbs of food were to be found in my wake. They came also to hear me, and to see me go past—to escape for a moment, I think, from the silence, the desertion, and the death of the woods. They helped me to escape, too.

Four other chickadees, all winter long, ate with us at the house, sharing, so far as the double windows would allow, the cheer of our dining-room. We served them their meals on the lilac bush outside the window, tying their suet on so that they could see us and we could see them during meal-time. Perhaps it was mere suet, and nothing else at all, that they got; but constantly, when our "pie was opened, the birds began to sing"—a dainty dish indeed, a dish of live, happy chickadees that fed our souls.

There are states in the far Northwest where the porcupine is protected by law, as a last food resource for men who are lost and starving in the forests. Porcupine is so slow that a dying man can catch him and make a meal on him. Perhaps the porcupine was not designed by nature for any such purpose, and would not approve of it at all. Perhaps Chickadee was not left behind by Summer to feed my lost and starving hope through the cheerless months of winter. But that is the use I make of him. He is Summer's pledge to me. He tells me that this winter world is a living world and not a dreary world of death. The woods are hollow, the winds are chill, the earth is cold and stiff, but there flits Chickadee, and—I cannot lose faith, nor feel that this procession of bleak white days is all a funeral! If Chickadee can live, then so can I.

He is the only bird in my out-of-doors that I can find without fail three hundred and sixty-five days in the year. From December to the end of March he comes daily to my lilac bush for suet; from April to early July he is busy with domestic cares in the gray birches down the hillside; from August to December he and his family come hunting quietly and sociably as a little flock among the trees and bushes of the farm; and from then on he is back again for his winter meals at "The Lilac."

Is it any wonder that he was the first bird I ever felt personally acquainted with? That early acquaintance, however, was not brought about by his great abundance, nor by his very bad, bold manners, as might be with the English sparrow. I got acquainted with him first, because he wanted to get acquainted with me, he is such a cheerful, confiding, sociable little bird! He drops down and peeps under your hat-brim to see what manner of boy you are, and if you are really fit to be abroad in this beautiful world, so altogether good both summer and winter—for chickadees.

He is not quite so sociable in summer as in winter, but if you were no bigger than a chickadee (two and one half inches without your tail!) and had eight babies nearly as big as yourself to hunt grubs for, besides a wife to pet and feed, do you think you could be very sociable? In the winter, however, he is always at liberty to stop and talk to you, a sweet little way he has that makes him the easiest bird in the world to get acquainted with.

Last winter while I was tying up a piece of suet that had fallen into the snow, a hungry and impatient chickadee lighted on the brim of my felt hat. The brim bent under him, and he came fluttering down against my nose, which I thought for an instant he was going to take for suet! He didn't snip it off, however, as a certain blackbird did a certain maiden's nose, but lighted instead on my shoulder. Then, seeing the lump of suet in my hand, he flew up and perched upon my fingers and held on, picking at the suet all the time I was tying it fast in the bush.

He is a friendly little soul, who loves your neighborhood, as, indeed, most birds do; who has no fear of you, because he cannot think that you could fear him and so would want to hurt him.

Nature made him an insect-eater; but he has a mission to perform besides eating pestiferous insects, and their eggs and grubs. This destruction of insects he does that the balance of things may be maintained out of doors, lest the insects destroy us. He has quite another work to do, which is not a matter of grubs, and which in no wise is a matter of fine feathers or sweet voice, but simply a matter of sweet nature, vigor, and concentrated cheerfulness.

Chickadee is a sermon. I hear him on a joyous May morning calling Chick-a-dee! dee! Chick-a-dee! dee! —brisk, bright, and cheery; or, soft and gentle as a caress, he whistles, Phœ-ee-bee! Phœ-ee-bee!  I meet him again on the edge of a bleak winter night. He is hungry and cold, and he calls, as I hasten along, Chick-a-dee! dee! Chick-a-dee! dee!  brisk, bright, and cheery; or, following after me, he talks to me with words as soft and gentle as a caress.

Will you lend me your wings, Chickadee, your invisible wings on which you ride the winds of life so evenly?

The abundant summer, the lean and wolfish winter, find Chickadee cheerful and gentle. He is busier at some seasons than at others, with fewer chances for friendship. He almost disappears in the early summer. But this is because of family cares; and because the bigger, louder birds have come back, and the big leaves have come out and hidden him. A little searching, and you will discover him, in one of your old decayed fence-posts, maybe, or else deep in the swamp, foraging for a family of from six to eight, that fairly bulge and boil over from the door of their home.

Here about Mullein Hill, this is sure to be a gray-birch home. Other trees will do—on a pinch. I have found Chickadee nesting in live white oaks, maples, upturned roots, and tumbling fence-posts. These were shifts, only, mere houses, not real homes. The only good homelike trees are old gray birches, dead these many years and gone to punk—mere shells of tough circular bark walls. Halfway down the hill is a small grove of these birches that we call the Seminary (because, as a poet friend says, "they look like seminary girls in white frocks"). Here the chickadees love to build.

Why has Chickadee this very decided preference? Is it a case of protective coloration — the little gray and black bird choosing to nest in this little gray and black tree because bird and tree so exactly match one another in size and color? Or is there a strain of poetry in Chickadee's soul, something fine, that leads him into this exquisite harmony—into this little gray house for his little gray self?

Explain it as you may, it is a fact that the little bird shows this marked preference, makes this deliberate choice; and in the choice is protection and poetry, too. Doubtless he follows the guidance of a sure and watchful instinct. But who shall deny to him a share of the higher, finer things of the imagination?

His life is like his home—gentle and sweet and idyllic. There is no happier spot in the summer woods than that about the birch of the chickadees; and none whose happiness you will be so little liable to disturb.

Before the woods were in leaf last spring I found a pair of chickadees building in a birch along the edge of the swamp. They had just begun, having dug out only an inch of the cavity. It was very interesting to discover them doing the excavating themselves, for usually they refit some abandoned chamber or adapt to their needs some ready-made hole.

The birch was a long, limbless cylinder of bark, broken off about fourteen feet up, and utterly rotten, the mere skin of a tree stuffed with dust. I could push my finger into it at any point. It was so weak that every time the birds lighted upon the top the whole stub wobbled and reeled. Surely they were building their house upon the sand! Any creature without wings would have known that. The birds, however, because they have wings, seem to have lost the sense of such insecurity, often placing their nests as if they expected the nests themselves to take wings and fly to safety when the rains descend and the winds come.


[Illustration]

This shaking stub of the chickadees was standing directly beneath a great overshadowing pine, where, if no partridge bumped into it, if two squirrels did not scamper up it together, if the crows nesting overhead in the pine did not discover it, if no strong wind bore down upon it from the meadow side, it might totter out the nesting-season. But it didn't. The birds were leaving too much to luck. I knew it, and perhaps I should have pushed their card house down, then and there, and saved the greater ruin later. Perhaps so, but who was I to interfere in their labor?

Both birds were at the work when I discovered them, and so busily at it that my coming up did not delay them for a single billful. It was not hard digging, but it was very slow, for Chickadee is neither carpenter nor mason. He has difficulty killing a hard-backed beetle. So, whenever you find him occupying a clean-walled cavity, with a neat, freshly chipped doorway, you may be sure that some woodpecker built the house, and not this short-billed, soft-tailed little tit. Chickadee lacks both the bill chisel and the tail brace. Perhaps the explanation of his fondness for birch trees lies here—because the birch trees die young and soon decay!

The birds were going down through the broken-off top, and not by a hole through the leathery rind of the sides, for the bark was too tough for their beaks. They would drop into the top of the stub, pick up a wad of decayed wood and fly off to a dead limb of the pine. Here, with a jerk and a snap of their bills, they would scatter the punk in a shower so thin and far that I could neither hear it fall nor find a trace of it upon the dead leaves of the ground. This nest would never be betrayed by the workmen's chips, as are the woodpeckers' nest-holes.

Between the pair there averaged three beakfuls of excavating every two minutes, one of the birds regularly shoveling twice to the other's once. They looked so exactly alike that I could not tell which bird was pushing the enterprise; but I had my suspicions. It was Mrs. Chickadee!

Mr. Chickadee was doing only part of his duty, and only half-heartedly at that! Hers was the real interest, the real anxiety. To be a Mr. Chickadee and show off! That's the thing!

I sat a long time watching the work. It went on in perfect silence, not a chirp, not the sound of a fluttering wing. The swamp along whose margin the birds were building had not a joyous atmosphere. Damp, dim-shadowed, and secret, it seemed to have laid its spell upon the birds. Their very color of gray and black was as if mixed out of the dusky colors of the swamp; their noiseless coming and going was like the slipping to and fro of small shadows. They were a part of the swamp—of its life, of its color, of its silence. They were children of the swamp, sharing its very spirit, and that sharing was their defense, the best protection that they could have had.

It didn't save their nest, however. They felt and obeyed the spirit of the Swamp in their own conduct, but the Swamp did not tell them where to build. Birds and animals have wonderful instinct, or family wisdom, but not much personal, individual wisdom.

It was about three weeks later when I stopped again under the pine and found the birch stub in pieces upon the ground. Some strong wind had come, or some robber had been after the eggs, and had brought the whole house tumbling down.

But this is not the fate of all such birch-bark houses. Now and again they escape; yet when they do it is always a matter for wonder.

I was following an old disused wood-road once when I frightened a robin from her nest. Her mate joined her, and together they raised a great hubbub. Immediately a chewink, a pair of vireos, and two black and white warblers joined the robins in their din. Then a chickadee appeared. He had a worm in his beak. His anxiety seemed so real that I began to watch him, when, looking down among the stones for a place to step, what should I see but his mate emerging from the end of a tiny birch stump at my very feet! She had heard the racket and had come out to see what it was all about. At sight of her, Mr. Chickadee hastened with his worm, brushing my face, almost, as he darted to her side. She took the worm sweetly, for she knew he had intended it for her. But how do I know it was intended for her, and not for the young? There were no young in the nest; only eggs. Even after the young came (there were eight of them!), when life, from daylight to dark, was one ceaseless, hurried hunt for worms, I saw him over and over again fly to Mrs. Chickadee's side caressingly and tempt her to eat.

The house of this pair did not fall. How could it when it stood precisely two and a half feet from the ground? But that it wasn't looted is due to the amazing boldness of its situation. It stood alone, close to the road, so close that the hub of a low wheel in passing might have knocked it down. Perhaps a hundred persons had brushed it in going by. How many dogs and cats had overlooked it no one can say; nor how many skunks and snakes and squirrels. The accident that discovered it to me had happened apparently to no one else, so here it stood still safe, but only by the grace of Luck!

Cutting a tiny window in the bark just above the eggs, I looked in upon the little children every day. I watched them hatch, grow, and fill the cavity and hang over at the top. I was there the day they forced my window open; I was there the day when there was no more room at the top, and when, at the call of their parents, one child after another of this large, sweet bird family found his wings and flew away through the friendly woods.


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