East of Wells Cathedral, close to the moat surrounding the bishop's palace, there is a beautifully wooded spot, a steep slope, where the birds had their headquarters. There was much to attract them there: sheltered by the hill behind, it was a warm corner, a wooded angle, protected by high old stone walls, dear to the redstart, masses of ivy, and thickets of evergreens; while outside the walls were green meadows and running water. When going out for a walk I always passed through this wood, lingering a little in it; and when I wanted to smoke a pipe, or have a lazy hour to myself among the trees, or sitting in the sun, I almost invariably made for this favourite spot. At different hours of the day I was a visitor, and there I heard the first spring migrants on their arrival—chiff-chaff, willow wren, cuckoo, redstart, blackcap, white-throat. Then, when April was drawing to an end, I said, There are no more to come. For the wryneck, lesser white-throat, and garden warbler had failed to appear, and the few nightingales that visit the neighbourhood had settled down in a more secluded spot a couple of miles away, where the million leaves in coppice and brake were not set a-tremble by the melodious thunder of the cathedral chimes.
Nevertheless, there was another still to come, the one I perhaps love best of all. On the last day of April I heard the song of the wood wren, and at once all the other notes ceased for a while to interest me. Even the last comer, the mellow blackcap, might have been singing at that spot since February, like the wren and hedge-sparrow, so familiar and workaday a strain did it seem to have compared with this late warbler. I was more than glad to welcome him to that particular spot, where if he chose to stay I should have him so near me.
It is well known that the wood wren can only be properly seen immediately after his arrival in this country, at the end of April or early in May, when the young foliage does not so completely hide his slight unresting form, as is the case afterwards. For he, too, is green in colour; like Wordsworth's green linnet,
A brother of the leaves he seems.
There is another reason why he can be seen so much better during the first days of his sojourn with us: he does not then keep to the higher parts of the tall trees he frequents, as his habit is later, when the air is warm and the minute winged insects on which he feeds are abundant on the upper sun-touched foliage of the high oaks and beeches. On account of that ambitious habit of the wood wren there is no bird with us so difficult to observe; you may spend hours at a spot, where his voice sounds from the trees at intervals of half a minute to a minute, without once getting a glimpse of his form. At the end of April the trees are still very thinly clad; the upper foliage is but an airy garment, a slight golden-green mist, through which the sun shines, lighting up the dim interior, and making the bed of old fallen beech-leaves look like a floor of red gold. The small-winged insects, sun-loving and sensitive to cold, then hold their revels near the surface; and the bird, too, prefers the neighbourhood of the earth. It was so in the case of the wood wren I observed at Wells, watching him on several consecutive days, sometimes for an hour or two at a stretch, and generally more than once a day. The spot where he was always to be found was quite free from underwood, and the trees were straight and tall, most of them with slender, smooth boles. Standing there, my figure must have looked very conspicuous to all the small birds in the place; but for a time it seemed to me that the wood wren paid not the slightest attention to my presence; that as he wandered hither and thither in sunlight and shade at his own sweet will, my motionless form was no more to him than a moss-grown stump or grey upright stone. By and by it became apparent that the bird knew me to be no stump or stone, but a strange living creature whose appearance greatly interested him; for invariably, soon after I had taken up my position, his careless little flights from twig to twig and from tree to tree brought him nearer, and then nearer, and finally near me he would remain for most of the time. Sometimes he would wander for a distance of forty or fifty yards away, but before long he would wander back and be with me once more, often perching so near that the most delicate shadings of his plumage were as distinctly seen as if I had had him perched on my hand.
The human form seen in an unaccustomed place always excites a good deal of attention among the birds; it awakes their curiosity, suspicion, and alarm. The wood wren was probably curious and nothing more; his keeping near me looked strange only because he at the same time appeared so wholly absorbed in his own music. Two or three times I tried the experiment of walking to a distance of fifty or sixty yards and taking up a new position; but always after a while he would drift thither, and I would have him near me, singing and moving, as before.
I was glad of this inquisitiveness, if that was the bird's motive (that I had unconsciously fascinated him I could not believe); for of all the wood wrens I have seen this seemed the most beautiful, most graceful in his motions, and untiring in song. Doubtless this was because I saw him so closely, and for such long intervals. His fresh yellowish-green upper and white under plumage gave him a wonderfully delicate appearance, and these colours harmonised with the tender greens of the opening leaves and the pale greys and silvery whites of the slender boles.
Seebohm says of this species: "They arrive in our woods in marvellously perfect plumage. In the early morning sun they look almost as delicate a yellowish-green as the half-grown leaves amongst which they disport themselves. In the hand the delicate shading of the eye-stripe, and the margin of the feathers of the wings and tail, is exquisitely beautiful, but is almost all lost under the rude handling of the bird-skinner."
The concluding words sound almost strange; but it is a fact that this sylph-like creature is sometimes shattered with shot and its poor remains operated on by the bird-stuffer. Its beauty "in the hand" cannot compare with that exhibited when it lives and moves and sings. Its appearance during flight differs from that of other warblers on account of the greater length and sharpness of the wings. Most warblers fly and sing hurriedly; the wood wren's motions, like its song, are slower, more leisurely, and more beautiful. When moved by the singing passion it is seldom still for more than a few moments at a time, but is continually passing from branch to branch, from tree to tree, finding a fresh perch from which to deliver its song on each occasion. At such times it has the appearance of a delicately coloured miniature kestrel or hobby. Most lovely is its appearance when it begins to sing in the air, for then the long sharp wings beat time to the first clear measured notes, the prelude to the song. As a rule, however, the flight is silent, and the song begins when the new perch is reached—first the distinct notes that are like musical strokes, and fall faster and faster until they run and swell into a long passionate trill—the woodland sound which is like no other.
Charming a creature as the wood wren appears when thus viewed closely in the early spring-time, he is not my favourite among small birds because of his beauty of shape and colour and graceful motions, which are seen only for a short time, but on account of his song, which lasts until September; though I may not find it very easy to give a reason for the preference.
It comforts me a little in this inquiry to remember that Wordsworth preferred the stock-dove to the nightingale—that "creature of ebullient heart." The poet was a little shaky in his ornithology at times; but if we take it that he meant the ring-dove, his preference might still seem strange to some. Perhaps it is not so very strange after all.
If we take any one of the various qualities which we have agreed to consider highest in bird-music, we find that the wood wren compares badly with his fellow-vocalists—that, measured by this standard, he is a very inferior singer. Thus, in variety, he cannot compare with the thrush, garden-warbler, sedge-warbler, and others; in brilliance and purity of sound with the nightingale, blackcap, etc.; in strength and joyousness with the skylark; in mellowness with the blackbird; in sprightliness with the goldfinch and chaffinch; in sweetness with the wood-lark, tree-pipit, reed-warbler, the chats and wagtails, and so on to the end of all the qualities which we regard as important. What, then, is the charm of the wood wren's song? The sound is unlike any other, but that is nothing, since the same can be said of the wryneck and cuckoo and grasshopper warbler. To many persons the wood wren's note is a bird-sound and nothing more, and it may even surprise them to hear it called a song. Indeed, some ornithologists have said that it is not a song, but a call or cry, and it has also been described as "harsh."
I here recall a lady who sat next to me on the coach that took me from Minehead to Lynton. The lady resided at Lynton, and finding that I was visiting the place for the first time, she proceeded to describe its attractions with fluent enthusiasm. When we arrived at the town, and were moving very slowly into it, my companion turned and examined my face, waiting to hear the expressions of rapturous admiration that would fall from my lips. Said I, "There is one thing you can boast of in Lynton. So far as I know, it is the only town in the country where, sitting in your own room with the windows open, you can listen to the song of the wood wren." Her face fell. She had never heard of the wood wren, and when I pointed to the tree from which the sound came and she listened and heard, she turned away, evidently too disgusted to say anything. She had been wasting her eloquence on an unworthy subject—one who was without appreciation for the sublime and beautiful in nature. The wild romantic Lynn, tumbling with noise and foam over its rough stony bed, the vast wooded hills, the piled-up black rocks (covered in places with beautiful red and blue lettered advertisements), had been passed by in silence—nothing had stirred me but the chirping of a miserable little bird, which, for all that she knew or cared, might be a sparrow! When we got down from the coach a couple of minutes later, she walked away without even saying good-bye.
There is no doubt that very many persons know and care as little about bird voices as this lady; but how about the others who do know and care a good deal—what do they think and feel about the song of the wood wren? I know two or three persons who are as fond of the bird as I am; and two or three recent writers on bird life have spoken of its song as if they loved it. The ornithologists have in most cases been satisfied to quote Gilbert White's description of Letter XIX.: "This last haunts only the tops of trees in high beechen woods, and makes a sibilous grasshopper-like noise now and then, at short intervals, shaking a little with its wings when it sings."
White was a little more appreciative in the case of the willow wren when he spoke of its "joyous, easy, laughing note"; yet the willow wren has had to wait a long time to be recognised as one of our best vocalists. Some years ago it was greatly praised by John Burroughs, who came over from America to hear the British songsters, his thoughts running chiefly on the nightingale, blackcap, throstle, and blackbird; and he was astonished to find that this unfamed warbler, about which the ornithologists had said little and the poets nothing, was one of the most delightful vocalists, and had a "delicious warble." He waxed indignant at our neglect of such a singer, and cried out that it had too fine a song to please the British ear; that a louder coarser voice was needed to come up to John Bull's standard of a good song. No one who loves a hearty laugh can feel hurt at his manner of expressing himself, so characteristic of an American. Nevertheless, the fact remains that only since Burroughs' appreciation of the British song-birds first appeared, several years ago, the willow wren, which he found languishing in obscurity, has had many to praise it. At all events, the merits of its song are now much more freely acknowledged than they were formerly.
Perhaps the wood wren's turn will come by and by. He is still an obscure bird, little known, or not known, to most people: we are more influenced by what the old writers have said than we know or like to believe; our preferences have mostly been made for us. The species which they praised and made famous have kept their places in popular esteem, while other species equally charming, which they did not know or said nothing about, are still but little regarded. It is hardly to be doubted that the wood wren would have been thought more of if Willughby, the Father of British Ornithology, had known it and expressed a high opinion of its song; or that it would have had millions to admire it if Chaucer or Shakespeare had singled it out for a few words of praise.
It is also probably the fact that those who are not students, or close observers of bird life, seldom know more than a very few of the most common species; and that when they hear a note that pleases them they set it down to one of the half-dozen or three or four songsters whose names they remember. I met with an amusing instance of this common mistake at a spot in the west of England, where I visited a castle on a hill, and was shown over the beautiful but steep grounds by a stout old dame, whose breath and temper were alike short. It was a bright morning in May, and the birds were in full song. As we walked through the shrubbery a blackcap burst into a torrent of wild heart-enlivening melody from amidst the foliage not more than three yards away. "How well that blackcap sings!" I remarked. "That blackbird," she corrected; "yes, it sings well." She stuck to it that it was a blackbird, and to prove that I was wrong assured me that there were no blackcaps there. Finding that I refused to acknowledge myself in error, she got cross and dropped into sullen silence; but ten or fifteen minutes later she returned of her own accord to the subject. "I've been thinking, sir," she said, "that you must be right. I said there are no blackcaps here because I've been told so, but all the same I've often remarked that the blackbird has two different songs. Now I know, but I'm so sorry that I didn't know a few days sooner." I asked her why. She replied, "The other day a young American lady came to the castle and I took her over the grounds. The birds were singing the same as to-day, and the young lady said, 'Now, I want you to tell me which is the blackcap's song. Just think,' she said, 'what a distance I have come, from America! Well, when I was bidding good-bye to my friends at home I said, "Don't you envy me? I'm going to Old England to hear the blackcap's song."' Well, when I told her we had no blackcaps she was so disappointed; and yet, sir, if what you say is right, the bird was singing near us all the time!"
Poor young lady from America! I should have liked to know whose written words first fired her brain with desire of the blackcap's song—a golden voice in imagination's ear, while the finest home voices were merely silvern. I think of my own case; how in boyhood this same bird first warbled to me in some lines of a poem I read; and how, long years afterwards, I first heard the real song—beautiful, but how unlike the song I had imagined! —one bright evening in early May, at Netley Abbey. But the poet's name had meanwhile slipped out of memory; nothing but a vague impression remained (and still persists) that he flourished and had great fame about the beginning of the nineteenth century, and that now his (or her) fame and works are covered with oblivion.
To return to the subject of this paper: the wood wren—the secret of its charm. We see that, tried by ordinary standards, many other singers are its superiors; what, then, is the mysterious something in its music that makes it to some of us even better than the best? Speaking for myself, I should say because it is more harmonious, or in more perfect accord with the nature amid which it is heard; it is the truer woodland voice.
The chaffinch as a rule sings in open woods and orchards and groves when there is light and life and movement; but sometimes in the heart of a deep wood the silence is broken by its sudden loud lyric: it is unexpected and sounds unfamiliar in such a scene; the wonderfully joyous ringing notes are like a sudden flood of sunshine in a shady place. The sound is intensely distinct and individual, in sharp contrast to the low forest tones: its effect on the ear is similar to that produced on the sight by a vivid contrast in colours, as by a splendid scarlet or shining yellow flower blooming solitary where all else is green. The effect produced by the wood wren is totally different; the strain does not contrast with, but is complementary to, the "tremulous cadence low" of inanimate nature in the high woods, of wind-swayed branches and pattering of rain and lisping and murmuring of innumerable leaves—the elemental sounds out of which it has been fashioned. In a sense it may be called a trivial and a monotonous song—the strain that is like a long tremulous cry, repeated again and again without variation; but it is really beyond criticism—one would have to begin by depreciating the music of the wind. It is a voice of the beechen woods in summer, of the far-up cloud of green, translucent leaves, with open spaces full of green shifting sunlight and shadow. Though resonant and far-reaching it does not strike you as loud, but rather as the diffused sound of the wind in the foliage concentrated and made clear—a voice that has light and shade, rising and passing like the wind, changing as it flows, and quivering like a wind-fluttered leaf. It is on account of this harmony that it is not trivial, and that the ear never grows tired of listening to it: sooner would it tire of the nightingale—its purest, most brilliant tone and most perfect artistry.
The continuous singing of a skylark at a vast height above the green, billowy sun and shadow-swept earth is an etherealised sound which fills the blue space, fills it and falls, and is part of that visible nature above us, as if the blue sky, the floating clouds, the wind and sunshine, has something for the hearing as well as for the sight. And as the lark in its soaring song is of the sky, so the wood wren is of the wood.
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