Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Eagle and the Canary



ONE week-day morning, following a crowd of well-dressed people, I presently found myself in a large church or chapel, where I spent an hour very pleasantly, listening to a great man's pulpit eloquence. He preached about genius. The subject was not suggested by the text, nor did it have any close relation with the other parts, of his discourse; it was simply a digression, and, to my mind, a very delightful one. He began about the restrictions to which we are all more or less subject, the aspirations that are never destined to be fulfilled, but are mocked by life's brevity. And it was at this point that--probably thinking of his own case--he branched off into the subject of genius; and proceeded to show that a man possessing that divine quality finds existence a much sadder affair than the ordinary man; the reason being that his aspirations are so much loftier than those of other minds, the difference between his ideal and reality must be correspondingly greater in his case. This was obvious--almost a truism; but the illustration by means of which he brought it home to his hearers was certainly born of poetic imagination. The life of the ordinary person he likened to that of the canary in its cage. And here, dropping his lofty didactic manner, and--if I may coin a word--smalling his deep, sonorous voice, to a thin reedy treble, in imitation of the tenuous fringilline pipe, he went on with lively language, rapid utterance, and suitable brisk movements and gestures, to describe the little lemon-coloured housekeeper in her gilded cage. Oh, he cried, what a bright, busy bustling life is hers, with so many things to occupy her time! how briskly she hops from perch to perch, then to the floor, and back from floor to perch again! how often she drops down to taste the seed in her box, or scatter it about her in a little shower! how curiously, and turning her bright eyes critically this way and that, she listens to every new sound and regards every object of sight! She must chirp and sing, and hop from place to place, and eat and drink, and preen her wings, and do at least a dozen different things every minute; and her time is so fully taken up that the narrow limits confining her are almost forgotten--the wires that separate her from the great world of wind-tossed woods, and of blue fields of air, and the free, buoyant life for which her instincts and faculties fit her, and which, alas! can never more be hers.

All this sounded very pretty, as well as true, and there was a pleased smile on every face in the audience.

Then the rapid movements and gestures ceased, and the speaker was silent. A cloud came over his rough-hewn majestic visage; he drew himself up, and swayed his body from side to side, and shook his black gown, and lifted his arms, as their plumed homologues are lifted by some great bird, and let them fall again two or three times; and then said, in deep measured tones, which seemed to express rage and despair, "But did you ever see the eagle in his cage?"

The effect of the contrast was grand. He shook himself again, and lifted and dropped his arms again, assuming, for the nonce, the peculiar aquiline slouch; and there before us stood the mighty bird of Jove, as we are accustomed to see it in the Zoological Gardens; its deep-set, desolate eyes looking through and beyond us; ruffling its dark plumage, and lifting its heavy wings as if about to scorn the earth, only to drop them again, and to utter one of those long dreary cries which seem to protest so eloquently against a barbarous destiny. Then he proceeded to tell us of the great raptor in its life of hopeless captivity; his stern, rugged countenance, deep bass voice, and grand mouth-filling polysllables suiting his subject well, and making his description seem to our minds a sombre magnificent picture never to be forgotten--at all events, never by an ornithologist.

Doubtless this part of his discourse proved eminently pleasing to the majority of his hearers, who, looking downwards into the depths of their own natures, would be able to discern there a glimmer, or possibly more than a glimmer of that divine quality he had spoken of, and which was, unhappily for them, not recognized by the world at large; so that, for the moment, he was addressing a congregation of captive eagles, all mentally ruffling their plumage and flapping their pinions, and uttering indignant screams of protest against the injustice of their lot.

The illustration pleased me for a different reason, namely, because, being a student of bird-life, his contrasted picture of the two widely different kinds, when deprived of liberty, struck me as being singularly true to nature, and certainly it could not have been more forcibly and picturesquely put. For it is unquestionably the fact that the misery we inflict by tyrannously using the power we possess over God's creatures, is great in proportion to the violence of the changes of condition to which we subject our prisoners; and while canary and eagle are both more or less aerial in their mode of life, and possessed of boundless energy, the divorce from nature is immeasurably greater in one case than in the other. The small bird, in relation to its free natural life, is less confined in its cage than the large one. Its smallness, perching structure, and restless habits, fit it for continual activity, and its flitting, active life within the bars bears some resemblance except in the great matter of flight, to its life in a state of nature. Again, its lively, curious, and extremely impressible character, is in many ways an advantage in captivity; every new sound and sight, and every motion, however slight, in any object or body near it, affording it, so to speak, something to think about. It has the further advantage of a varied and highly musical language; the frequent exercise of the faculty of singing, in birds, with largely developed vocal organs, no doubt reacts on the system, and contributes not a little to keep the prisoner healthy and cheerful.

On the other hand, the eagle, on account of its structure and large size, is a prisoner indeed, and must languish with all its splendid faculties and importunate impulses unexercised. You may gorge it with gobbets of flesh until its stomach cries, "Enough"; but what of all the other organs fed by the stomach, and their correlated faculties? Every bone and muscle and fibre, every feather and scale, is instinct with an energy which you cannot satisfy, and which is like an eternal hunger. Chain it by the feet, or place it in a cage fifty feet wide--in either case it is just as miserable. The illimitable fields of thin cold air, where it outrides the winds and soars exulting beyond the clouds, alone can give free space for the display of its powers and scope to its boundless energies. Nor to the power of flight alone, but also to a vision formed for sweeping wide horizons, and perceiving objects at distances which to short-sighted man seem almost miraculous. Doubtless, eagles, like men, possess some adaptiveness, else they would perish in their enforced inactivity, swallowing without hunger and assimilating without pleasure the cold coarse flesh we give them. A human being can exist, and even be tolerably cheerful, with limbs paralyzed and hearing gone; and that, to my mind, would be a parallel case to that of the eagle deprived of its liberty and of the power to exercise its flight, vision, and predatory instincts.

As I sit writing these thoughts, with a cage containing four canaries on the table before me, I cannot help congratulating these little prisoners on their comparatively happy fate in having been born, or hatched, finches and not eagles. And yet albeit I am not responsible for the restraint which has been put upon them, and am not their owner, being only a visitor in the house, I am troubled with some uncomfortable feelings concerning their condition--feelings which have an admixture of something like a sense of shame or guilt, as if an injustice had been done, and I had stood by consenting. I did not do it, but we did it. I remember Matthew Arnold's feeling lines on his dead canary, "Poor Matthias," and quote:


Yet, poor bird, thy tiny corse
Moves me, somehow, to remorse;
Something haunts my conscience, brings
Sad, compunctious visitings.
Other favourites, dwelling here,
Open lived with us, and near;
Well we knew when they were glad
Plain we saw if they were sad;
Sympathy could feel and show
Both in weal of theirs and woe.


Birds, companions more unknown,
Live beside us, but alone;
Finding not, do all they can,
Passage from their souls to man.
Kindness we bestow and praise,
Laud their plumage, greet their lays;
Still, beneath their feathered breast
Stirs a history unexpressed.
Wishes there, and feeling strong,
Incommunicably throng;
What they want we cannot guess.


This, as poetry, is good, but it does not precisely fit my case; my "compunctious visitings" being distinctly different in origin and character from the poet's. He--Matthew Arnold--is a poet, and the author of much good verse, which I appreciate and hold dear. But he was not a naturalist--all men cannot be everything. And I, a naturalist, hold that the wishes, thronging the restless little feathered breast are not altogether so incommunicable as the melodious mourner of "Poor Matthias" imagines. The days--ay, and years--which I have spent in the society of my feathered friends have not, I flatter myself, been so wasted that I cannot small my soul, just as the preacher smalled his voice, to bring it within reach of them, and establish some sort of passage.

And so, thinking that a little more knowledge of birds than most people possess, and consideration for them--for I will not be so harsh to speak of justice--and time and attention given to their wants, might remove this reproach, and silence these vague suggestions of a too fastidious conscience, I have taken the trouble to add something to the seed with which these little prisoners had been supplied. For we give sweetmeats to the child that cries for the moon--an alternative which often acts beneficially--and there is nothing more to be done. Any one of us, even a philosopher, would think it hard to be restricted to dry bread only, yet such a punishment would be small compared with that which we, in our ignorance or want of consideration, inflict on our caged animals--our pets on compulsion. Small, because an almost infinite variety of flavours drawn from the whole vegetable kingdom--a hundred flavours for every one in the dietary which satisfies our heavier mammalian natures--is a condition of the little wild bird's existence and essential to its well-being and perfect happiness. And so, to remedy this defect, I went out into the garden, and with seeding grasses and pungent buds, and leaves of a dozen different kinds, I decorated the cage until it looked less like a prison than a bower. And now for an hour the little creatures have been busy with their varied green fare, each one tasting half a dozen different leaves every minute, hopping here and there and changing places with his fellows, glancing their bright little eyes this way and that, and all the time uttering gratulatory notes in the canary's conversational tone. And their language is not altogether untranslatable. I listen to one, a pretty pure yellow bird, but slightly tyrannical in his treatment of the others, and he says, or seems to say: "This is good, I like it, only the old leaf is tough; the buds would be better. . . . These are certainly not so good. I tasted them out of compliment to nature, though they were scarcely palatable. . . ." No, that was not my own expression; it was said by Thoreau, perhaps the only human a little bird can quote with approval. "This is decidedly bitter--and yet--yes, it does leave a pleasant flavour on the palate. Make room for me there--or I shall make you and let me taste it again. Yes, I fancy I can remember eating something like this in a former state of existence, ages and ages ago." And so on, and so on, until I began to imagine that the whole thing had been put right, and that the uncomfortable feeling would return to trouble me no more. But at the rate they are devouring their green stuff there will not be a leat, scarcely a stem left in another hour; and then? Why, then they will have the naked wires of their cage all round them to protect them from the cat and for hunger there will be seed in the box.

After all, then, what a little I have been able to do! But I flatter myself that if they were mine I should do more. I never keep captive birds, but if they were given to me, and I could not refuse, I should do a great deal more for them. All my knowledge of their ways and their requirements would teach me how to make their caged existence less unlike the old natural life, than it now is. To begin the ameliorating process, I should place them in a large cage, large enough to allow space for flight, so that they might fly to and fro, a few feet each way, and rest their little feet from continual perching. That would enable them to exercise their most important muscles and experience once more, although in a very limited degree, the old delicious sensation of gliding at will through the void air. The wires of their new cage would be of brass or of some bright metal, and the wooden parts and perches green enamelled, or green variegated with brown and grey, and the roof would be hung with glass lustres, to quiver and sparkle into drops of violet, red, and yellow light, gladdening these little lovers of bright colours; for so we deem them. I should also add gay flowers and berries, crocus and buttercup and dandelion, hips and haws and mountain ash and yellow and scarlet leaves--all seasonable jewellery from woods and hedges and from the orchard and garden. Then would come the heaviest part of my task, which would be to satisfy their continual craving for new tastes in food, their delight in an endless variety. I should go to the great seed-merchants of London and buy samples of all the cultivated seeds of the earth, and not feed them in a trough, or manger, like heavy domestic brutes, but give it to them mixed and scattered in small quantities, to be searched for and gladly found in the sand and gravel and turf on the wide floor of the cage. And, higher up, the wires of their dwelling would be hung with an endless variety of seeded grasses, and sprays of all trees and plants, good, bad, and indifferent. For if the volatile bird dines on no more than twenty dishes every day he loves to taste of a hundred and to have at least a thousand on the table to choose from.

Feeding the birds and keeping the cage always sweet and clean would occupy most, if not the whole of my time. But would that be too much to give if it made me tranquil in my own mind? For it must be noted that I have done all this, mentally and on paper, for my own satisfaction rather than that of the canaries. Birds are not worth much--to us. Are not five sparrows sold for three farthings? I have even shot many birds and have felt no compunction. True, they perished before their time, but they did not languish, and being dead there was an end of them; but the caged canaries continuing with us, cannot be dismissed from the mind with the same convenient ease. After all, I begin to think that my imaginary reforms, if carried out, would not quite content me. The "compunctious visitings" would continue still. I look out of the window and see a sparrow on a neighbouring tree, loudly chirruping. And as I listen, trying to find comfort by thinking of the perils which do environ him, his careless unconventional sparrow-music resolves itself into articulate speech, interspersed with occasional bursts of derisive laughter. He knows, this fabulous sparrow, what I have been thinking about and have written. "How would you like it," I hear him saying, "O wise man that knows so much about the ways of birds, if you were shut up in a big cage--in Windsor Castle, let us say--with scores of menials to wait on you and anticipate your every want? That is, I must explain, every want compatible with--ahem!--the captive condition. Would you be happy in your confinement, practising with the dumb-bells, riding up and down the floors on a bicycle and gazing at pictures and filigree caskets and big malachite vases and eating dinners of many, many courses? Or would you begin to wish that you might be allowed to live on sixpence a day--and earn it; and even envy the ragged tramp who dines on a handful of half-rotten apples and sleeps in a hay-stack, but is free to come and go, and range the world at will? You have been playing at nature; but Nature mocks you, for your captives thank you not. They would rather go to her without an intermediary, and take a scantier measure of food from her hand, but flavoured as she only can flavour it. Widen your cage, naturalist; replace the little twinkling lustres with sun and moon and milky way; plant forests on the floor, and let there be hills and valleys, rivers and wide spaces; and let the blue pillars of heaven be the wires of your cage, with free entrance to wind and rain; then your little captives will be happy, even happy as I am, in spite of all the perils which do environ me--guns and cats and snares, with wet and fog and hard frosts to come."

And, seeing my error, I should open the cage and let them fly away. Even to death, I should let them fly, for there would be a taste of liberty first, and life without that sweet savour, whether of aerial bird or earth-bound man, is not worth living.


W. H. Hudson

Sorry, no summary available yet.