There are no birds in our forest more nimble in their motions, more graceful in the form and plumage, or more interesting in their ways, than the vireos. They seem to occupy an intermediate space between the sylvias and the flycatchers, but resemble the sylvias in their methods of foraging. Only two of the genus are common in Massachusetts, and these two are the most interesting of all. The subject of my present sketch in the red-eyed vireo. It is amusing to watch the bird as if creeps adroitly over the branches, carefully examining the under side of every leaf, and seizing the insects with an unfailing precision. This is the method of the sylvias; the flycatchers take all their prey while it is on the wing.
The red-eyed vireos were formerly very numerous in our cities and towns, making their homes in the tall elms, maples and ash trees that skirt he roadsides and shade public and private grounds. At any time of the day, from May till September, we might hear as we passed along the road one or more of them warbling among the lofty branches while diligently collecting their insect food. Parties occupying the seats under the trees on the Common in Boston on pleasant summer noons, would listen with delight to their cheerful notes, delivered without any long intermissions, from morning till night; and it was not often they obtain a glimpse of the seemingly invisible songster.
But we seldom hear one these days, except in the borders of woods. Since the English sparrows were introduced, and have multiplied to such prodigious excess, the vireos have disappeared not that the sparrows have driven them away, but that the vireos refuse to associate with them, or to remain in a neighborhood where they exist. Neither are they snobs; for a snob, in selecting his associates, thinks only of "consideration." They have done as we should do if we were invaded by a colony of Yahoos outnumbering our own people. If we could not destroy them, we should quit the region they had invaded. The vireo does not believe in the equality of races, probably because he has never read Dr. Pritchard.
I will confess therefore, that I feel a singular respect for the vireos, on account of the regard he shows for his own offspring by fleeing his country rather than to allow them to be reared in the company of an inferior race. Consider for a moment the grievance of the vireos, melodious songsters, haunted forever by the presence of a host of yapping, jabbering and quarreling birds beneath their orchestra, like a "Callithumpian band of antiques and horribles," serenading outside at a private concert. Birds that never utter a musical note are assembled under the green trees, where the vireos have made their abode for centuries, and drown their music by a seeming mockery.
Let us not be surprised, therefore, at the disappearance of these beautiful birds, and of many others equally beautiful and interesting, who instead of minding Wendell Phillips, have chosen to follow the example of the vireos. A bird's song is designed by nature as a charming reminder to the female of the presence of her mate, and as a means by which she might determine his whereabouts when seeking his company. I can easily imagine, therefore, that singing birds would be unable to endure in their resorts any continual noises that entirely overwhelm their song. They are delighted, like human beings, with the signs of life and gladness, and they sing more loudly and cheerfully when they hear other songsters about them and other agreeable sounds. But ought we to expect their aerial choirs, that warble in praise of the gentle mother of dews and flowers, would consent to remain in their chosen sylvan haunt, after its conditions were so changed that their voices were obliterated like the sound of a shepherd's pipe in the midst of a rattling hailstorm!
There is another important view to be taken of their sad case. The red-eyed vireo is a religious bird and a preacher. Listen to him a few moments are any time, and you will be convinced that he is talking. He says a few words, then pauses as if to deliberate or to watch their effect on his hearers, then utters a few more, stops to capture an insect, speaks two or three more words, and continues talking in this way, often an hour or half a day. He is no declaimer; he is not voluble like the bobolink, and never delivers a song that might not be measured by three syllables. Nuttall, who speaks of it as a flood of gushing melody poured forth in a rapid stream for several seconds, described the song of the purple finch mistaking it for that of the vireo. Ornithologists are very correct, undoubtedly, when they describe a bird's toes and talons; but they commit many egregious blunders when describing its notes. Even Samuels, who is seldom incorrect in his notations of bird songs, has copied Nuttall's error.
The red-eyed vireo, I repeat, is a preacher. He is constantly talking to his feathered disciples, and warning them to "flee from the wrath to come." His song is a true rhythmic sermon, promulgating the tenets of the genuine Orthodox faith, delivered at all hours of the day and in all days of the week. Taking a hint from the apostle's advice to "pray without ceasing," he preaches continually, delivering his exhortations while diligently picking up his subsistence, and rebuking by his example those economical Christians who spend the whole week hoarding up piety enough to last them during the Sabbath.
- Along the hamlet's shady street
- Where overarching elm trees meet
- And interlace their slender boughs,
- Solemn and earnest is the preacher.
- All the live long day a teacher.
- Waking sinners from their drowse
- His surpl___ is of olive green
- Beneath a vest of white is seen
- His pauses oft, his word are slow
- But listen, as you stand below
- My brethren ye sinners,
- O hear me O turn ye
- Repent ye my hearers,
- Repent ye you'll catch it!
- He has no special congregation
- Nor has received inauguration
- He speaks from all arboreal heights;
- Proceeds with cautious eloquence.
- And seems to pause and weigh the sense
- His words to music he recites
- That all where reason cannot win
- By music may be saved from sin.
- Like Moody, working many a miracle
- In saving souls by methods lyrical.
- My hearers except ye,
- My brethren ye sinners
- O turn ye repent ye
- Repent ye you'll catch it!
- While preaching this from sun to sun
- His earnest work is never done,
- He labors every shining hour
- Like our expositors of creeds
- Still mindful of his worldly needs.
- He sips the dewdrop from the flower;
- And, like a Baptist elder reaching
- To take a watch to mend while preaching
- Exhorting takes a caterpillar,
- Or swallows an incautious miller.
- Ye sinners O turn ye
- O turn ye why will ye
- Why will ye O sinners
- Except ye, you'll catch it!