The Birds

Chapter 9
The Birds

The songs of the Yosemite winds and waterfalls are delightfully enriched
with bird song, especially in the nesting time of spring and early
summer. The most familiar and best known of all is the common robin, who
may be seen every day, hopping about briskly on the meadows and uttering
his cheery, enlivening call. The black-headed grosbeak, too, is here,
with the Bullock oriole, and western tanager, brown song-sparrow, hermit
thrush, the purple finch,–a fine singer, with head and throat of a
rosy-red hue,–several species of warblers and vireos, kinglets,
flycatchers, etc.

But the most wonderful singer of all the birds is the water-ouzel that
dives into foaming rapids and feeds at the bottom, holding on in a
wonderful way, living a charmed life.

Several species of humming-birds are always to be seen, darting and
buzzing among the showy flowers. The little red-bellied nuthatches, the
chickadees, and little brown creepers, threading the furrows of the bark
of the pines, searching for food in the crevices. The large Steller’s
jay makes merry in the pine-tops; flocks of beautiful green swallows
skim over the streams, and the noisy Clarke’s crow may oftentimes be
seen on the highest points around the Valley; and in the deep woods
beyond the walls you may frequently hear and see the dusky grouse and
the pileated woodpecker, or woodcock almost as large as a pigeon. The
junco or snow-bird builds its nest on the floor of the Valley among the
ferns; several species of sparrow are common and the beautiful lazuli
bunting, a common bird in the underbrush, flitting about among the
azalea and ceanothus bushes and enlivening the groves with his brilliant
color; and on gravelly bars the spotted sandpiper is sometimes seen.
Many woodpeckers dwell in the Valley; the familiar flicker, the Harris
woodpecker and the species which so busily stores up acorns in the thick
bark of the yellow pines.

The short, cold days of winter are also sweetened with the music and
hopeful chatter of a considerable number of birds. No cheerier choir
ever sang in snow. First and best of all is the water-ouzel, a dainty,
dusky little bird about the size of a robin, that sings in sweet fluty
song all winter and all summer, in storms and calms, sunshine and
shadow, haunting the rapids and waterfalls with marvelous constancy,
building his nest in the cleft of a rock bathed in spray. He is not
web-footed, yet he dives fearlessly into foaming rapids, seeming to take
the greater delight the more boisterous the stream, always as cheerful
and calm as any linnet in a grove. All his gestures as he flits about
amid the loud uproar of the falls bespeak the utmost simplicity and
confidence–bird and stream one and inseparable. What a pair! yet they
are well related. A finer bloom than the foam bell in an eddying pool
is this little bird. We may miss the meaning of the loud-resounding
torrent, but the flute-like voice of the bird–only love is in it.

A few robins, belated on their way down from the upper Meadows, linger
in the Valley and make out to spend the winter in comparative comfort,
feeding on the mistletoe berries that grow on the oaks. In the depths
of the great forests, on the high meadows, in the severest altitudes,
they seem as much at home as in the fields and orchards about the busy
habitations of man, ascending the Sierra as the snow melts, following
the green footsteps of Spring, until in July or August the highest
glacier meadows are reached on the summit of the Range. Then, after the
short summer is over, and their work in cheering and sweetening these
lofty wilds is done, they gradually make their way down again in accord
with the weather, keeping below the snow-storms, lingering here and
there to feed on huckleberries and frost-nipped wild cherries growing
on the upper slopes. Thence down to the vineyards and orchards of the
lowlands to spend the winter; entering the gardens of the great towns
as well as parks and fields, where the blessed wanderers are too often
slaughtered for food–surely a bad use to put so fine a musician to;
better make stove wood of pianos to feed the kitchen fire.

The kingfisher winters in the Valley, and the flicker and, of course,
the carpenter woodpecker, that lays up large stores of acorns in the
bark of trees; wrens also, with a few brown and gray linnets, and flocks
of the arctic bluebird, making lively pictures among the snow-laden
mistletoe bushes. Flocks of pigeons are often seen, and about six
species of ducks, as the river is never wholly frozen over. Among these
are the mallard and the beautiful woodduck, now less common on account
of being so often shot at. Flocks of wandering geese used to visit the
Valley in March and April, and perhaps do so still, driven down by
hunger or stress of weather while on their way across the Range. When
pursued by the hunters I have frequently seen them try to fly over the
walls of Lee Valley until tired out and compelled to re-alight. Yosemite
magnitudes seem to be as deceptive to geese as to men, for after
circling to a considerable height and forming regular harrow-shaped
ranks they would suddenly find themselves in danger of being dashed
against the face of the cliff, much nearer the bottom than the top. Then
turning in confusion with loud screams they would try again and again
until exhausted and compelled to descend. I have occasionally observed
large flocks on their travels crossing the summits of the Range at a
height of 12,000 to 13,000 feet above the level of the sea, and even in
so rare an atmosphere as this they seemed to be sustaining themselves
without extra effort. Strong, however, as they are of wind and wing,
they cannot fly over Yosemite walls, starting from the bottom.

A pair of golden eagles have lived in the Valley ever since I first
visited it, hunting all winter along the northern cliffs and down the
river cañon. Their nest is on a ledge of the cliff over which pours
the Nevada Fall. Perched on the top of a dead spar, they were always
interested observers of the geese when they were being shot at. I once
noticed one of the geese compelled to leave the flock on account of
being sorely wounded, although it still seemed to fly pretty well.
Immediately the eagles pursued it and no doubt struck it down, although
I did not see the result of the hunt. Anyhow, it flew past me up the
Valley, closely pursued.

One wild, stormy winter morning after five feet of snow had fallen on
the floor of the Valley and the flying flakes driven by a strong wind
still thickened the air, making darkness like the approach of night, I
sallied forth to see what I might learn and enjoy. It was impossible
to go very far without the aid of snow-shoes, but I found no great
difficulty in making my way to a part of the river where one of my
ouzels lived. I found him at home busy about his breakfast, apparently
unaware of anything uncomfortable in the weather. Presently he flew out
to a stone against which the icy current was beating, and turning his
back to the wind, sang as delightfully as a lark in springtime.

After spending an hour or two with my favorite, I made my way across the
Valley, boring and wallowing through the loose snow, to learn as much
as possible about the way the other birds were spending their time. In
winter one can always find them because they are then restricted to the
north side of the Valley, especially the Indian Cañon groves, which
from their peculiar exposure are the warmest.

I found most of the robins cowering on the lee side of the larger
branches of the trees, where the snow could not fall on them, while two
or three of the more venturesome were making desperate efforts to get at
the mistletoe berries by clinging to the underside of the snow-crowned
masses, back downward, something like woodpeckers. Every now and then
some of the loose snow was dislodged and sifted down on the hungry
birds, sending them screaming back to their companions in the grove,
shivering and muttering like cold, hungry children.

Some of the sparrows were busy scratching and pecking at the feet of
the larger trees where the snow had been shed off, gleaning seeds
and benumbed insects, joined now and then by a robin weary of his
unsuccessful efforts to get at the snow-covered mistletoe berries. The
brave woodpeckers were clinging to the snowless sides of the larger
boles and overarching branches of the camp trees, making short flights
from side to side of the grove, pecking now and then at the acorns they
had stored in the bark, and chattering aimlessly as if unable to keep
still, evidently putting in the time in a very dull way. The hardy
nuthatches were threading the open furrows of the barks in their usual
industrious manner and uttering their quaint notes, giving no evidence
of distress. The Steller’s jays were, of course, making more noise and
stir than all the other birds combined; ever coming and going with
loud bluster, screaming as if each had a lump of melting sludge in his
throat, and taking good care to improve every opportunity afforded by
the darkness and confusion of the storm to steal from the acorn stores
of the woodpeckers. One of the golden eagles made an impressive picture
as he stood bolt upright on the top of a tall pine-stump, braving the
storm, with his back to the wind and a tuft of snow piled on his broad
shoulders, a monument of passive endurance. Thus every storm-bound bird
seemed more or less uncomfortable, if not in distress. The storm was
reflected in every gesture, and not one cheerful note, not to say song,
came from a single bill. Their cowering, joyless endurance offered
striking contrasts to the spontaneous, irrepressible gladness of the
ouzel, who could no more help giving out sweet song than a rose sweet
fragrance. He must sing, though the heavens fall.