BIRDS AND STATESMEN
By William Lyon Phelps
When, in the Spring of 1910, Theodore Roosevelt was on his way to England from his African explorations, he wrote a strange letter to the British Foreign Office in London. I call it a strange letter, because it is the kind of epistle one would not expect to be sent by an ex-executive of one country to the Foreign Office of another. He wrote that during his stay in England he would like to make an excursion into the woods, hear the English songbirds and learn their names; in order that he might do this satisfactorily and intelligently, would the Foreign Office please select some naturalist who knew the note of every bird in England and request him to accompany Mr. Roosevelt on this expedition?
Well, the head of the British Foreign Office was Sir Edward Grey and he himself knew the note of every singing bird in England-a remarkable accomplishment for one of the busiest statesmen in the world. He therefore appointed himself as bird-guide for the ex-President of the United States.
The two distinguished men stood on a railway platform one day in May and were surrounded by reporters, who supposed that a new world problem of the first magnitude was on the carpet. But the two men told the reporters that they were going away into the country for two days, did not wish to be disturbed, and asked the journalists to leave them alone. Accordingly, it was generally believed that Roosevelt and Grey were absorbed in the discussion of international affairs, and as the great war broke out a few years later, some went so far as to believe then that it had its origin in this sinister interview.
Now, as a matter of fact, the two men did not mention either war or politics; they went awalking in the New Forest and every time they heard the voice of a bird, Grey told Roosevelt the singer's name. They both agreed (and so do I) that the English blackbird is the best soloist in Great Britain.
It is a curious fact that the four most famous birds in English literature are none of them native in America. The Big Four are the Nightingale, the Skylark, the Blackbird and the Cuckoo.From Chaucer to Kipling the British poets have chanted the praise of the Nightingale. And of all the verses in his honour, it is perhaps the tribute by Keats that is most worthy of the theme.
Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oftimes hath
Charmed magic casements,
opening on the foam Of perilous seas,
in faery lands forlorn.
We never had nightingales in the United States until Edward W. Bok imported them into his Bird Paradise in Florida. Previous attempts to bring them over had failed; the birds invariably died. Some investigators declared that this tragedy was owing to the change of diet; but of course the real reason for their death was American poetry. After the nightingales had listened for centuries to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, etc., the change to the level of American verse was too much for them, and they died of shock.
The English skylark leaves the grass and soars aloft, singing his heart out, so that after he has disappeared in the sky, we hear his voice coming down out of the blue, like a revelation. One of the poets calls it a "sightless song." Shakespeare sends the skylark to the gate of heaven.
And Shelley's poem on the skylark expresses the ethereal nature of the soaring voice of this bird
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud o[ fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar,
and Soaring ever singest.
little face, he sent straight into the gale the loveliest music. Tennyson has observed how the voice of the blackbird loses its beauty in the hot Summer days.
A golden bill! the silver tongue,
Cold February loved, is dry:
Plenty corrupts the melody
That made thee famous once, when young;
And in the sultry garden-squares,
Now thy flute-notes are changed to coarse,
I hear thee not at all, or hoarse
As when a hawker hawks his wares.
American blackbirds do not sing well; the socalled crow-blackbird, so common in flocks in autumn, makes a noise like tonsillitis, or as if he had a boy's voice in process of changing, or as if he were a hinge that needed oiling. Our redwing blackbird, with his scarlet epaulets, has a good-natured and perky wheeze, which can hardly be called singing. But the English and Continental blackbird pours out of his throat the most heavenly melody. One Winter day in Munich, in the midst of a snowstorm, I saw a blackbird perched on a tree directly in front of the University building. He was "hove to," that is, he had his beak turned directly into the wind, and as the snowflakes beat against his
The nearest we Americans can get to the English cuckoo is the abominable cuckoo clock. The voice of the English cuckoo sounds exactly like the clock, only of course you can't train him to strike right. In addition to his regular accomplishment, he is a ventriloquist and can throw his voice a tremendous distance. One day, crossing a field in Sussex, I heard the loud double note of the cuckoo, apparently directly behind me. He was in reality a furlong away. Wordsworth says:
O blithe New-comer! I have heard, I hear thee and rejoice.
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird, Or but a wandering Voice?
While I am lying on the grass
Thy twofold shout I hear,
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off and near.
Concerning the all too common crimes of shooting, snaring, and eating little singing birds, the English poet, Ralph Hodgson, has expressed himself in words that ought to be everywhere read
I saw with open eyes Singing birds sweet Sold in the shops
For the people to eat, Sold in the shops of Stupidity Street.
I saw in a vision
The worm in the wheat
And in the shops nothing
For people to eat:
Nothing for sale in Stupidity Street.