Friday, January 29, 2010

A Chickadee break

From Good Housekeeping (1901).


Seen any good bird poetry in Good Housekeeping lately?

Probably not.

Here's a companion piece, titled "Tom and Phebe" from the following year that appeared in the New England Homestead.
There are some little friends of mine with whom I wish everyone would become acquainted. I write "would" instead of "could" because almost anyone with the inclination can if they will make the first advances. These little friends of mine are very social and will meet you halfway. They are demure little people in black and gray, with grayish white vests, and wear black caps. Learned men of science have a funny way of saddling the smallest creatures with the longest names, as if to make amends for their lack of stature. So to science then these little people are known as Parus Atricapillus, but I, being familiar with them, know them as Tom and Phebe, while you probably know them as blackcapped titmouse or chickadee.

Now it is out, and doubtless you are saying, "Pooh! I know the chickadees!" Do you? Very likely some of you do, but I think that I am safe in asserting that more do not. Have you ever conversed with them? Have you ever talked with them or let them talk to you?

Of all the feathered folk who spend the winter in the north, these little roly-poly downy gymnasts are the happiest, brightest and most social. Always busy, they are always merry. Every twig and branch must be thoroughly inspected by those tiny, bright, beadlike eyes for the minute eggs and larvae which help to constitute their diet.

How rapidly they flit now in the weeds and now hanging head downward and taking a sip of water from the drop on the tip of the tiny icicle pendent from a twig! And all the time their cheerful "chicadee-dee-dee-dee" greets you. Now they are too busy to more than chirp, and anon one stops long enough to catch his breath and chirrup just the suggestion of a lay, a little throaty apology for a song which somehow always seems to me like the bubbling over of joyousness from a full heart. But if you would know more of Tom Titmouse, whistle softly two notes high pitched, with the first note rising: "Phebe" or "pee-wee." Instantly Tom will reply and if it be toward the mating season he will become so much in earnest that you will not be able to keep up with him and he will come so close that you can almost put your hand on him. By calling him regularly every day and putting out a few cracked nuts or a bit of suet or a bone with a little meat left on, he will soon admit you to good fellowship and will unhesitatingly feed from your hand.

Of all the birds who gladden our long winters there is none of so cheery a disposition as the chickadee. No matter how cold the day, he will come out to greet you as you walk and chase away the bugbear of depression. I am never lonely when one of these feathered sprites is within calling distance.
Note the persistent Burgess themes of "knowing"/making familiars of wild animals, communicating with them, naming them. Since Emerson, the cheerfulness of the chickadee in the most hostile environments has been a common topic of poetry; here Burgess is simply voicing a familiar refrain. At a personal level, though, I find interesting Burgess's reference to depression and loneliness (and how communion with chickadees is a remedy).


Tomorrow: New England Homestead Table talk

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