The New Witness
By Katharine Tynan
The long, low eighteenth-century house is swathed thickly in green, which affords cover for the starlings. Their queer, long, courting whistle went on through February and March—no chance of sleeping late of mornings—and now they are engaged in feeding their families. I do not know any birds which make their domesticities so public as the starlings. Not a yellow throat is fed but what you are aware of it. Such chuckles and gurgles were never heard except from the starlings.
I sit by the window of the house which is nearest the fowl-yard, overlooking a great stretch of sky and bog and hill. While I lie in bed of mornings, while I sit by my window, like Sister Anne—without an expectation of seeing anyone coming—I hear the cackling of hens close at hand. Those ladies are supposed to be kept to their own premises. I am told that they are so kept. But the cackling goes on. Oddly enough, there are always three cackles, no more, and they sound a little faint. Well, I know the ways of the “laying-out” hen, how shy and crafty she is. Still those three cackles and no more sound almost too moderate to express the joyful triumph of maternity. The coachman, the gardener, the maid-servants and the boys at home from school are set to hunt in the thick branches of the Wellingtonia on the lawn, in the impenetrable hedge of laurel and holly for the eggs which are being “laid-out”—with no result. Not an egg rewards the searchers. Still I am positive. I wake to the three cackles and almost lie down to them. Till sitting all one afternoon by the open window I discover the cackling close to my hand, a starling. The mimicry is life-like.
Again the ring of a bicycle bell brings us to pop our heads out of window. We have been doing it for quite a considerable time without result before we discover that the bicycle bell is in the throat of the starlings.
At the other end of the house the starlings know nothing of the cackling of hens. A realistic miaowing of a cat this morning drew us to shoo away the intruder. The starlings again! I am told that on the battlefields of Flanders they are gaily mimicking the mourn of the shell on its path.
How little we know of what goes on inside a bird’s head. A little while ago I was staying at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. In St. Stephen’s Green, just opposite the hotel, were ornamental waters upon which were a great many water-fowl. I have an impression that they hail from Northern latitudes. The Green is always crowded with tired men and women, with children of the slums, with people taking a short cut by this pleasant way from one thoroughfare to another, by the wounded soldiers from St. Vincent’s Hospital in these days. Well, anything more sophisticated than those ducks I cannot imagine. You see them waddling between the feet of the crowd, crossing a children’s game, wandering about at their own sweet will, real citizens of the world, accustomed to be fed and made much of and admired, without, one would say, possibility of any sensation beyond what their pampered life affords. Well, every night about mid-night came the quacking of the ducks and the beat of their wings as they rose above the considerable height of the hotel buildings. On the night of a storm they were more than usually wild, calling above the wind with ecstatic enjoyment. If you were awake at five a.m. you heard them coming back to their little water. Someone told me they went inland to some water where no one knew. I am inclined to think it was the migrating instinct which, here in Mayo, in those same bright, chill spring evenings, was sending the wild geese flying in a wedge so high that only a very keen eye could see them, though their crying seemed to trail on the ground, flying, flying to the north-west.
There are in Mayo, without exception, the loudest cuckoos I ever heard. That such a small bird should make such a great noise, like the ringing of a loud bell in the woods, seems almost incredible. Though the cuckoo rings his bell on and off all day long he lazes. On a very hot day recently he could not by any manner of means finish his “cuckoo” properly. He said “Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” Then, after a pause, he said abruptly, “Cuck!”
One year I had the felicity in Hertfordshire of hearing the great contest of song between the cock nightingales which opens the season in England. The cock nightingales arrive a week before the hens and solace the waiting week by singing against each other. The Rev. Mr. Johns, the ornithologist, says that the first nightingales to arrive in England tryst at a certain Hertfordshire coppice, the whereabouts of which nothing would induce him to tell. Well, in that year of grace the coppice was thinned. The nightingales, arriving, did not approve of the innovation and deserted the coppice for a not very distant hedge which happened to divide my field from the next field. That was a week not to be forgotten. Perhaps it was not quite so wonderful an adventure as that of Mr. Kipling’s boy who saw the elephants dance, but it was a very delightful adventure all the same.
Birds are sometimes uncanny. I was a visitor at an Irish country house where the host was in failing health. Some time before a much younger member of the family who lived at a little distance had died. The morning after my arrival—a beautiful summer morning—I was awakened about four o’clock by a steady sound of hammering which appeared to me as though someone were driving in a nail. The sound went on without intermission all through the morning. At breakfast I asked what the noise was. “It is that hateful magpie,” I was told. “Every morning from the time the sun rises it taps at the poor old man’s window. It used to tap at J——‘s before he died. When J—— died it came here. It will not be driven off, and we have tried to shoot it, but in vain. It goes away during the day when the room is empty and comes back in the early morning. It disturbs the poor old man. We try to persuade him that it is a pet which has escaped and is seeking admittance.” The magpie in this case disappeared after the second death.
Before I can finish this the starlings have added to their repertoire. They are sawing wood. Or are they mimicking the corn-crake which has begun in the meadows? The voice of the Irish summer, harsh in itself but honey-sweet in its memories and dreams of still nights, when one listens to it under a low thatched farmhouse roof when one was young and the beloved dead are yet with us.