Read THE ROSY SHIELD. of In Nesting Time , free online book, by Olive Thorne Miller, on

Soft falls his chant as on the nest
Beneath the sunny zone,
For love that stirred it in his breast
Has not aweary grown,
And ’neath the city’s shade can keep
The well of music clear and deep.

And love that keeps the music, fills
With pastorial memories.
All echoing from out the hills,
All droppings from the skies,
All flowings from the wave and wind
Remembered in the chant I find.


One of the most winning inhabitants of my bird-room last winter bore on his snow-white breast a pointed shield of beautiful rose-color, and the same rich hue lined his wings. With these exceptions his dress was of sober black and white, though so attractively disposed that he was an extremely pretty bird the rose-breasted grosbeak.

Nor was beauty his only attraction; he was a peculiar character, in every way different from his neighbors. He was dignified, yet his dignity was not like that of a thrush; he was calm and cool, yet not after the manner of an orchard oriole. He possessed a lovely gentleness of disposition, and a repose of manner unparalleled among my birds. Vulgar restlessness was unknown to him; flying about for mere exercise, or hopping from perch to perch to pass away time, he scorned. The frivolous way common to smaller birds of going for each seed as they want it, was beneath him. When he wished to eat he did so like a civilized being, that is, took his stand by the seed-cup, and stayed there, attending strictly to the business in hand till he had finished, leaving a neat pile of canary-seed shells in one spot, instead of the general litter common to cages. The meal over, he was ready to go out of the cage, place himself comfortably in one of his favorite corners, and remain for a long time, amused with the life in the room and the doings in the street, on both of which he seemed to look with the eye of a philosopher. In the same deliberate and characteristic way he disposed of a meal-worm, or a bit of beef, which he enjoyed. He never bolted it outright like a thrush, nor beat it to death like a tanager, nor held it under one toe and took it in mouthfuls like an oriole: he quietly worked it back and forth between his mandibles till reduced to a pulp, and then swallowed it.

The rosy shield-bearer was preeminently a creature of habit. Very early in his life with us he selected certain resting places for his private use, and all the months of his stay he never changed them. The one preferred above all others was the middle bar of the window-sash, in the corner, and I noticed that his choice was always a corner. In this sunny spot he spent most of the time, closely pressed against the window-casing, generally looking out at the trees and the sparrow-life upon them, and regarding every passer-by in the street, not in an unhappy way, but apparently considering the whole a panorama for his entertainment. When events in the room interested him, his post of observation was a bracket that held a small cage, where he often sat an hour at a time in perfect silence, looking at everybody, concerned about everything, his rosy shield and white breast effectively set off by the dark paper behind him.

Although thus immobile and silent, the grosbeak was far from being stupid. He had decided opinions and tastes as well defined as anybody’s. For example, when he came to me his cage stood on a shelf next to that occupied by two orchard orioles, and he was never pleased with the position. He was hardly restless even there, while suffering what he plainly considered a grievance, but he was uneasy. I saw that something was wrong, and guessed at once that it was because his upper perch was three inches lower than that in the next cage, and to have a neighbor higher than himself is always an offense to a bird. As soon as I raised his cage he was satisfied on that score, and no more disturbed me in the early morning by shuffling about on his perch and trying to fly upward.

But still things were not quite to his mind, and he showed it by constantly going into the cage of the orioles and settling himself evidently with the desire of taking up his residence there. He was so gentle and unobtrusive everywhere, that no one resented his presence in the cage, and he could have lived in peace with almost any bird. But I wanted him contented at home, and moreover, I was curious to find out what was amiss, so I tried the experiment of removing his cage from its position next to the lively orioles, and hanging it alone between two windows, where, although not so light, it had the advantage of solitude. The change completed the happiness of the grosbeak. From that day he no more intruded upon others, but went and came freely and joyously to his own cage, and from being hard to catch at night he became one of the most easy, proceeding the moment he entered his home toward dark to the upper perch to wait for me to close the door before going to his seed-dish. In fact, he grew so contented that he cared little to come out, and often sat in his favorite corner of the cage by the hour, with the door wide open and the other birds flying around. Now, too, he began to sing in a sweet voice a very low and tender minor strain.

Among his other peculiarities this bird scarcely ever seemed to feel the need of utterance of any soft. On the rare occasions of any excitement he delivered a sharp, metallic “click”; a sudden alarm, like the attack of another bird, called out a war-cry loud and shrill, and very odd; and in the contest over the important question of precedence at the bath he sometimes uttered a droll squeal or whining sound. Besides these, he made singular noises in bathing and dressing his feathers, which are not uncommon among birds, but are difficult to describe. They always remind me of the rubbing of machinery in need of oil.

This beautiful bird was not easily frightened; the only time I ever saw him seriously disturbed was at the sight of a stuffed screech-owl, which I brought into the room without thinking of its probable effect. I placed it on a shelf in a closet, and I soon noticed that the moment the closet door was opened the grosbeak became greatly agitated; he darted across the room to a certain retreat where he always hurried on the first alarm of any sort, and remained in retirement till the fancied danger was over, while the others flew madly about. In this place he stood posturing in much excitement, and uttering at short intervals his sharp “click.” For some time I did not understand his conduct, nor think of connecting it with the owl on the shelf; but when it did occur to me I tried the experiment of bringing it out into the room, when I immediately saw, what I should have remembered at once, that it was an object of terror to all the birds.

The song of the rose-breasted grosbeak is celebrated, and I hoped my bird would become acquainted with us, and let out his voice; but I was disappointed in both respects, for he never became familiar in the least, and though not at all afraid he was very shy; and furthermore, upon my bringing into the room two small musical thrushes, the grosbeak feeling, as I said, no need of utterance readily relapsed into silence, and all the winter never sang a note. His conduct before the looking-glass indicated that he was not naturally so silent, and that he could be social with one who understood his language. Being unable to get another grosbeak, I tried to give him companionship by placing a small glass against one end of his cage. On seeing his reflection the bird was greatly agitated, began his low, whining cry, postured, bowed, turned, moved back and forth, and at last left the cage and looked for the stranger behind the glass. Not finding him he returned, had another interview with the misleading image, and ended as before in seeking him outside. At length he seemed to be convinced that there was something not quite natural about it, for, feeling hungry, he went, with many a backward glance at the glass, to the floor, took a hemp-seed and carried it out into the room to eat, a thing he never did at any other time.

I spoke of my bird’s posturing; that was one of his pleasures, and almost his only exercise while he lived in the house. He was not graceful, his body was not flexible, and his tail was far from being the expressive member it is with many birds, it always stood straight out; he could raise it with a little jerk, and he had a beautiful way of opening it like a fan, but I never saw it droop or stir in any other way. In these movements his head and tail maintained the same relative position to the body, as though they were cut out of one piece of wood; but he bowed and leaned far over on one side, with his short legs wide spread; he passed down a perch, alternately crouching and rising, either sideways or straight; he jerked his whole body one side and then the other, in a manner ludicrously suggestive of a wriggle; he sidled along his perch, holding his wings slightly out and quivering, then slowly raised them both straight up, and instantly dropped them, or held them half open, fluttering and rustling his feathers.

He had also a curious way of moving over a long perch: he proceeded by sidewise hops, and at each hop he turned half round, that is, the first step he faced the window, the next the room, the third the window again, and so on to the end, coming down at every jump as though he weighed a pound or two. He was much addicted to sitting with breast-feathers puffed out covering his toes, or sometimes with wings held a little way from his body, showing the delicate rose-colored lining, as though conscious how pretty he looked; and among other eccentric habits he often thrust out his tongue, first one side and then the other, apparently to clean his bill.

Bathing and getting dry was conducted by this peculiar bird in a manner characteristic of himself. Slow to make the plunge, he was equally deliberate in coming out of the bath. When fairly in, he first thrust his head under, then sat up in the drollest way, head quite out of water and tail lying flat on the bottom, while he spattered vigorously with wings and tail. When he stepped out, the bath was over; he never returned for a second dip, but passed at once to a favorite corner of the window-bar, and stood there a most disconsolate-looking object, shivering with cold, with plumage completely disheveled, but making not the least effort to dry his feathers for several minutes. If the sun shone, he indulged himself in a sunning, erecting the feathers of his chin till he looked as if he wore a black muffler, opening his tail like a fan, spreading and crossing his wings over the back. This attitude made a complete change in his looks, showing white where black should be, and vice versa. This was the result of his peculiar coloring. Next the skin all feathers were the common slate-color, but outside of that each feather was black and white. On the back the black was at the tip, and the white between that and the slate-color; on the breast this order was reversed, and the white at the tip. Thus when wet the white and black were confused, and he resembled an object in patch-work. The rose-colored shield was formed by the slightest possible tips of that color on the white ends, and it was wonderful that they should arrange themselves in an unbroken figure, with a sharply defined outline, for each feather must have lain in its exact place to secure the result.

The different ways in which birds greet advancing night has long been a subject of interest to me, some restless and nervous, others calm, and a few wild and apparently frightened. In no one thing is there more individuality of action, and in my room that winter were exhibited every evening quite a variety of methods. A brown thrush or thrasher on the approach of darkness became exceedingly restless, flying about his cage, going over and under and around his perches, posturing in extraordinary ways, uttering at every moment a strange, harsh-breathing sound. Two smaller thrushes met the evening hour by fluttering, and a queer sort of dance elsewhere described. Two orchard orioles saluted the twilight by gymnastics on the roof of the cage. The bluebirds made careful and deliberate arrangements for a comfortable night, while the grosbeak differed from all in simply fluffing himself out, and settling himself, on the first hint of dark, in the chosen corner, whence he scarcely moved, and as soon as objects grew indistinct he laid his head quietly in its feather pillow and stirred no more. The brightest gaslight an hour later did not disturb him; if a noise wakened him, he simply looked up to see what was the matter, but did not move, and soon turned back to his rest, when slight jerks of his wings, and faint complaining sounds, told that he not only slept, but dreamed.

The bearer of the rosy shield was a persistent individual; having once taken a notion into his head, nothing would make him forget it or change his mind. Fully settled in his preference for a certain perch on the window, the coldest day in winter, with the wind blowing a gale through the crack between the sashes, would not make him desert it. Driving him away from the spot had not the slightest effect on him, he returned the moment he was left in peace. Thinking that another cage was more convenient for his use, nothing short of absolute shutting the door would keep him out of it. Nor did he forget about it either; if the door was accidentally left open, after being closed for weeks, he entered as quickly as though he had been in every day.

This bird never showed any playfulness of disposition; indeed, he had too much dignity to do so. He never flew around the room as though he liked to use his wings, although they were perfect, and there was nothing to prevent if he chose. Nor did he display curiosity about his surroundings. The only things he appeared to notice were the doings of the birds and people in the room, and the moving panorama without, which latter he always viewed with equanimity, although the sound of a hand-organ aroused him to a sort of mild fury.

As spring advanced, the beautiful grosbeak grew tuneful and often added his exquisite song to the rippling music of the small thrushes, and with a little stretch of the imagination as to its duration

“Trilled from out his carmine breast,
His happy breast, the livelong day.”