If we represent the winter of our
northern climate by a rugged snow-clad mountain, and
summer by a broad fertile plain, then the intermediate
belt, the hilly and breezy uplands, will stand for
spring, with March reaching well up into the region
of the snows, and April lapping well down upon the
greening fields and unloosened currents, not beyond
the limits of winter’s sallying storms, but well
within the vernal zone, within the reach
of the warm breath and subtle, quickening influences
of the plain below. At its best, April is the
tenderest of tender salads made crisp by ice or snow
water. Its type is the first spear of grass.
The senses sight, hearing, smell are
as hungry for its delicate and almost spiritual tokens
as the cattle are for the first bite of its fields.
How it touches one and makes him both glad and sad!
The voices of the arriving birds, the migrating fowls,
the clouds of pigeons sweeping across the sky or filling
the woods, the elfin horn of the first honey-bee venturing
abroad in the middle of the day, the clear piping of
the little frogs in the marshes at sundown, the camp-fire
in the sugar-bush, the smoke seen afar rising over
the trees, the tinge of green that comes so suddenly
on the sunny knolls and slopes, the full translucent
streams, the waxing and warming sun, how
these things and others like them are noted by the
eager eye and ear! April is my natal month, and
I am born again into new delight and new surprises
at each return of it. Its name has an indescribable
charm to me. Its two syllables are like the calls
of the first birds, like that of the phoebe-bird,
or of the meadow-lark. Its very snows are fertilizing,
and are called the poor man’s manure.
Then its odors! I am thrilled
by its fresh and indescribable odors, the
perfume of the bursting sod, of the quickened roots
and rootlets, of the mould under the leaves, of the
fresh furrows. No other month has odors like
it. The west wind the other day came fraught
with a perfume that was to the sense of smell what
a wild and delicate strain of music is to the ear.
It was almost transcendental. I walked across
the hill with my nose in the air taking it in.
It lasted for two days. I imagined it came from
the willows of a distant swamp, whose catkins were
affording the bees their first pollen; or did it come
from much farther, from beyond the horizon,
the accumulated breath of innumerable farms and budding
forests? The main characteristic of these April
odors is their uncloying freshness. They are
not sweet, they are oftener bitter, they are penetrating
and lyrical. I know well the odors of May and
June, of the world of meadows and orchards bursting
into bloom, but they are not so ineffable and immaterial
and so stimulating to the sense as the incense of
The season of which I speak does not
correspond with the April of the almanac in all sections
of our vast geography. It answers to March in
Virginia and Maryland, while in parts of New York and
New England it laps well over into May. It begins
when the partridge drums, when the hyla pipes, when
the shad start up the rivers, when the grass greens
in the spring runs, and it ends when the leaves are
unfolding and the last snowflake dissolves in mid-air.
It may be the first of May before the first swallow
appears, before the whippoorwill is heard, before
the wood thrush sings; but it is April as long as there
is snow upon the mountains, no matter what the almanac
may say. Our April is, in fact, a kind of Alpine
summer, full of such contrasts and touches of wild,
delicate beauty as no other season affords. The
deluded citizen fancies there is nothing enjoyable
in the country till June, and so misses the freshest,
tenderest part. It is as if one should miss strawberries
and begin his fruit-eating with melons and peaches.
These last are good, supremely so, they
are melting and luscious, but nothing so
thrills and penetrates the taste, and wakes up and
teases the papillae of the tongue, as the uncloying
strawberry. What midsummer sweetness half so
distracting as its brisk sub-acid flavor, and what
splendor of full-leaved June can stir the blood like
the best of leafless April?
One characteristic April feature,
and one that delights me very much, is the perfect
emerald of the spring runs while the fields are yet
brown and sere, strips and patches of the
most vivid velvet green on the slopes and in the valleys.
How the eye grazes there, and is filled and refreshed!
I had forgotten what a marked feature this was until
I recently rode in an open wagon for three days through
a mountainous, pastoral country, remarkable for its
fine springs. Those delicious green patches are
yet in my eye. The fountains flowed with May.
Where no springs occurred, there were hints and suggestions
of springs about the fields and by the roadside in
the freshened grass, sometimes overflowing
a space in the form of an actual fountain. The
water did not quite get to the surface in such places,
but sent its influence.
The fields of wheat and rye, too,
how they stand out of the April landscape, great
green squares on a field of brown or gray!
Among April sounds there is none more
welcome or suggestive to me than the voice of the
little frogs piping in the marshes. No bird-note
can surpass it as a spring token; and as it is not
mentioned, to my knowledge, by the poets and writers
of other lands, I am ready to believe it is characteristic
of our season alone. You may be sure April has
really come when this little amphibian creeps out of
the mud and inflates its throat. We talk of the
bird inflating its throat, but you should see this
tiny minstrel inflate its throat, which becomes
like a large bubble, and suggests a drummer-boy with
his drum slung very high. In this drum, or by
the aid of it, the sound is produced. Generally
the note is very feeble at first, as if the frost
was not yet all out of the creature’s throat,
and only one voice will be heard, some prophet bolder
than all the rest, or upon whom the quickening ray
of spring has first fallen. And it often happens
that he is stoned for his pains by the yet unpacified
element, and is compelled literally to “shut
up” beneath a fall of snow or a heavy frost.
Soon, however, he lifts up his voice again with more
confidence, and is joined by others and still others,
till in due time, say toward the last of the month,
there is a shrill musical uproar, as the sun is setting,
in every marsh and bog in the land. It is a plaintive
sound, and I have heard people from the city speak
of it as lonesome and depressing, but to the lover
of the country it is a pure spring melody. The
little piper will sometimes climb a bulrush, to which
he clings like a sailor to a mast, and send forth his
shrill call. There is a Southern species, heard
when you have reached the Potomac, whose note is far
more harsh and crackling. To stand on the verge
of a swamp vocal with these, pains and stuns the ear.
The call of the Northern species is far more tender
Then is there anything like a perfect
April morning? One hardly knows what the sentiment
of it is, but it is something very delicious.
It is youth and hope. It is a new earth and a
new sky. How the air transmits sounds, and what
an awakening, prophetic character all sounds have!
The distant barking of a dog, or the lowing of a cow,
or the crowing of a cock, seems from out the heart
of Nature, and to be a call to come forth. The
great sun appears to have been reburnished, and there
is something in his first glance above the eastern
hills, and the way his eye-beams dart right and left
and smite the rugged mountains into gold, that quickens
the pulse and inspires the heart.
Across the fields in the early morning
I hear some of the rare April birds, the
chewink and the brown thrasher. The robin, bluebird,
song sparrow, phoebe-bird, etc., come in March;
but these two ground-birds are seldom heard till toward
the last of April. The ground-birds are all tree-singers
or air singers; they must have an elevated stage to
speak from. Our long-tailed thrush, or thrasher,
like its congeners the catbird and mocking-bird, delights
in a high branch of some solitary tree, whence it
will pour out its rich and intricate warble for an
hour together. This bird is the great American
chipper. There is no other bird that I know of
that can chip with such emphasis and military decision
as this yellow-eyed songster. It is like the click
of a giant gun-lock. Why is the thrasher so stealthy?
It always seems to be going about on tiptoe.
I never knew it to steal anything, and yet it skulks
and hides like a fugitive from justice. One never
sees it flying aloft in the air and traversing the
world openly, like most birds, but it darts along
fences and through bushes as if pursued by a guilty
conscience. Only when the musical fit is upon
it does it come up into full view, and invite the
world to hear and behold.
The chewink is a shy bird also, but
not stealthy. It is very inquisitive, and sets
up a great scratching among the leaves, apparently
to attract your attention. The male is perhaps
the most conspicuously marked of all the ground-birds
except the bobolink, being black above, bay on the
sides, and white beneath. The bay is in compliment
to the leaves he is forever scratching among, they
have rustled against his breast and sides so long
that these parts have taken their color; but whence
come the white and black? The bird seems to be
aware that his color betrays him, for there are few
birds in the woods so careful about keeping themselves
screened from view. When in song, its favorite
perch is the top of some high bush near to cover.
On being disturbed at such times, it pitches down into
the brush and is instantly lost to view.
This is the bird that Thomas Jefferson
wrote to Wilson about, greatly exciting the latter’s
curiosity. Wilson was just then upon the threshold
of his career as an ornithologist, and had made a drawing
of the Canada jay, which he sent to the President.
It was a new bird, and in reply Jefferson called his
attention to a “curious bird” which was
everywhere to be heard, but scarcely ever to be seen.
He had for twenty years interested the young sportsmen
of his neighborhood to shoot one for him, but without
success. “It is in all the forests, from
spring to fall,” he says in his letter, “and
never but on the tops of the tallest trees, from which
it perpetually serenades us with some of the sweetest
notes, and as clear as those of the nightingale.
I have followed it for miles, without ever but once
getting a good view of it. It is of the size
and make of the mocking-bird, lightly thrush-colored
on the back, and a grayish white on the breast and
belly. Mr. Randolph, my son-in-law, was in possession
of one which had been shot by a neighbor,” etc.
Randolph pronounced it a flycatcher, which was a good
way wide of the mark. Jefferson must have seen
only the female, after all his tramp, from his description
of the color; but he was doubtless following his own
great thoughts more than the bird, else he would have
had an earlier view. The bird was not a new one,
but was well known then as the ground-robin. The
President put Wilson on the wrong scent by his erroneous
description, and it was a long time before the latter
got at the truth of the case. But Jefferson’s
letter is a good sample of those which specialists
often receive from intelligent persons who have seen
or heard something in their line very curious or entirely
new, and who set the man of science agog by a description
of the supposed novelty, a description
that generally fits the facts of the case about as
well as your coat fits the chairback. Strange
and curious things in the air, and in the water, and
in the earth beneath, are seen every day except by
those who are looking for them, namely, the naturalists.
When Wilson or Audubon gets his eye on the unknown
bird, the illusion vanishes, and your phenomenon turns
out to be one of the commonplaces of the fields or
A prominent April bird, that one does
not have to go to the woods or away from his own door
to see and hear, is the hardy and ever-welcome meadow-lark.
What a twang there is about this bird, and what vigor!
It smacks of the soil. It is the winged embodiment
of the spirit of our spring meadows. What emphasis
in its “z-d-t, z-d-t,” and what
character in its long, piercing note! Its straight,
tapering, sharp beak is typical of its voice.
Its note goes like a shaft from a crossbow; it is
a little too sharp and piercing when near at hand,
but, heard in the proper perspective, it is eminently
melodious and pleasing. It is one of the major
notes of the fields at this season. In fact,
it easily dominates all others. “Spring o’
the year! spring o’ the year!” it
says, with a long-drawn breath, a little plaintive,
but not complaining or melancholy. At times it
indulges in something much more intricate and lark-like
while hovering on the wing in mid-air, but a song
is beyond the compass of its instrument, and the attempt
usually ends in a breakdown. A clear, sweet, strong,
high-keyed note, uttered from some knoll or rock, or
stake in the fence, is its proper vocal performance.
It has the build and walk and flight of the quail
and the grouse. It gets up before you in much
the same manner, and falls an easy prey to the crack
shot. Its yellow breast, surmounted by a black
crescent, it need not be ashamed to turn to the morning
sun, while its coat of mottled gray is in perfect
keeping with the stubble amid which it walks.
The two lateral white quills in its
tails seem strictly in character. These quills
spring from a dash of scorn and defiance in the bird’s
make-up. By the aid of these, it can almost emit
a flash as it struts about the fields and jerks out
its sharp notes. They give a rayed, a definite
and piquant expression to its movements. This
bird is not properly a lark, but a starling, say the
ornithologists, though it is lark-like in its habits,
being a walker and entirely a ground-bird. Its
color also allies it to the true lark. I believe
there is no bird in the English or European fields
that answers to this hardy pedestrian of our meadows.
He is a true American, and his note one of our characteristic
Another marked April note, proceeding
sometimes from the meadows, but more frequently from
the rough pastures and borders of the woods, is the
call of the high-hole, or golden-shafted woodpecker.
It is quite as strong as that of the meadow-lark,
but not so long-drawn and piercing. It is a succession
of short notes rapidly uttered, as if the bird said
notes of the ordinary downy and hairy woodpeckers
suggest, in some way, the sound of a steel punch;
but that of the high-hole is much softer, and strikes
on the ear with real springtime melody. The high-hole
is not so much a wood-pecker as he is a ground-pecker.
He subsists largely on ants and crickets, and does
not appear till they are to be found.
In Solomon’s description of
spring, the voice of the turtle is prominent, but
our turtle, or mourning dove, though it arrives in
April, can hardly be said to contribute noticeably
to the open-air sounds. Its call is so vague,
and soft, and mournful, in fact, so remote
and diffused, that few persons ever hear
it at all.
Such songsters as the cow blackbird
are noticeable at this season, though they take a
back seat a little later. It utters a peculiarly
liquid April sound. Indeed, one would think its
crop was full of water, its notes so bubble up and
regurgitate, and are delivered with such an apparent
stomachic contraction. This bird is the only
feathered polygamist we have. The females are
greatly in excess of the males, and the latter are
usually attended by three or four of the former.
As soon as the other birds begin to build, they are
on the qui vive, prowling about like gypsies,
not to steal the young of others, but to steal their
eggs into other birds’ nests, and so shirk the
labor and responsibility of hatching and rearing their
own young. As these birds do not mate, and as
therefore there can be little or no rivalry or competition
between the males, one wonders in view of
Darwin’s teaching why one sex should
have brighter and richer plumage than the other, which
is the fact. The males are easily distinguished
from the dull and faded females by their deep glossy-black
The April of English literature corresponds
nearly to our May. In Great Britain, the swallow
and the cuckoo usually arrive by the middle of April;
with us, their appearance is a week or two later.
Our April, at its best, is a bright, laughing face
under a hood of snow, like the English March, but
presenting sharper contrasts, a greater mixture of
smiles and tears and icy looks than are known to our
ancestral climate. Indeed, Winter sometimes retraces
his steps in this month, and unburdens himself of
the snows that the previous cold has kept back; but
we are always sure of a number of radiant, equable
days, days that go before the bud, when
the sun embraces the earth with fervor and determination.
How his beams pour into the woods till the mould under
the leaves is warm and emits an odor! The waters
glint and sparkle, the birds gather in groups, and
even those unwont to sing find a voice. On the
streets of the cities, what a flutter, what bright
looks and gay colors! I recall one preeminent
day of this kind last April. I made a note of
it in my notebook. The earth seemed suddenly
to emerge from a wilderness of clouds and chilliness
into one of these blue sunlit spaces. How the
voyagers rejoiced! Invalids came forth, old men
sauntered down the street, stocks went up, and the
political outlook brightened.
Such days bring out the last of the
hibernating animals. The woodchuck unrolls and
creeps out of his den to see if his clover has started
yet. The torpidity leaves the snakes and the turtles,
and they come forth and bask in the sun. There
is nothing so small, nothing so great, that it does
not respond to these celestial spring days, and give
the pendulum of life a fresh start.
April is also the month of the new
furrow. As soon as the frost is gone and the
ground settled, the plow is started upon the hill,
and at each bout I see its brightened mould-board
flash in the sun. Where the last remnants of
the snowdrift lingered yesterday the plow breaks the
sod to-day. Where the drift was deepest the grass
is pressed flat, and there is a deposit of sand and
earth blown from the fields to windward. Line
upon line the turf is reversed, until there stands
out of the neutral landscape a ruddy square visible
for miles, or until the breasts of the broad hills
glow like the breasts of the robins.
Then who would not have a garden in
April? to rake together the rubbish and burn it up,
to turn over the renewed soil, to scatter the rich
compost, to plant the first seed or bury the first
tuber! It is not the seed that is planted, any
more than it is I that is planted; it is not the dry
stalks and weeds that are burned up, any more than
it is my gloom and regrets that are consumed.
An April smoke makes a clean harvest.
I think April is the best month to
be born in. One is just in time, so to speak,
to catch the first train, which is made up in this
month. My April chickens always turn out best.
They get an early start; they have rugged constitutions.
Late chickens cannot stand the heavy dews, or withstand
the predaceous hawks. In April all nature starts
with you. You have not come out your hibernaculum
too early or too late; the time is ripe, and, if you
do not keep pace with the rest, why, the fault is
not in the season.