Thoreau's Notes on Birds of New England

Thoreau's Notes on Birds of New England

Paperback(illustrations by John James Audubon)

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During his two-year residence at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau became keenly aware of the natural world that surrounded him. Entries from his journals reflect his soulful, in-depth observations of local wildlife, and his remarks on birds are particularly plentiful and poetic. This book, originally published as Notes on New England Birds in 1910 and edited and arranged by Francis H. Allen, collects Thoreau's thoughts on the various bird species that populated the New England woods, from the great blue heron to the kingbird and the American finch.
"Open to any page and you will find, besides apt descriptions of the natural world, a cogent remark or a philosophical observation," noted The Washington Post. Bird lovers and watchers, fans of Thoreau, and naturalists and environmentalists will delight in joining the author as he saunters through the woods and ponders the region's abundant wildlife. A new selection of 16 full-page color illustrations by John James Audubon enhances the text.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486833842
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 04/17/2019
Edition description: illustrations by John James Audubon
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 341,229
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Essayist, poet, and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) ranks among America's foremost nature writers. The Concord, Massachusetts native spent most of his life observing the natural world of New England, and his thoughts on leading a simple, independent life are captured in his best-known work, Walden.

Date of Birth:

July 12, 1817

Date of Death:

May 6, 1862

Place of Birth:

Concord, Massachusetts

Place of Death:

Concord, Massachusetts


Concord Academy, 1828-33); Harvard University, 1837

Read an Excerpt




Dec. 26, 1853. Walden still open. Saw in it a small diver, probably a grebe or dobchick, dipper, or what-not, with the markings, as far as I saw, of the crested grebe, but smaller. It had a black head, a white ring about its neck, a white breast, black back, and apparently no tail. It dove and swam a few rods under water, and, when on the surface, kept turning round and round warily and nodding its head the while. This being the only pond hereabouts that is open.

Sept. 27, 1860. Monroe's tame ducks sail along and feed close to me as I am working there. Looking up, I see a little dipper, about one half their size, in the middle of the river, evidently attracted by these tame ducks, as to a place of security. I sit down and watch it. The tame ducks have paddled four or five rods down-stream along the shore. They soon detect the dipper three or four rods off, and betray alarm by a tittering note, especially when it dives, as it does continually. At last, when it is two or three rods off and approaching them by diving, they all rush to the shore and come out on it in their fear, but the dipper shows itself close to the shore, and when they enter the water again joins them within two feet, still diving from time to time and threatening to come up in their midst. They return up-stream, more or less alarmed, and pursued in this wise by the dipper, who does not know what to make of their fears, and soon the dipper is thus tolled along to within twenty feet of where I sit, and I can watch it at my leisure. It has a dark bill and considerable white on the sides of the head or neck, with black between it, no tufts, and no observable white on back or tail. When at last disturbed by me, it suddenly sinks low (all its body) in the water without diving. Thus it can float at various heights. (So on the 30th I saw one suddenly dash along the surface from the meadow ten rods before me to the middle of the river, and then dive, and though I watched fifteen minutes and examined the tufts of grass, I could see no more of it.)


Oct. 17, 1855. I saw behind (or rather in front of) me as I rowed home a little dipper appear in mid-river, as if I had passed right over him. It dived while I looked, and I could not see it come up anywhere.

Sept. 9, 1858. Watched a little dipper some ten rods off with my glass, but I could see no white on the breast. It was all black and brownish, and head not enlarged. Who knows how many little dippers are sailing and sedulously diving now along the edge of the pickerel-weed and the button-bushes on our river, unsuspected by most? This hot September afternoon all may be quiet amid the weeds, but the dipper, and the bittern, and the yellow-legs, and the blue heron, and the rail are silently feeding there. At length the walker who sits meditating on a distant bank sees the little dipper sail out from amid the weeds and busily dive for its food along their edge. Yet ordinary eyes might range up and down the river all day and never detect its small black head above the water.

[See also under General and Miscellaneous, pp. 306, 318.]


1845–47 (no exact date). The loon comes in the fall to sail and bathe in the pond,4 making the woods ring with its wild laughter in the early morning, at rumor of whose arrival all Concord sportsmen are on the alert, in gigs, on foot, two by two, three by three, with patent rifles, patches, conical balls, spy-glass or open hole over the barrel. They seem already to hear the loon laugh; come rustling through the woods like October leaves, these on this side, those on that, for the poor loon cannot be omnipresent; if he dive here, must come up somewhere. The October wind rises, rustling the leaves, ruffling the pond water, so that no loon can be seen rippling the surface. Our sportsmen scour, sweep the pond with spy-glass in vain, making the woods ring with rude [?] charges of powder, for the loon went off in that morning rain with one loud, long, hearty laugh, and our sportsmen must beat a retreat to town and stable and daily routine, shop work, unfinished jobs again.

Or in the gray dawn the sleeper hears the long ducking gun explode over toward Goose Pond, and, hastening to the door, sees the remnant of a flock, black duck or teal, go whistling by with outstretched neck, with broken ranks, but in ranger order. And the silent hunter emerges into the carriage road with ruffled feathers at his belt, from the dark pond-side where he has lain in his bower since the stars went out.

And for a week you hear the circling clamor, clangor, of some solitary goose through the fog, seeking its mate, peopling the woods with a larger life than they can hold.

For hours in fall days you shall watch the ducks cunningly tack and veer and hold the middle of the pond, far from the sportsmen on the shore, — tricks they have learned and practiced in far Canada lakes or in Louisiana bayous.

The waves rise and dash, taking sides with all water-fowl.

Oct. 8, 1852. P. M. — Walden. As I was paddling along the north shore, after having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly a loon, sailing toward the middle, a few rods in front, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came up, and again he laughed long and loud. He managed very cunningly, and I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Sometimes he would come up unexpectedly on the opposite side of me, as if he had passed directly under the boat. So long-winded was he, so unweariable, that he would immediately plunge again, and then no wit could divine where in the deep pond, beneath the smooth surface, he might be speeding his way like a fish, perchance passing under the boat. He had time and ability to visit the bottom of the pond in its deepest part. A newspaper authority says a fisherman — giving his name — has caught loon in Seneca Lake, N. Y., eighty feet beneath the surface, with hooks set for trout. Miss Cooper has said the same. Yet he appeared to know his course as surely under water as on the surface, and swam much faster there than he sailed on the surface. It was surprising how serenely he sailed off with unruffled bosom when he came to the surface. It was as well for me to rest on my oars and await his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate where he would come up. When I was straining my eyes over the surface, I would suddenly be startled by his unearthly laugh behind me. But why, after displaying so much cunning, did he betray himself the moment he came to the surface with that loud laugh? His white breast enough betrayed him. He was indeed a silly loon, I thought. Though he took all this pains to avoid me, he never failed to give notice of his whereabouts the moment he came to the surface. After an hour he seemed as fresh as ever, dived as willingly, and swam yet farther than at first. Once or twice I saw a ripple where he approached the surface, just put his head out to reconnoitre, and instantly dived again. I could commonly hear the plash of the water when he came up, and so also detected him. It was commonly a demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like a water-bird, but occasionally, when he had balked me most successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like a wolf than any other bird. This was his looning. As when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls; perhaps the wildest sound I ever heard, making the woods ring; and I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources. Though the sky was overcast, the pond was so smooth that I could see where he broke the surface if I did not hear him. His white breast, the stillness of the air, the smoothness of the water, were all against him. At length, having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged unearthly howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain. I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon and his god was angry with me. How surprised must be the fishes to see this ungainly visitant from another sphere speeding his way amid their schools!


Excerpted from "Thoreau's Notes on Birds of New England"
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Copyright © 2019 Henry David Thoreau.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents

Preface, xi,
I. Diving Birds, 1,
II. Gulls, Terns, and Petrels, 7,
III. Ducks and Geese, 15,
IV. Herons and Rails, 47,
V. Shore-Birds, 63,
VI. Quail and Grouse, 71,
VII. Pigeons, 83,
VIII. Hawks and Eagles, 90,
IX. Owls, 125,
X. Cuckoos, Kingfishers, and Woodpeckers, 140,
XI. Goatsuckers, Swifts, and Hummingbirds, 150,
XII. Flycatchers, 159,
XIII. Larks, Crows, and Jays, 166,
XIV. Blackbirds, Orioles, etc., 181,
XV. Finches, 196,
XVI. Tanagers and Swallows, 239,
XVII. Waxwings, Shrikes, and Vireos, 250,
XVIII. Warblers, 256,
XIX. Titlarks, Thrashers, and Wrens, 266,
XX. Creepers, Nuthatches, Tits, and Kinglets, 270,
XXI. Thrushes, 278,
XXII. General and Miscellaneous, 297,
XXIII. Domestic Birds, 319,
Appendix, 325,
Index, 329,

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