Feminine Sovereignty Interpreted by the Birds

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It is the world of birds which offers to the observation of the philosopher the most numerous and charming examples of order in amorous liberty, of conjugal fidelity and maternal devotion. The history of swallows and pigeons, of swans, and even of house sparrows, swarms with inconsolable Artemisias and Niobes, who allow themselves to die of hunger and of grief beside bodies of their dead spouses or their slain children, and who do not make of their mourning the occasion of a crisis in business, like some who might be named among mortals.

Whoever has not seen the hen, the turkey, the partridge, and the quail, defend their young, can have but a moderate idea of heroism. A man who should display but once in the course of his career as a citizen, the tenth part of that devotion which these poor creatures exhibit at any moment of their lives to assure the safety of their tender broods, would have places of honor at all the theatres during his life, and statues in the forums after his death. A partridge that drags her wings and feigns to be wounded before the dog, that leaps in his face and picks at his eyes; a shrike that puts to flight, by the vigor of her resistance, the loafing truant who has meditated the invasion of her domicil; the swan, which will not let a cavalcade drink at the stream near her little ones — all these poor mothers, whose existence is one long series of heroic acts and sublime devotions, would have much trouble to understand our admiration for the Athenian Codrus or Roman Curtius. Is that all? they would say, when you had brayed into their ears, as into ours, the merit of these persons.

There is no case known among the feathered bipeds where a mother has willingly abandoned her young, except under main force. The cases of infanticide, so common with the sow, with the rabbit, and with the human species, are so rare with the birds that such of the learned as are most worthy of faith, contest their existence. These cases of infanticide; moreover, could not in any issue be attributed to the mothers: they must be exclusively due to the amorous brutality of the males, which destroy the young ones as they break the eggs, in order to regain possession of the females. If some birds of prey drive their young from the eyrie too soon, it is because they have not the means of meeting the expenses of their education.

If infanticide is a crime unknown among birds, charity on the other hand is practiced among them towards lost children with a fervor which shames our philanthropy. Place in any window a young sparrow orphaned and lost from its home; immediately all the fathers and mothers in the neighborhood will come one after another to fetch it a bill full. Little creatures hardly weaned from their own nests, and yet without families, will profit by the opportunity to make their experiments in maternity. Noble and touching inspiration of the sentiment of universal solidarity, which man will not fail to exploit, with inexcusable barbarity!

Thus act most of the little birds friendly to man, the chaffinch, the linnet, the swallow. The vulgar idea that the parents of the captive orphan bring it poison in order to withdraw it by death from the torments of captivity, is as stupid a prejudice as that which supposes the children of the executioner condemned by the law to practice their father's profession.

The birds do not kill their children from tenderness — such Roman, Spartan, or Jewish virtues are repugnant to their manners; they are simple enough to keep the child with a cold in its head, rather than pull off its nose. The parents do not poison their young, as ignorance asserts; only when these ones have already tasted a little of the charms of liberty, instead of merely bringing them food and consolation, they bring them counsels to escape; and the poor captives, who are already but too much inclined to sadness, soon feed only on desires and ardent regrets, and end by sinking under a twofold weariness of spirit and body.

Maternal charity goes so far among birds that it degenerates into abuse and amounts to suicide. Thus the red-throat, the bunting, the hedge-sparrow, in whose nest the female of the cuckoo has laid her egg, sacrifice the interest and even the existence of their own families, to the voracity of the bastard parasite, introduced by fraud into their nest. The cuckoo is too faithful an emblem of the loafing classes, who are inefficient at any kind of work themselves, and whom Nature would condemn to die of hunger, if labor were not condemned to nourish idleness. The red-throat and the bunting, who rear the young cuckoo to the detriment of their own family, symbolize the poor country girls who are obliged to refuse to the fruit of their own womb the milk of their breasts, in order to sell it to the children of rich strangers. The female of the cuckoo is the incomplete woman who despises the joys of maternity, and accepts love only under the aspect of worldly position.

The genius of maternal love which reveals to the female of the bird her eminent faculties as a workwoman and artist, endows her at the same time with courage to defend her young family, and with foresight to shelter it against the storms which threaten its safety.

Wisdom and love can not easily be allied with more firmness than is shown by the female bird.

Do not suppose that as soon as there is promise of marriage between two turtle-doves or sparrows, the lover is forthwith invested with all the rights of the husband. A word in the air, and a cavatina more or less well trilled, is not enough to triumph over her resistance. She does not understand trifling about such matters, and will only yield to the amorous entreaties of her betrothed after she has given the last stroke of her bill to her nest. Knowing that love will bring the family after it, she has the force to control her senses, and to retard her defeat until the day when the possession of a domicil shall have completely reassured her as to the consequences of her weakness, and the future of her young.

Every one understands the irony of the allusion, and knows the class of lovers to whom the bird here gives a lesson. I will not be so cruel as to turn the steel in the wound, and to send the epigram to its address. It is very easy, in fact, to impose constraint when it is known that the pleasure is only a little delayed, when for securities of our approaching happiness we have fortune, the spring-time, abundance of insects, and a house of one's own; and the birds who possess all this and the rest, speak of it quite at their ease. But I would like to know how they would listen to the voice of wisdom and of foresight, were they in our place, poor proletaries for whom love is the only consolation of this world, and the only luxurious fancy which does not transcend our means.

— From Toussenel, by M. E. L.