Humor of Bird Talk by Mark Twain

Humor of Bird Talk by Mark Twain is adapted from his book A Tramp Abroad [1880]:

But as to Heidelberg. The weather was growing pretty warm, --very warm, in fact. So we left the valley and took quarters at the Schloss Hotel, on the hill, above the Castle.

One never tires of poking about in the dense woods that clothe all these lofty Neckar hills to their tops. The great deeps of a boundless forest have a beguiling and impressive charm in any country;

but German legends and fairy tales have given these an added charm. They have peopled all that region with gnomes, and dwarfs, and all sorts of mysterious and uncanny creatures.

At the time I am writing of, I had been reading so much of this literature that sometimes I was not sure but I was beginning to believe in the gnomes and fairies as realities.

One afternoon I got lost in the woods about a mile from the hotel, and presently fell into a train of dreamy thought about animals which talk,

and kobolds, and enchanted folk, and the rest of the pleasant legendary stuff; and so, by stimulating my fancy,

I finally got to imagining I glimpsed small flitting shapes here and there down the columned aisles of the forest. It was a place which was peculiarly meet for the occasion.

It was a pine wood, with so thick and soft a carpet of brown needles that one's footfall made no more sound than if he were treading on wool; the tree-trunks were as round and straight and smooth as pillars, and stood close together; they were bare of branches to a point about twenty-five feet above-ground, and from there upward so thick with boughs that not a ray of sunlight could pierce through. The world was bright with sunshine outside, but a deep and mellow twilight reigned in there, and also a deep silence so profound that I seemed to hear my own breathings.

When I had stood ten minutes, thinking and imagining, and getting my spirit in tune with the place, and in the right mood to enjoy the supernatural,

a raven suddenly uttered a horse croak over my head. I looked up, and the creature was sitting on a limb right over me, looking down at me.

I felt something of the same sense of humiliation and injury which one feels when he finds that a human stranger has been clandestinely inspecting him in his privacy and mentally commenting upon him.

I eyed the raven, and the raven eyed me.

Nothing was said during some seconds.

Then the bird stepped a little way along his limb to get a better point of observation, lifted his wings, stuck his head far down below his shoulders toward me and croaked again--a croak with a distinctly insulting expression about it.

If he had spoken in English he could not have said any more plainly that he did say in raven, "Well, what do YOU want here?"

I felt as foolish as if I had been caught in some mean act by a responsible being, and reproved for it.

However, I made no reply; I would not bandy words with a raven.

The adversary waited a while, with his shoulders still lifted, his head thrust down between them, and his keen bright eye fixed on me;

then he threw out two or three more insults, which I could not understand, further than that I knew a portion of them consisted of language not used in church.

I still made no reply.

Now the adversary raised his head and called. There was an answering croak from a little distance in the wood--evidently a croak of inquiry. The adversary explained with enthusiasm, and the other raven dropped everything and came.

The two sat side by side on the limb and discussed me as freely and offensively as two great naturalists might discuss a new kind of bug.

The thing became more and more embarrassing.

They called in another friend. This was too much.

I saw that they had the advantage of me, and so I concluded to get out of the scrape by walking out of it. They enjoyed my defeat as much as any low white people could have done. They craned their necks and laughed at me (for a raven CAN laugh, just like a man), they squalled insulting remarks after me as long as they could see me.

They were nothing but ravens--I knew that--what they thought of me could be a matter of no consequence--and yet when even a raven shouts after you, "What a hat!" "Oh, pull down your vest!" and that sort of thing, it hurts you and humiliates you, and there is no getting around it with fine reasoning and pretty arguments.

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Animals talk to each other, of course. There can be no question about that;

but I suppose there are very few people who can understand them.

I never knew but one man who could. I knew he could, however, because he told me so himself.

He was a middle-aged, simple-hearted miner who had lived in a lonely corner of California, among the woods and mountains, a good many years,

and had studied the ways of his only neighbors, the beasts and the birds, until he believed he could accurately translate any remark which they made.

This was Jim Baker. According to Jim Baker,

some animals have only a limited education, and some use only simple words, and scarcely ever a comparison or a flowery figure; whereas,

certain other animals have a large vocabulary, a fine command of language and a ready and fluent delivery; consequently these latter talk a great deal; they like it; they are so conscious of their talent, and they enjoy "showing off."

Baker said, that after long and careful observation, he had come to the conclusion that the bluejays were the best talkers he had found among birds and beasts. Said he:

"There's more TO a bluejay than any other creature. He has got more moods, and more different kinds of feelings than other creatures; and, mind you, whatever a bluejay feels, he can put into language.

And no mere commonplace language, either, but rattling, out-and-out book-talk--and bristling with metaphor, too--just bristling!

And as for command of language--why YOU never see a bluejay get stuck for a word. No man ever did. They just boil out of him!

And another thing: I've noticed a good deal, and there's no bird, or cow, or anything that uses as good grammar as a bluejay.

You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does--but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you'll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it's the NOISE which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use.

Now I've never heard a jay use bad grammar but very seldom; and when they do, they are as ashamed as a human; they shut right down and leave.

"You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a measure-- but he's got feathers on him, and don't belong to no church, perhaps;

but otherwise he is just as much human as you be. And I'll tell you for why.

A jay's gifts, and instincts, and feelings, and interests, cover the whole ground.

A jay hasn't got any more principle than a Congressman.

A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray;

and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. The sacredness of an obligation is such a thing which you can't cram into no bluejay's head.

Now, on top of all this, there's another thing;

a jay can out-swear any gentleman in the mines.

You think a cat can swear. Well, a cat can;

but you give a bluejay a subject that calls for his reserve-powers, and where is your cat?

Don't talk to ME--I know too much about this thing;

in the one little particular of scolding--just good, clean, out-and-out scolding-- a bluejay can lay over anything, human or divine.

Yes, sir, a jay is everything that a man is.

A jay can cry,

a jay can laugh,

a jay can feel shame,

a jay can reason and plan and discuss,

a jay likes gossip and scandal,

a jay has got a sense of humor,

a jay knows when he is an ass just as well as you do--maybe better.

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For more bird talk go to Humor of Crows Talking about Mark Twain


Return to Humor of Language Learners



MarkTwain's A Tramp Abroad with illustrations free ebook.



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