The Mother Murre
by Dallas Lore
One of the most striking cases of mother-love
which has ever come under my observation, I saw
in the summer of 1912 on the bird rookeries of
the Three-Arch Rocks Reservation off the coast
We were making our slow way toward
the top of the outer rock. Through rookery after rookery
of birds, we climbed until we reached the edge of
the summit. Scrambling over this edge, we found
ourselves in the midst of a great colony of nesting
murres - hundreds of them - covering this steep
rocky part of the top.
As our heads appeared above the rim, many of
the colony took wing and whirred over us out to
sea, but most of them sat close, each bird upon its
egg or over its chick, loath to leave, and so expose
to us the hidden treasure.
The top of the rock was somewhat cone-shaped,
and in order to reach the peak and the colonies on
the west side we had to make our way through
this rookery of the murres. The first step among
them, and the whole colony was gone, with a rush
of wings and feet that sent several of the top-
shaped eggs rolling, and several of the young birds
toppling over the cliff to the pounding waves and
ledges far below.
We stopped, but the colony, almost to a bird,
had bolted, leaving scores of eggs, and scores of
downy young squealing and running together for
shelter, like so many beetles under a lifted board.
But the birds had not every one bolted, for here
sat two of the colony among the broken rocks.
These two had not been frightened off. That both
of them were greatly alarmed, any one could see
from their open beaks, their rolling eyes, their
tense bodies on tiptoe for flight. Yet here they
sat, their wings out like props, or more like gripping
hands, as if they were trying to hold themselves
down to the rocks against their wild desire
And so they were, in truth, for under their
extended wings I saw little black feet moving.
Those two mother murres were not going to
forsake their babies! No, not even for these
approaching monsters, such as they had never
before seen, clambering over their rocks.
What was different about these two? They had
their young ones to protect. Yes, but so had
every bird in the great colony its young one, or its
egg, to protect, yet all the others had gone. Did
these two have more mother-love than the
others? And hence, more courage, more intelligence?
We took another step toward them, and
one of the two birds sprang into the air, knocking her
baby over and over with the stroke of her wing,
and coming within an inch of hurling it across the
rim to be battered on the ledges below. The other
bird raised her wings to follow, then clapped them
back over her baby. Fear is the most contagious
thing in the world - and that flap of fear by the
other bird thrilled her, too, but as she had
withstood the stampede of the colony, so she caught
herself again and held on.
She was now alone on the bare top of
the rock, with ten thousand circling birds screaming to
her in the air above, and with two men creeping up to
her with a big black camera that clicked ominously.
She let the multitude scream, and with
threatening beak watched the two men come on.
A motherless baby, spying her, ran down the rock
squealing for his life. She spread a wing, put her
bill behind him and shoved him quickly in out of
sight with her own baby. The man with the
camera saw the act, for I heard his machine click,
and I heard him say something under his breath
that you would hardly expect a mere man and a
game-warden to say. But most men have a good
deal of the mother in them - and the old bird
had acted with such decision, such courage, such
swift, compelling instinct, that any man, short
of the wildest savage, would have felt his heart
quicken at the sight.
"Just how compelling might that
mother- instinct be?" I wondered. "Just how much
would that mother-love stand?" I had dropped
to my knees, and on all fours had crept up within
about three feet of the bird. She still had chance
for flight. Would she allow me to crawl any
nearer? Slowly, very slowly, I stretched forward
on my hands, like a measuring worm, until my
body lay flat on the rocks, and my fingers were
within three INCHES of her. But her wings were
twitching, a wild light danced in her eyes, and her
head turned toward the sea.
For a whole minute I did not stir.
I was watching - and the wings again began to tighten about
the babies, the wild light in the eyes died down,
the long, sharp beak turned once more toward me.
Then slowly, very slowly, I raised
my hand, touched her feathers with the tip of one finger
- with two fingers - with my whole hand, while
the loud camera click-clacked, click-clacked
hardly four feet away!
It was a thrilling moment. I was not
killing anything. I had no long-range rifle in my hands,
coming up against the wind toward an unsuspecting
creature hundreds of yards away. This was no
wounded leopard charging me - no mother-bear
defending with her giant might a captured cub. It
was only a mother-bird, the size of a wild duck,
with swift wings at her command, hiding under
those wings her own and another's young, and
her own boundless fear!
For the second time in my life I had
taken captive with my bare hands a free wild bird. No,
I had not taken her captive. She had made herself
a captive - she had taken herself in the strong net
of her mother-love.
And now her terror seemed quite gone.
At the first touch of my hand I think she felt the love
restraining it, and without fear or fret she let me
reach under her and pull out the babies. But she
reached after them with her bill to tuck them
back out of sight, and when I did not let them go,
she sidled toward me, quacking softly, a language
that I perfectly understood, and was quick to
respond to. I gave them back, fuzzy and black
and white. She got them under her, stood up over
them, pushed her wings down hard around them,
her stout tail down hard behind them, and
together with them pushed in an abandoned egg
that was close at hand. Her own baby, some one
else's baby, and some one else's forsaken egg! She
could cover no more - she had not feathers enough.
But she had heart enough - and into her mother's
heart she had already tucked every motherless
egg and nestling of the thousands of frightened
birds, screaming and wheeling in the air high over