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JIMMY THE BUTCHER-BIRD
THE first time I saw Jimmy he was doubled up in a fluffy ball with his head under his wing. For a bed he had taken a eucalyptus limb that hung on the back porch. He had been brought in with another nestling by a small boy, who said that the mother had "died of a cat." There was a question at the time as to whether this was the real cause of her taking-off, but the fact remained that the bantlings were in danger of starvation. With two orphans on her hands, there was nothing left for our neighbor to do but to adopt them. A little fresh meat seemed to revive the two bobtailed youngsters, but the smaller of the two was not long for this world, and in a few days one young Butcher-bird (Lanius ludiovicianus gambeli) was Ieft.
Yes, a butcher-bird for a pet. Might as well adopt a cannibal or become a foreign missionary, one of our friends thought. But helplessness always arouses pity, and some of us like a bird merely because he is a bird.
Some one has said that man's interest in birds lies in the fact that we were birds ourselves before we reached the human stage. An angel is a child with wings. How much bird actions are like human actions! They frolic and they toil. What other animal approaches nearer to man as a home builder and housekeeper than the bird?
And, after all, this young orphan butcher-bird could hardly be blamed for the sins of his ancestors, even though his own parents had likely murdered a caged canary that had lived not far away. He was the son of a murderer, but by adoption into a respectable family who could tell but that this fledgling might develop into a bird of good qualities? We were of the opinion that a shrike had no good qualities, that he was a butcher pure and simple, and killed his own kind for the pure taste of blood and brains. In fact, the first impression I ever got of a shrike or butcher-bird was when I was called out to the back porch and saw our tame canary lying headless in the bottom of the cage.
But even though the shrike is the enemy of the small birds, they do not seem to realize that he is dangerous. I have often seen birds pay no more attention to a shrike than to a robin. Perhaps he does not attack the birds in the open, where they can fly and dodge and get away. I think the shrike likes caged birds best, those he can scare and catch through the bars and tear to pieces as the Victim is held by the wires.
shrike is called the butcher-bird from its habit of hanging its meat
on a hook or in a crotch. He is much the same size and form as the
blue jay. He has a grayish coat. I generally see him flying about the
fields and occasionally lighting in the stubble, where he picks up
crickets, grasshoppers, and mice. The habit of the shrike in impaling
its food on thorns or fastening it in crotches comes as a necessity
to the bird in tearing its food. It has a hooked bill, but is not
equipped like the hawks and owls with talons to hold its food.
Although this bird undoubtedly kills some small songsters, we wanted
to find out whether under different circumstances he would change his
Can a wild bird be civilized? Can he retain his freedom and yet put off his bad habits? When he begins to hunt his own food, will he know that it is right to hunt beetles, grasshoppers, and mice, but against the law to kill goldfinches?
Jimmy was given the freedom of the back porch. This was a large apartment, and was well screened. Some branches were hung up to make the place look as woodsy as possible, and a special table was built for the new arrival. In two or three weeks he was able to fly quite well, and it was decided to give him the freedom of the back yard. It was the real nature of the bird that we wanted to study, the wild bird under civilized circumstances, but not in a cage.
It did not take Jimmy long to make friends and to know his mistress. He was awake and squealing at daylight. He fluttered at the window, and the minute the door opened he was in the kitchen and perched on the shoulder or arm of his mistress, begging to be fed. There was no doubt as to his preference; he wanted fresh meat. When the door of the back porch was opened and Jimmy was invited to go out into the yard and learn to find his own breakfast, he accepted the invitation with eagerness. He poked around through the rose-bushes and along the fence more from curiosity than with the idea of getting something to eat. He often perched in the pear tree. Then, when he was hungry, he hopped back to the porch, for he knew the table was always set there.
Jimmy was lazy when it came to hunting his own living. The fact that he had a free lunch-counter at his back porch home he did not forget. That seemed to be the binding link. He would go about the yard and up into the trees, and he got to wandering farther and farther; but he would always come back several times during the day for food. He knew his name as well as a person does, and would come immediately if he were within calling distance.
As Jimmy grew older he developed into a fine-looking bird. His coat was a slate-gray above and a dull whitish color below. He soon developed remarkable likes and dislikes. I would hardly have believed that a bird could have shown so much knowledge had I not seen it myself. We are too apt to think there is little real intelligence in the bird brain. I have often wished I could fathom the thoughts that Jimmy had as he sat in his master's room for hours at a time and looked out of the window when it was raining, or when he hopped about the kitchen, picking up and prying into things, or when he stopped to look his mistress in the eye and chuckle with a side turn of his head. He had the range of the house and the range of the outdoors, yet he often preferred to stay indoors when he took human company to bird company. He knew his home as well as the dog did. But Jimmy didn't like dogs or cats.
When he had the freedom of the house he liked to tease, and his teasing turned to a pet mockingbird that was kept in a cage. At first Jimmy would sit on the table and watch. Then he took to flying on the top of the cage, and this worried the mocker, who didn't want any one on the cage above his head. But it pleased Jimmy, and he would hop back and forth in a threatening way. This happened several times, till one day the mocker had his chance; I think he had been waiting for it. Jimmy was on the side of the cage with his feet hooked in the wires, when the mocker suddenly grabbed him by the toe and gave it such a sharp pull that Jimmy squealed in pain. It was a pure case of revenge, and the mocker enjoyed it. It gave a good insight as to how quick Jimmy could learn, for he kept off the cage after that, and did not tease the mockingbird.
Gradually Jimmy's freedom of the house was taken from him. He couldn't be trusted to leave anything in order. He knocked things off the bureau, broke a painted china cup, and he always wanted to taste out of every dish on the table. He stuck his feet in a dish of jam, and then tracked it across the table. And how he liked butter! He dipped right in the instant he saw butter, and that was his first thought when the pantry door was open.
One day when the kitchen was closed Jimmy found the window of the east room upstairs open and in he went, and soon appeared in the dining-room, helping himself. After that the window was kept shut, but Jimmy would go anyway and peck on the glass till he was let in. His master often sat there, and that became Jimmy's favorite room. All during the winter on rainy days he liked to stay in that room. The window looked directly out to the east over a waste of weeds and sage-brush. This was Jimmy's hunting-ground; he always went out that way when he wanted to hunt, for that was the only uncultivated tract about the house. That was the place he hunted grasshoppers and crickets. His favorite perch was the back of a chair near the window, where he could look out over the slope, and here he would sit for an hour at a time, as if thinking. And how do we know but that he was going over many of his hunts and hairbreadth escapes and thinking of the springtime that was coming and the new experiences it would bring?
Out in front of the house was a concrete basin where the water-lilies grew. The lily-pads were large enough to support a bird, and the linnets and goldfinches used them for bath-tubs. I think the birds came for a mile around to get water here, for there was hardly a time during the hot days when some visitors did not come either to wash or to drink. Jimmy often watched the performance and seemed interested, but he knew better than to prey upon birds. His home training had gone deep enough for that, and he had been civilized to that extent.
Jimmy didn't bathe very often himself, but when he did he simply soaked himself till he couldn't fly. For some reason he preferred the irrigating ditch; there he had plenty of running water. Perhaps he thought the basin where every tramp bird bathed was not clean enough. He selected a shallow place and waded in to his middle; then he began bobbing and throwing water, and he kept it up till he was so tired and heavy he could hardly crawl out.
When it came to dealing with other people, Jimmy had many interesting experiences. He was bold and fearless, no matter whether he knew the person or not. One day when Jimmy had been gone several hours he was brought home by one of the neighbors. A carpenter was at work on the top of his house, when Jimmy, apparently in fun, had swooped down and lit on his shoulder and began screeching in his ear. The workman was so astonished that he almost fell from his position when he felt this strange bird fluttering about his head; he dodged as if he were trying to get rid of a swarm of bees. He didn't know whether to fight or not. But he was soon assured that the bird was only playing.
For some reason Jimmy did not like the gardener. His mistress thought it was because the man wore such ragged clothes. She said he always took to people who were dressed up, and was friendly in every way, but the minute a workingman came about Jimmy would squall and peck and show his anger. When the gardener was hoeing, Jimmy would fly down at his feet and get in the way, or he would hop along in front of the wheelbarrow or ride on the front, squealing his disapproval. Twice he lit on the shoulder of the gardener and bit him in the neck till the blood came. This was carrying his opinions to such an extent that his mistress caught him and clipped the little hook on his bill. This served as a sort of a muzzle, so he could not bite so hard.
The instinct was strong in Jimmy to hang his food on a nail or in a crack so he could tear it to pieces. He often brought in insects from the field, and would always fly direct to the hand of his mistress, because she so often held his meat in her hand for him to eat. He would light on her shoulder with a screech and a side turn of his head that said, "Hold this for me, quick, till I eat it!" And if she didn't, he showed great impatience. But this habit of Jimmy's was distasteful at times, for he brought in a variety of things from dead mice to crickets, worms, and beetles. One day when a fashionably-dressed lady was being entertained on the front porch Jimmy suddenly appeared and lit on her shoulder with a very large beetle. The reception he got surprised him, for a bird thrusting a big, ugly beetle in her face was too much for the lady, and she threw up her hands in horror and fled, while Jimmy sat looking in amazement.
The wicker-backed rocking-chair on the front porch was a favorite of Jimmy's, for he could fasten his food in the cracks of it. One day his mistress found a mouse that he had left there, very likely with the intention of calling for it when he got hungry. By watching the various kinds of food that Jimmy brought in, we readily estimated that his hunts were of much more good than harm. Even the wild shrike that kills a small bird occasionally kills more than enough harmful insects to make up for its destruction.
As the winter passed and spring wore on, Jimmy extended his visits. He must have looked and hunted farther away, for often he would be gone for half a day at a time. But he always returned to the eucalyptus bough on the back porch, and the door was always open for him and closed when he was in bed. Then one day in March he did not return. But he got back next morning about ten o'clock, and came pecking and crying at the window. He seemed overjoyed to get back, but, after staying about for a while, he got restless. It was evident that there was an influence somewhere out beyond the sage-brush that was stronger than his home life. Something else was calling him. It was only a matter of time till he would cease to sleep on the porch.
About two weeks later Jimmy was seen for the last time. There were two shrikes out in the low oaks beyond the irrigating ditch. One came sweeping across from the hill, flapping his short wings and screeching his greetings in butcher-bird tongue. He paused just long enough on the fence to see that his companion had disappeared. With a loud squawk Jimmy turned back to find her, for that was his new mistress.
THE SHRIKE OR BUTCHER–BIRD FAMILY
The Shrikes may be recognized by the powerful head and neck and the hooked bill. Length, about nine inches. Bluish-gray in color. They are bold and fearless and feed on insects, mice, and small birds, which they impale on thorns and sharp twigs.
White-rumped Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus excubitorides), Butcher-bird: Male and female, upper parts pale ashy-gray; narrow black stripe across forehead through eye; under parts and rump, white; wings and tail, black with white markings. Found in middle and eastern North America, where it nests in hedges and thorn-trees. Eggs, four to six, grayish, covered with brown spots.
The Northern Shrike is very similar but is seen only from November to April as a roving winter resident.
California Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus gambeli): Pacific Coast form, identical with White-rumped Shrike.