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Nuthatches "Looking Pleasant"

SHARP, ringing cries of alarm, then of terror, coming from a pair of robins one morning in June, caused me to drop my work suddenly, dash out of doors and follow the sound through the garden, across the lane to a meadow where a vagrant cat, with a now-or-never desperation, made a leap through the grass even as I approached and, before my very eyes, snapped up a baby robin in its cruel jaws. With as frantic a leap upon the cat, I quickly pried its jaws apart and released the limp and apparently dead bird. Three other young robins, which had fallen out of the same nest in the cherry tree when a heavy thunder shower weakened its mud-plastered walls the night before, were squatting dejectedly on the ground, unable to fly. So I gathered them up in my arms too, lest they fall a certain prey to the cat, and deposited the little family in an improvised flannel nest on a sunny upper balcony.

A thunderstorm weakened its mud-plastered walls

One might have supposed that the parents would find them here, within fifty yards of their cherry tree home, and come to feed them. Strangely enough, the old birds' cries of distress were the last sign from either of them in the neighbourhood. Did they flee the place in despair, thinking their babies foully murdered by the cat and me? After waiting in vain for some response from them to the incessant, insistent cheep, cheep, from the balcony nursery, I could resist the cries of hunger no longer. Even the baby which had been literally snatched from the jaws of death had now recovered from his fright, not having received so much as a scratch, and was clamouring for food as loudly as the others, jerking himself upright with every cheep, as if stamping both feet with impatience at delay.


From that hour my preconceived ideas of bird life were radically changed. Once I had shared the popular notion of birds as rather idle creatures of pleasure, singing to pass the time away, free from every care while they flew aimlessly about in the sunshine, fed from the abundant hand of Nature. But bringing up those four feathered waifs taught me that birds doubtless work as hard for their living as any creatures on earth. At about four o'clock every morning sharp, hungry cries from the balcony wakened me. Perhaps it was because I was only a step-mother that I refused to go out on the lawn then in search of early worms. Another nap was more agreeably purchased by stuffing each little crop full of the yolk of hard boiled egg and baked potato mashed into a soft paste, the lumps washed down with a tiny trickle of fresh water from a stylographic pen-dropper. Such gaping yellow caverns as were stretched aloft to be filled while the little birds trembled with excitement, jostled one another and scrambled for first turn! Every hour regularly throughout the long day those imperious babies had to be satisfied. Ants' eggs from the bird store, a taste of mocking-bird food mixed with potato and an occasional cherry or strawberry agreed with the little gourmands perfectly. A small boy, who was subsidized to dig earthworms for them, called the bargain off after one day's effort to supply their demand. Sixty worms had not been sufficient for creatures which eat at least their weight of food every twenty-four hours.

A full crop distended his speckled, thrush-like vest

Doubtless they were spoiled babies from the first. At any rate they had me completely enslaved; all other interests were forgotten; not for anything would I have gone beyond their call. But real motherly joy in them came when their pin feathers fluffed out, their legs became stout enough to climb and hop over the wistaria vine on the balcony, stubby little tails fanned out pertly and full crops distended their speckled, thrush-like vests. When, after about two weeks spent on and around the balcony, the last of the quartette spread his strong wings and flew off to the strawberry patch to pick up his own living thenceforth, I realized as never before why the alert, military-looking, red-breasted robin of the spring becomes more and more faded and dejected as summer advances, and the joyous song of courting days diminishes until it ceases altogether after the father has helped his mate raise two broods. Yet with my utmost care I had probably not done half for those fledglings that their parents would have done.


In a state of nature, what would a pair of robins do for their family? After the building of the nest — of itself no small labor — there follow fourteen long weary days and nights of confinement upon the eggs before they hatch. Thenceforth on the average of every fifteen minutes daily from dawn till dark both parents visit the nest, usually bringing in their bills food which they often travel far and work hard to find — earthworms, grasshoppers, locusts, beetles, the larvæ of insects, choke cherries or other small fruits to be crammed with sharp but painless thrusts into the ever hungry mouths. The second an old bird alights on the home branch, up spring the little heads, every one agape, like Jacks-in-the-box. In their loving zeal, the parents themselves often forget to eat. After every feeding, the nest must be inspected and cleaned, the excreta being either swallowed or carried away. Then the fledglings are picked over lest lice irritate their tender skins. Very many young birds die from this common pest of the nests, especially those whose cradles are lined with chicken feathers, which are nearly always infested.

The vireo's education begins

Birds, like all wild creatures, live in a constant state of fear, but parenthood develops courage amaz­ingly, just as it develops all the virtues. When climbing cats, snakes, small boys, hawks, owls, crows, blue jays, red squirrels and other foes do not threaten the baby robins' safety, either heavy rains, high winds, or fierce sunshine may require the patient little mother to brood over her treasures. Before they are a week old their education begins. On the eleventh day, if all goes well, it is usually the mother who utters low endearing baby talk, coaxing the little fellows to hop out of the nest and about it. Corning near an ambitious youngster she stands but does not deliver a tempting morsel held just beyond his bill. Luring him with it farther and farther away, hopping and flying from branch to branch, she tantalizes the hungry baby, perhaps, but she educates him with no loss of time. When finally the young are able to trip lightly, swiftly over the grass after their parents, have learned to cock their heads to one side and listen with the intentness of veterans for the stirring of worms beneath the sod, to capture their own food and fly swiftly out of the presence of danger, their education is considered complete. The remainder they must acquire by experience, for even now their parents may be repairing the old nest or building a new one to receive a second brood.


Walking along a hot, sandy road in Florida one morning, I met a young coloured woman with a little baby in her arms, pacing back and forth under a blazing sun. A glance sufficed to show that her baby was ill. It moaned piteously and its skin was burning hot, as well it might be even without fever.

"Come under this tree," said I, "and tell me why you are carrying that baby about in the heat."

"'Cause he's sick and I'se waitin' fo' de doctor to happen along dis yeah road."

"What do you think is the matter with your baby?"

"I specks he done eat too much fried fish dis mornin'."

"Fried fish!" I exclaimed. "Why, the baby has no teeth!"

"No'm; he ain't got no teeth yet, but he's powerful fond of fried fish."

A Florida jay, which was noisily searching in the palmetto scrub behind us for a mouthful of food to carry home to her fledglings, was evidently more discriminating in her choice than the equally untaught human mother, for she rejected as unfit many insects which she, herself, would gladly have swallowed.

The dove's mismanaged nursery

Many birds have one diet for their babies and another, quite different, for themselves, only the seed- eaters reverse our ideas and give their strongest meat to babes. However strict vegetarians certain of the finch tribe may be at maturity, they provide for the nursery a variety of insects. These are not often given alive and squirming, but after they have been knocked and bruised into a pulpy condition that is sure to cause no colic.

Even the birds which provide for their babies the same food that they themselves enjoy — which is by far the greater number — usually take the trouble to give it special preparation for the tender stomachs. Having no pepsin, lime-water or sterilizer at command, what could be a simpler way to prepare a perfectly digestible baby food, than to first swallow and digest it themselves, then pump it down the throats of offspring not yet old enough to be squeamish? In this way the young flickers, for example, are fed, but, as far as is known, no other woodpeckers. The flicker, or high-hole, collects a square meal of perhaps two or three thousand ants which partially digest while she is on her way home. Her approach is sure to summon the hungriest, or possibly the greediest youngster to the entrance of the tree cavity. Thrusting her bill far down his gaping throat, she uses force enough to impale him. One confidently expects the point to appear somewhere through the baby's back. With the same staccato motion used when drumming on a tree, she jerks her bill up and down so violently that the fledgling has all he can possibly do to hold on during the second or two it takes to pump part of the contents of her stomach into his. Yet the next baby pushes and scrambles for position when the first one slips back satisfied, just as if he anticipated a truly delightful experience! By this same method — regurgitation — are humming-birds, purple finches, and many other birds fed, doubtless many more than we suppose, for it is only a few years since the habits of so common a bird as the flicker were thoroughly studied. The vultures eject the contents of their stomachs at will, as we shall see in a later chapter, for quite a different purpose.

Humming-bird regurgitating food into crop of her young

Fish-eating birds especially are wont to regurgitate their food. While the cormorant is flying home with its babies' dinner safely stowed away, the fish's skin will be digested off completely, leaving the meat in prime condition for young stomachs. On the other hand, some fish eaters allow their babies to swallow skin, bones and all. The pelicans which ply the coast of Florida, searching for food, collect a quantity of fish in the great pouch which hangs from their lower bill like the silk bag which used to drop from beneath our grandmother's sewing tables. On returning to the nest, open flies the parent's bill displaying the fish. The eager, crowding babies are invited to thrust their heads into the pouch and help themselves. And how they prod and poke about among the morning's catch, to make the best selection possible! It is a wonder the skinny pouch is not torn asunder by such thrusts and stabs as the ill-mannered little gourmands give it. No sooner is the family larder emptied, and the parent's back is turned to refill it, than the dissatisfied youngsters begin to squabble over the contents of one another's pouches. Their greed seems even more insatiable than their appetites.

The hawks, owls, ospreys and some other .birds should make the best of stepmothers, so bountifully do they provide for their nurseries. Mice, muskrats, eels, small fish, young rabbits, rats, woodcock and grouse, weighing over eighteen pounds in the aggregate, were the surplus food removed from the nest of a pair of horned owls, wherein two owlets only had to be supplied. Some birds of prey heap food about their offspring until they can scarcely see over the piles. Owls choose the brains only of most of their captives as food for their babies.

A remarkable provision is made for young pigeons during the first week of their lives. When the squabs thrust their bills into their parents' throats to be fed, there arises what is erroneously called "pigeon's milk" from the crops of both the father and the mother. This secretion, formed from the peeled lining of the parents' crop — a result following incubation — gradually becomes mixed with regurgitated food as the squabs grow older, and it ceases only when their digestion is strong enough to dispense with baby diet. Apparently this strange secretion is peculiar to the pigeon tribe.


The labour involved in rearing a family differs, of course, with the species by reason of physical conditions, temperament, and environment. Some birds of the lower orders have little required of them by Nature, while others, more highly organized, are enslaved by family cares as if they were afflicted with the New England conscience. But, generally speaking, there are only two classes: the lower or precocial birds, including those which, fully clothed and wide awake when hatched, are able to run or swim at once and pick up their own living like our domestic fowls, ducks, Bob Whites, grouse, plover and snipe; and the altricial birds — those which come into the world blind, naked and helpless, or nearly so, like the heron, kingfisher, woodpecker, robin, and all our song birds. The precocial ruffed grouse develops from an egg that is large in proportion to the size of the mother's body, the heavy yolk nourishing the young bird during eighteen days of incubation and even after, whereas the altricial vireo lays a very small egg that hatches in one week. But even precocial and altricial birds of the same size in maturity may have come out of shells that differ as greatly as a silver dollar differs from a quarter. And the length of the period of incubation is in nearly, if not exact, ratio to the size of the egg. The largest bird's egg we know, the ostrich's, requires forty days, sometimes a full six weeks, to hatch. As in all arbitrary divisions, it is not always possible to draw a sharp dividing line. Between precocial and altricial birds, innumerable gradations occur.

A precocial grouse chick

Blind, naked and helpless altricials. Young blue-birds

Among the lower bird forms, polygamy being common, there can be no home life, and it is fortunate these chicks are independent little creatures from the first. Indeed, it was John Fiske who contributed to science the fact that the advancement of all creatures — not of the human race alone — has been measured by the prolongation of the period of infancy. The longer the young are dependent on both parents, the stronger the tie becomes between mates, the more prolonged and beautiful the home life with all its strengthening physical and moral influences making for the uplift of the species, until, among civilized humans, home living becomes a life habit, far outlasting the presence of children beneath the roof. Let the so-called advanced woman, with her unscientific notions of a readjustment of the partition of labor between the sexes, remember that the males among the ostrich tribe, most nearly related to the reptiles, take entire charge of the young. Certain plover fathers, too, and phalaropes attend to nursery duties, even to sitting on the eggs, leaving their wives free to waste their strength on clubs, pink teas, or whatever may be the equivalent among "advanced" feathered females. On the other hand, the selfish, dandified drakes of some of our wild ducks desert their mates as soon as the first egg is laid, lest any domestic duties might be demanded of them; nor do they rejoin their families until the ducklings are educated and fully able to fly. By way of apology for such neglect it is said that a drake retires necessarily to shed his wedding garment, and that by the time the ducklings' education begins their father is apt to be so denuded of feathers as to be not only useless, but a positive drag on the family, since he cannot fly. In very rare instances could this be true. One has only to watch a hen care for her chicks to realize that even precocial birds need the guardianship of at least one parent. Devoted little Bob White, with a fidelity rare among precocials, is a model husband and father, volunteering to take entire charge of the family, while Mrs. White sits on the second set of eggs. When she leads forth the new brood to be educated in wood lore with their more advanced brothers and sisters, the bevy thenceforth enjoys an ideal family life. Roving through the grain fields, underbrush and stubble, the large family party keeps close together, especially at night when parents and chicks huddle into a compact group, tails toward the centre, one of the number always remaining on guard to warn the sleepers of approaching danger. Such prolonged devotion among the quail is the more beautiful in birds closely related to the polygamous, indifferent barn-yard rooster and to the turkey gobbler, from whom his mate runs away to hatch and rear her young lest they fall victims to their father's fits of jealous, murderous rage.


The more that the home life of the birds means to them, the higher have they ascended in the evolutionary scale, the more pains they take to build a practical, beautiful nest, the more attached they become to it, to their mates and helpless young; so that if there were not a few prominent exceptions among precocial birds one might almost say that domestic virtues and true domestic bliss are monopolized by the altricials. However, among the latter it by no means follows that conjugal devotion necessarily extends beyond a single nesting season. Few birds, indeed, seem to enjoy the society of their mates the whole year through; and we have seen that degenerates, like the cowbird, occur in the most respectable, altricial families. Even the eagle, which mates for life, appears to care less for the partner of his joys and sorrows after the annual brood is carefully reared, than he does for his eyrie, just as his relative, the osprey or fish hawk, which also remains faithfully wedded to one mate till death parts them, appears to love nothing in the world quite so much as the great bundle of sticks, every year of greater bulk, which they build in some tree top near the shore. Indeed he thinks it no shame to snatch the fish from his wife's talons and eat it himself. To see a pair of loving little downy woodpeckers at work in turn excavating their hollow home, or the mother feeding their young while the father considerately goes in search of food for her when she is too tired to hunt for her own dinner, one might think that here, at least, was devotion enough to last a lifetime; but when the little woodpeckers have flown and winter nights are long and cold, it is Mr. Downy alone who occupies the sheltered cozy home in the tree trunk, leaving his wife to excavate another shelter or shift for herself as best she may.

The home of  a pair of downy woodpeckers


While it is true that manners improve steadily the higher birds ascend in the evolutionary scale; that hen-pecked husbands are treated with more consideration, overworked wives with greater respect and even tenderness until burdens become more evenly shared by both mates, and such refinements as song develop to express the highest emotions of which a bird is capable, nevertheless ideal devotion is short lived, confined as it is to the nesting season. Home life, worthy of the name, occupies but a fraction of the birds' year. After the young are reared, nests are usually deserted, and the old birds go off to moult and mope. When new feathers are grown, it is time for most of them to gather in flocks and prepare for the autumn migration to warmer climes.

Five cold little eggs followed it to the ash barrel

But in June, home life in all its brief duty is at its height; now is the best time in all the year to really know the birds. And it is never necessary to look far before finding some happy, feathered neighbours; yet if you intrude upon their home life and frighten the parents away, another tragedy of the nest may be added to the long chapter. A young girl from the city who was thoughtless enough to wear a stuffed sea-gull on the front of her hat, stood on the piazza railing of a certain farmhouse to peep in the nest of a phoebe that had built under the eaves. With a piteous cry the startled little mother sprang from her nest, fluttered an instant, then dropped onto the piazza floor dead from fright, The conscience-stricken girl ripped that gull off her hat at once, but five cold little eggs followed it to the ash barrel the next day. Now she watches the birds from a distance through an opera glass.


One might tell no end of stories to show how the birds, like human parents, fail or succeed in training their young. Watch some over-indulgent little sparrow mother, harassed by the most spoiled of children as large as she and twice as greedy, which follow her about, drooping their wings to feign helplessness, teasing for food that they are perfectly able but too lazy to collect. Daring, aggressive, impertinent to others, the English sparrows are especially weak in the presence of their children. On the other hand, many birds are strict disciplinarians and do not hesitate to enforce their commands with a vigorous slap of the wing.

The nuthatches' first acrobatic feats

It is in his family relations that a bird's true character may be read most plainly. The kingbird, which usually shows only the pugnacious side of his disposition to the world, fearlessly dashing after the largest crow to drive him away from the sacred precincts of home, reserves his lovable traits for the family circle. No dragon-fly he captures on the wing is too choice to deny himself for the benefit of his babies, or too large, apparently, to be crammed down their throats. In June, neither the brilliant scarlet tanager nor the gorgeous Baltimore oriole hesitates to help his inconspicuous mate rear their brood for fear his tell-tale coat may invite destruction from the passing gunner. In June, fear and selfishness alike are overcome by love. If you will focus the opera glasses on the nest to which the oriole's rich, continuous song directed your suspicions a few weeks ago, you will see both father and mother feeding their noisy young at the rate of about twenty visits an hour.

A more charming sight than an oriole family feasting on basket worms among the green spray of a tamarix bush would be hard to find, unless you happily discover a tiny humming-bird teaching her diminutive babies how to preen their feathers daintily with their needle-like bills. They are taught to attend to their toilet when they are scarcely larger than bumblebees.

It was the rattle of a male kingfisher informing his babies hidden within the bank of a woodland stream that he was bringing them fish for dinner, that first advertised his well- concealed nursery. Through the long tunnel the absurd- looking, skinny little birds, following one another in Indian file, would run forward to greet him, then as quickly run backwards to receive the fresh fish. Does any other bird possess this curious ability to run forward and backward like a reversible steam engine? Surely not unless it lives in a narrow tunnel.

The distracted oven-bird, feigning a broken wing as she crosses your path in the woods, invites pity or perhaps destruction, if only you will spare those speckled treasures which she thinks you know must be somewhere near although, but for her frantic performance, you might not have discovered the well- concealed nest. Sir Christopher Wren, by the very exuberance of his bubbling, continuous song, betrays the precious secret that Jenny, by her excited scoldings, no better conceals. But the bobolink, swaying on a stalk of timothy in the meadow, and singing with rollicking abandon, is quite as clever as the ventriloquial yellow-throat in luring you from his nest hidden in the grassy jungle. How jealously the true bird-lover likewise learns to guard nest secrets! The best children in the world can't be trusted with them.

Some boys in North Carolina robbed a crow's nest and kept the fledglings hung in a cage in their garden. The distracted parents visited the place hourly, brought food to their young and tried in vain to break open the wire prison. Finally, in despair, they dropped poisonous berries through the bars: it was evidently easier for them to see their babies dead than prisoners of the enemy.

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