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Birds Every Child Should Know
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BIRDS NOT OF A FEATHER
THE BUTCHER-BIRDS OR SHRIKES
IS IT not curious that among our so-called song birds there should be two, about the size of robins, loggerhead a the northern shrike, with the hawk-like habit of killing little birds and mice, and the squirrel's eat? They are butchers, with the thrifty custom of hanging up their meat, which only improves in flavour and tenderness after a day or two of curing. Then, even if storms should drive their little prey to shelter and snow should cover the fields, they need not worry nor starve seeing an abundance in their larder provided for the proverbial rainy day.
In the Southern and Middle States, where the loggerhead shrike is most common, some children say he looks like a mockingbird; but the feathers on his back are surely quite a different gray, a light-bluish ash, and pearly on his under parts, with white in his black wings and tail which is conspicuous as he flies. His powerful head, which is large for his size, has a heavy black line running from the end of his mouth across his cheek, and his strong, bill has a hook on the end which is useful in tearing the flesh from his victim's bones. He really looks like nothing but just what he is -- a butcher-bird. See him, quiet and preoccupied, perched on a telegraph pole on the lookout for a dinner! A kingbird, or other flycatcher which chooses similar perches, would sail off suddenly into the air if a winged insect hove in sight, snap it up, make an aerial loop in its flight and return to its old place. Not so the solitary, sanguinary shrike. When his wonderfully keen eyes detect a grasshopper, a cricket, a big beetle, a lizard, a little mouse, or a sparrow at a distance in a field, he drops like an eagle upon the victim, seizes it with his strong beak, and flies with steady flapping strokes of the wings, close along the ground, straight to the nearest honey locust or spiny thorn; then rises with a sudden upward turn into the tree to impale his prey. Hawks, who use the same method of procuring food, have very strong feet; their talons are of great help in holding and killing their victims; but the shrikes, which have rather weak, sparrowlike feet, for perching only, are really compelled in many cases to make use of stout thorns or sharp twigs to help them quiet the struggles of their victims. Weather-vanes, lightning rods, bare branches, or the outermost or top branches of tall trees, high poles, and telegraph wires, which afford a fine bird's eye-view of the surrounding hunting ground, are favourite points of vantage for both shrikes. When it is time to husk the corn, every farmer's boy must have seen a shrike sitting on a fence-rail or hovering in the air ready to seize the little meadow mice that escape from the shocks.
It is sad to record that sometimes shrikes also sneak upon their prey. When they resort to this mean method of securing a dinner they leave the high perches and secrete themselves in clumps of bushes in the open field. Luring little birds within striking distance by imitating their call notes, they pounce upon a terror-stricken sparrow before you could say "Jack Robinson." Shrikes seem to be the only creatures that really rejoice in the rapid increase of English sparrows. In summer they prefer large insects, especially grasshoppers, but in winter when they can get none, they must have the fresh meat of birds or mice. At any season they deserve the fullest protection for the service they do the farmer. Shrikes kill only that they themselves may live, and not for the sake of slaughter, which is a so-called sport reserved for man alone, who in any case, should be the last creature to condemn them.
The loggerhead's call-notes are harsh, creaking, and unpleasant, but at the approach of the nesting season he proves that he really can sing, although not half as well as his cousin, the northern shrike, who astonishes us with a fine song some morning in early spring. Before we become familiar with it, however, the wandering minstrel is off to the far north to nest within the arctic circle. It is only in winter that the northern shrike visits the United States, travelling as far south as Virginia and Kansas between October and April. He is larger than the loggerhead, being a little over ten inches long, a good-looking winter visitor in a gray suit with black and white trimmings on his wings and tail and wavy bars on his breast. Bradford Torrey used to visit a vireo that would drink water from a teaspoon which he held out to her while she sat brooding on her nest. I know a lady who fed bits of raw meat to a wounded shrike from the tines of a fork, the best substitute for a thorn she could find, because he found it awkward to eat from a dish.
THE CEDAR WAXWING
Called also: Cedarbird; Cherry-bird; Bonnet bird, Silk-tail.
So few birds wear their head feathers crested that it is a simple matter to name them by their top-knots alone, even if you did not see the gray plumage of the little tufted titmouse, the dusky hue of the crested flycatcher, the blue of the jay and the kingfisher, the red of the cardinal, and the richly shaded grayish-brown of the cedar waxwing, which is, perhaps, the most familiar of them all. His neat and well-groomed plumage is fine and very silky, almost dove-like in colouring, and although there are no gaudy features about it, few of our birds are so exquisitely dressed. The pointed crest, which rises and falls to express every passing emotion, and the velvety black chin, forehead, and line running apparently through the eye, give distinction to the head. The tail has a narrow yellow band across its end, and on the wings are the small red spots like sealing wax that are responsible for the bird's queer name. The waxwing is larger than a sparrow and smaller than a robin.
But it is difficult to think of a single bird when one usually sees a flock. Sociable to a degree, the waxwings rove about a neighbourhood in scattered companies, large and small, to feed on the cedar or juniper berries, choke cherries, dog-wood and woodbine berries, elder, haw, and other small wild fruits on which they feed very greedily; then move on to some other place where their favourite fruit abounds. Happily, they care very little about our cultivated fruit and rarely touch it. A good way to invite many kinds of birds to visit one's neighbourhood is to plant plenty of berry-bearing trees and shrubs. The birds themselves plant most of the wild ones, by dropping the undigested berry seeds far and wide. How could the seeds of many species be distributed over thousands of miles of land without their help? If will surprise you to count the number of trees about your home that have been planted, quite unconsciously, by birds many years before you were born. Cedarbirds are responsible for no small part of the beauty of the lanes and hedgerows throughout their wide range from sea to sea and from Canada to Mexico and Central America. Nature, you see, makes her creatures work for her, whether they know they are helping her plans or not.
When a flock of cedarbirds enters your neighbourhood, there is no noisy warning of their coming. Gentle, refined in manners, courteous to one another, almost silent visitors, they will sit for hours nearly motionless in a tree while digesting a recent feast. An occasional bird may shift his position, then, politely settling himself again without disturbing the rest of the company, remain quiet as before. Lisping, Twee-twee-zee call notes, like a hushed whispered whistle, are the only sounds the visitors make. How different from a roving flock of screaming, boisterous blue jays!
The cedar waxwing
The gorgeous scarlet tanager who sang in this tree was killed by a sling-shot.
The nest was deserted by his terrified mate
When rising to take wing, the squad still keeps together, flying evenly and swiftly in close ranks on a level with the tree-tops along a straight course; or, wheeling suddenly, the birds dive downward into a promising, leafy, restaurant. Enormous numbers of insects are consumed by a flock. The elm-beetle, which destroys the beauty, if not the life, of some of our finest shade trees, would be exterminated if there were cedarbirds enough. One flock within a week rid a New England village of this pest that had eaten the leaves on the double row of elms which had been the glory of its broad main street for over a hundred years. When you see these birds in an orchard, look for better apples there next year. Cankerworms are a bon bouche to them; so are grubs and caterpillars, especially cutworms.
Sometime after all the other birds, except the tardy little goldfinch, have nested, the waxwings give up the flocking habit and live in pairs. Toward the end of June, when many birds are rearing the second brood, you may see a couple begin to carry grass, shreds of bark, twine, fine roots, catkins, moss or rags-any or all of these building materials-to some tree; usually a fruit tree or a cedar; and then, if you watch carefully, you will find what is not always the case with humans -- the birds' manners at home are even better than when moving in society abroad. The devoted male brings dainties to his brooding mate and helps her feed their family. Moreover, cedarbirds are very good to feathered orphans.
THE SCARLET TANAGER
Called also: Black-winged Redbird
People who are now living can remember when scarlet tanagers were as common as robins. Where are they now? You see a redbird at the north so rarely that a thrill of excitement is felt when a flash of scarlet among the tree-tops makes the day a red-letter one on your bird calendar. Alas! He has, what has certainly proved to be, the fatal gift of beauty. A scarlet coat with black wings and tail, worn by a bird larger than a sparrow, makes a shining mark among the foliage for the shot gun and sling shot. Thousands of tanagers have been slaughtered to be worn on the unthinking heads of vain girls and women. Many are killed every year, during the spring and autumn migrations, by flying against the great lighthouses along our coasts, the birds' highway of travel. Tanagers, who are only summer visitors from the tropics, are peculiarly susceptible to cold; a sudden change in the weather, a drop in the thermometer some time in May just after they have come here from a warmer climate and are still especially sensitive, will kill off great numbers in the north woods and in Canada. They really should postpone their journey a little while until the weather becomes settled and there are fewer fogs on the coast.
The male tanager, in his wedding garment, is sometimes mistaken for a cardinal by people who only half see any object they look at. Bird study sharpens the sight wonderfully, and teaches boys and girls the importance of accurate observation. The cardinal, a larger bird, is almost as large as a robin; he is a rich, deep red all over, and not a scarlet shade. Moreover he wears a pointed crest by which you may always know him, while the tanager, whose head is smooth, may be certainly named by his black wings and tail. After the nesting season, the tanager begins to moult and then he is a queer looking object indeed in his motley coat. Only little patches and streaks of scarlet remain here and there among the olive green feathers that gradually replace the red ones until, in winter, he becomes completely transformed into an olive bird with black wings, looking like his immature sons. How tiresome to have to change his feathers again toward spring before he can hope to woo and win a mate!
The exacting little lady bird, who demands such fine feathers, is herself quietly clad in light olive green with a more yellowish tinge on her lighter breast that she may be in perfect colour harmony with the leaves she lives and nests among. If she, too, wore scarlet, I fear the tanager tribe would have disappeared years ago. Happily her protective colouring, which betrays no nest secrets, has saved the species.
Is it not strange that birds, who spend the rest of their lives among the tree-tops, hunting among the foliage for insects and small fruit, should nest so low? Sometimes they place their cradle on a limb only six feet from the ground. It is a rather shabby, poorly made affair which very lively tanager youngster might easily tumble apart. "Chip-churr" calls the gorgeous father from the tree top, and a reassuring reply that all is well with the nest floats up to him from his mate. He does not often risk its safety by showing himself near the nest, securely hidden by the foliage below. If, toward the end of May, you hear him singing his real song, which is somewhat like an oriole's mellow, cheery carol, you may be sure he is planning to spend the summer in your neighbourhood. Not many miles from New York there is a house built on the top of a hill, whose sides are covered with oak and chestnut woods, where one may be sure to see tanagers among the tree tops from any window at any hour of any day from May to October. Several nests in those woods are saddled on to the horizontal limbs of the white oak. Not many people are blessed with such beautiful, interesting neighbours.
In the Southern States, one of the most familiar birds in the orange groves, orchards, and woods of pine and oak, is the summer tanager, another smooth-headed redbird, but without a black feather on him. He is fire red all over. Of the three hundred and fifty species of tanagers in the tropics, only two think it worth -while to visit the Eastern United States and one of these frequently suffers because he starts too early. Suppose all should suddenly decide to come north some spring and spend the summer with us! Our woods would be filled with some of the most brilliant and gorgeous birds in the world. Don't you wish all the members of the family were as adventurous as the scarlet tanager?