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XIX

WINTER PENSIONERS

OUR northern winter is a lean time, ornithologically, though it brings us some choice birds of its own, and is not without many alleviations. When the redpolls come in crowds and the white-winged crossbills in good numbers, both of which things happened last year, the world is not half so bad with us as it might be. Still, winter is winter, a season to be tided over rather than doted upon, and anything which helps to make the time pass agreeably is matter for thankful ness. So I am asked to write something about the habit we are in at our house of feeding birds in cold weather, and thus keeping them under the windows. Really we have done nothing peculiar, nor has our success been beyond that of many of our neighbors; but such as it is, the work has given us much enjoyment, and the readers of “Bird-Lore” are welcome to the story.

Our method is to put out pieces of raw suet, mostly the trimmings of beefsteak. These we attach to branches of trees and to the veranda trellis, taking pains, of course, to have them beyond the cat’s reach (that the birds may feed safely), and at the same time well disposed for our own convenience as spectators. For myself, in addition, I generally nail pieces of the bait upon one or two of the outer sills of my study windows. I like, as I sit reading or writing, to hear now and then a nuthatch or a chickadee hammering just outside the pane. Often I rise to have a look at the visitor. There is nothing but the glass between us, and I can stand near enough to see his beady eyes, and, so to speak, the expression of his face. Sometimes two birds are there at once, one waiting for the other. Sometimes they have a bit of a set-to. Then, certainly, they are not without facial expression.

Once in a while, in severe weather, I have sprinkled crumbs (sweet or fatty crumbs are best — say bits of doughnut) on the inside ledge, and then, with the window raised a few inches, have awaited callers. If the weather is bad enough they are not long in coming. A chickadee alights on the outer sill, notices the open win dow, scolds a little (the thing looks like a trap — at all events it is something new, and birds are conservative), catches sight of the crumbs (well, now, that’s another story), ceases his dee, dee, dee, and the next minute hops inside.


A DOWNY WOODPECKER


A BRANCH ESTABLISHMENT

The crumbs prove to be appetizing, and by the time he has swallowed a few of them he seems to forget how he came in, and instead of backing out, as a reasonable being like a chickadee might be expected to do, he flies to another light of the bay window. Then, lest he should injure himself, I must get up and catch him and show him to the door. By the time I have done this two or three times within half an hour, I begin to find it an interruption to other work, and put down the window. White-breasted nut hatches and downies come often to the outer sill, but only the chickadees ever venture inside.

These three are our daily pensioners. If they are all in the tree together, as they very often are, they take precedence at the larder according to their size. No nuthatch presumes to hurry a woodpecker, and no chickadee ever thinks of disturbing a nuthatch. He may fret audibly, calling the other fellow greedy, for aught I know, and asking him if he wants the earth; but he maintains a respectful distance. Birds, like wild things in general, have a natural reverence for size and weight.

The chickadees are much the most numerous with us, but taking the year together, the wood peckers are the most constant. My notes record them as present in the middle of October, 1899, and now, in the middle of October, 1900, they are still in daily attendance. Perhaps there were a few weeks of midsummer when they stayed away, but I think not. One pair built a nest somewhere in the neighborhood and depended on us largely for supplies, much to their convenience and our pleasure. As soon as the red-capped young ones were able to fly, the parents brought them to the tree and fed them with the suet (it was a wonder how much of it they could eat), till they were old enough to help them selves. And they act, old and young alike, as if they owned the place. If a grocer’s wagon hap pens to stop under the tree they wax indignant, and remain so till it drives away. Even the black cat, Satan, has come to acknowledge their rights in the case, and no longer so much as thinks of them as possible game.

I have spoken, I see, as if these three species were all; but, not to mention the blue jays, whose continual visits are rather ineffectively frowned upon (they carry off too much at once), we had last winter, for all the latter half of it, a pair of red-bellied nuthatches. They dined with us daily (pretty creatures they are), and stayed so late in the spring that I began to hope the handy food-supply would induce them to tarry for the summer. They were mates, I think. At any rate, they preferred to eat from the same bit of fat, one on each side, in great contrast with all the rest of our company. Frequently, too, a brown creeper would be seen hitching up the trunk or over the larger limbs. He likes pleasant society, though he has little to say, and perhaps found scraps of suet in the crevices of the bark, where the chickadees, who are given to this kind of providence, may have packed it in store. Somewhat less frequently a goldcrest would come with the others, fluttering amid the branches like a sprite. One bird draws another, especially in hard times. And so it happened that our tree, or rather trees, — an elm and a maple, — were something like an aviary the whole winter through. It was worth more than all the trouble which the experiment cost us to lie in bed before sunrise, with the mercury below zero, and hear a chickadee just outside singing as sweetly as any thrush could sing in June. If he had been trying to thank us, he could not have done it more gracefully.

The worse the weather, the better we enjoyed the birds’ society; and the better, in general, they seemed to appreciate our efforts on their behalf. It was noticeable, however, that chickadees were with us comparatively little during high, cold winds. On the 18th of February, for example, we had a blizzard, with driving snow, the most inclement day of the winter. At seven o’clock, when I looked out, four downy wood peckers were in the elm, all trying their best to eat, though the branches shook till it was hard work to hold on. They stayed much of the forenoon. At ten o’clock, when the storm showed signs of abating, though it was still wild enough, a chickadee made his appearance and whistled Phoebe again and again — “a long time,” my note says — in his cheeriest manner. Who can help loving a bird so courageous, “so frolic, stout, and self-possest”? Emerson did well to call him a “scrap of valor.” Yet I find from a later note that “there were nothing like the usual number of chickadees so long as the fury lasted.” Doubtless most of them stayed among the evergreens. It is an old saying of the chickadee’s, frequently quoted, “Be bold, be bold, but not too bold.” On the same day I saw a member of the household snowballing an English sparrow away from one branch, while a downy woodpecker continued to feed upon the next one. The woodpecker had got the right idea of things. Honest folk need not fear the constable.


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