Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/July 1896/The Birds at Dinner

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THE BIRDS AT DINNER.
By HARRIET E. RICHARDS.

WE think of the birds as dainty creatures, fit for poetry, song, and airy flights; but if we faithfully watch them a little, we shall discover that nearly their whole time and energy are devoted to securing their "daily bread."

Our familiar song birds begin their day about three in the morning; from that time until seven or eight in the evening the hours are mainly occupied in searching for food. Certainly they spend some time in making love, in building nests, in singing songs, but intermingled with it all is the constant demand for something to eat. Some fruit-eating birds are said to consume three times their own weight every day. Prof. Treadwell proved by experiment that a young robin will eat every day, and require

PSM V49 D355 Head of swallow and crested flycatcher.jpg
Head of Swallow. Natural size. Chested Flycatcher. Natural size.

it too for perfect development, more than his own weight of animal food. Think of human beings eating at that rate! Gormandizers, indeed! Think, too, of the labor of providing for, say, four such hungry, greedy little ones!

Scientific investigation has proved that nearly all birds feed their young on insects, worms, or some form of animal food, and also depend mainly on such food for themselves at that busy period of their lives, although at other seasons their favorite food may be grains and berries. Dr. Brewer says a pair of jays feed their young five hundred thousand caterpillars in a season, and that they will destroy one million eggs each winter; and that a chickadee will largely exceed these figures.

There are several reasons why birds require so much food. They are active creatures, being almost constantly in motion some individuals traveling many miles every day. Of all animals, their blood is the warmest; their temperature is about five degrees

PSM V49 D356 Hairy woodpecker and yellow bellied sapsucker.jpg
Hairy Woodpecker.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

higher than man's. This heat of the body is nicely protected by their covering of down and feathers, but it requires more food to make feathers than to make flesh or hair.

A tiny bird's body is a highly concentrated bit of nature, which is controlled by an intelligent and active brain that keeps his little system in such constant motion that it must be abundantly nourished. If we notice carefully the beaks of all the birds we see, it will help us, by indicating their habits of feeding, to locate them in their families and thus lead us to their correct names. All the sparrows have short, stout beaks, well suited to cracking open seeds and grain, which is their usual food. The thrushes have a curved bill, convenient for holding worms and digging in the soil; they find most of their food on the gound, poking among the dead leaves and rubbish for grubs, beetles, and larvæ. Our robins, which are true thrushes, do valuable spring work in the garden and lawn pulling worms from the soil. Have you ever watched a robin at work? How he tugs and pulls when the worm is long and does not come easily! There is an

PSM V49 D357 Hummingbird warbler and vireo.jpg
Ruby-throated Humming Bird
(Trochilus colubris).
Golden winged Warbler
.Red-eyed Vireo
. Natural size.

energy and a certain business air about him when at work which is very interesting.

The food of the thrushes is chiefly animal, although they like a few strawberries and cherries for dessert, which we ought to be very willing to allow them as a slight return for all the worms and insects they destroy for us. The warblers are almost exclusively insect-eating birds. A few of them hunt on the ground for their food, but as a family their place is high in the tree tops, searching among the foliage for the tiny insects, plant lice, and spiders that make their homes there. They are small birds, having slender beaks.

The tiny humming birds, with their long, needle-shaped bills, are well equipped for securing honey from the very heart of the trumpet flowers and honeysuckles. They find numerous small, insects within the flower as well as honey. From a paragraph in a recent number of The Auk we might judge that spiders were a favorite food with them, a writer there telling us that he found twelve spiders and many broken remnants of others in the gullet of a female humming bird that he dissected August 19, 1894. He remarks that "the gullet was also well filled with honey."

The swallows feed entirely on insects, securing them on the wing. To accomplish this successfully they are provided with

PSM V49 D358 Sandpiper and sparrow.jpg
Red-backed Sandpiper. Natural size. Chipping Sparrow.
Natural size.

broad, short bills and a mouth which opens very wide, really from eye to eye. The woodpeckers have large, chisel-like bills, which they put to constant use in securing their food, most of which they glean under dead bark on the trunks of trees. The tongues of the woodpeckers, excepting the sapsuckers, have little barbs on each side like the barbs of a fishhook; this little instrument, we may readily understand, proves very useful in capturing their prey. The sapsucker has a sort of brushlike arrangement at the end of the tongue which aids him in collecting his food. The woodpeckers feed mainly on insects, beetles, and grubs, and render us valuable service in destroying many pests; they also eat nuts and some fruit.

An interesting family of birds to observe when feeding are the flycatchers. Our kingbird is a familiar illustration of the family. They feed almost exclusively on insects in flight. They are cool-headed, businesslike birds, deciding to sit quietly on a perch until some pretty fly passes near; then, presto! a snap, and poor little fly is already in the flycatcher's gullet. There is no nervous uncertainty in a flycatcher's disposition, but quiet waiting till the decisive moment, then his sharp little bill clinches the winged creature in an instant.

Near my favorite window, on the branch of an apple tree, the tent caterpillars have had a nest for a number of years. I have never allowed the nest to be burned out or destroyed, choosing to leave it for a feeding place for the birds. It has been extremely interesting to notice the different birds around the nest, and their manner of attacking it. The yellow-throated vireos are the most frequent visitors; they find the worms a dainty feast. Often they thrust their tiny beaks into the sticky web and tear off bits to take away for nest-building; sometimes it pulls hard, or they try to take too large a piece; then they will brace their feet, set their bodies, and tug with a vim; something has to give way, and very soon it is the sticky web; then away goes my yellowthroat, a happy conqueror.

The orioles are the next most frequent visitors. They peck fearlessly into the nest; so do the little flycatchers—the chebecs. The yellow warblers, robins, redstarts, and rose-breasted grosbeaks, and, of course, numerous English sparrows peck around the foliage near the nest and try a worm occasionally that has crawled from the nest, but they do not often trouble the nest itself.

Nature plans very beautifully for her creatures. Every bird has its food within reach of its own well-directed effort; but it remains for the bird to make the effort and secure the food. The structure of the bird's body—his beak, feet, feathers, length of neck—his manner of flight, his habits, and tastes, all are nicely planned for the little owner's daily quest for food.

A humming bird would not enjoy a sparrow's chubby beak, neither would the grosbeak find it easy to open pea pods or pick potato bugs with the humming bird's needlelike bill. The shore birds—the sandpipers and herons—would find it difficult to scale the trunk of a tree for their dinner, as do the nuthatches and woodpeckers, but their long, slender beaks deftly pierce the mud for snakes and worms, while the ducks find their large, flat beaks convenient for seizing and holding a frog.

The nocturnal birds, as the owls and whip-poor-wills, each possess interesting physical characteristics for securing their food

PSM V49 D359 Oriole and tongues of woodpecker and sapsucker.jpg
Orchard Oriole. Im. ♂ second year;
natural size.
Tongue of Woodpecker.
Magnified.
Tongue of Sapsucker. Magnified

in the dark. When we have learned the tastes and habits of any bird, we shall see how perfectly he is equipped with an apparatus that would be an incumbrance to some neighbor bird, but to him is indispensable to life and comfort.

If we will study something of the birds—their structure, their habits, and their dispositions—we shall constantly be impressed with the practical wisdom of these little inhabitants of our gardens and forests, and be daily encouraged by their untiring industry and bright, sprightly ways.