The How and Why Library/Birds/Section III

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III. Little Friends in Feathers[edit]

One sunny Saturday afternoon in June, a tanned, dusty-legged boy came to the doctor's side porch. In one hand he had a soft, limp bundle of snow-white, dead-black and rose-colored feathers. In the other he carried a sling-shot! A shame-faced lad he was, for not a boy in the town would purposely kill one of the doctor's birds. He had just aimed at the tempting singer on the picket fence of the vegetable garden.

"But doctor," he said, "perhaps you don't know that this bird was eating your green peas. I saw him."

"Let us see," said the doctor. He opened the little crop, under the rosy spot on the breast that would throb with song no more. Yes, there were as many as two pods full of young peas. But the little vestibule to the stomach was packed full of potato bugs—the striped Colorado beetles that were eating all the potato patches in the town.

Out on the picket fence the mother grosbeak had all her babies in a row, and was feeding them the beetles. Black-headed grosbeaks were there, too. In a few days the doctor's potato plants were picked clean, and the birds were foraging in nearby gardens. "One pair of grosbeaks brings up a brood of four or five in a season," said the doctor. "One pair of Colorado beetles breeds to 50,000,000. For the good potatoes these pretty singers help me grow, I can spare them a whole row of peas."

That was a lesson one little girl never forgot. The doctor always opened the crops and stomachs of dead birds. In a robin's stomach in June he found a few orchard cherries, among the insects and wild fruits.

"The robin comes to us in March," he explained to a sober little group. "For three months he has nothing but worms, ground beetles and dry, winter berries to eat. He brings up one brood of babies on such food. No wonder he wants a few juicy cherries in June. But he likes the Russian mulberry just as well, and we don't care for that fruit." The doctor made a note to plant a mulberry tree for the robins, cedar-birds and other orchard lovers. Nine-tenths of the robin's food is insects and wild fruits. Only in June and July does he eat cherries to pay for the six months' work hedoes for us so cheerfully. He eats beetles, grubs, worms, caterpillars, spiders, snails, grasshoppers, wild grapes, blue-berries, service berries, choke berries, black alder and holly-berries, rose hips and the seeds of sumac.

There were always dead birds for the doctor to study. Woeful little tragedies happened in the nests. Once, a pretty mother oriole was hanged by a loop of horse hair, in a nest she was weaving. For hours the mate made wild lament for his loss. Then, a high wind tumbled the half-finished nest and the dead weaver to the ground. Nothing but insects were in the little stomach—beetles, ants, wasps, spiders, bark scales, plant lice and caterpillars. In midsummer the oriole eats a few grapes and peas. Can't we spare her those for the countless insects she eats and feeds to her babies?

A barn-swallow, hurt in some way on its northward flight, had fed on cotton-boll weevil, in flying over the young cotton plants in the south. And she had eaten flies, mosquitoes, gnats and little wasps, and in her stomach were the broken wings of the gad-fly that stings horses. The doctor put more brackets under the eaves of the barn, on which these little friends of barnyard animals could brace their nests.

For the house-wrens and bluebirds the doctor put up box nests. For the phoebes he had a grape-arbor and a vine-draped porch. For the chickadees he planted a thick hedge; for the brown thrush and song-sparrow low-growing shrubs. There was a mulberry tree for the orchard birds to feed upon, a cedar tree for wax-wing. And along the pasture he let the elderberry bushes, wild blackberry briars and briar roses grow, for the fruit. There were sumac bushes, too, and alder saplings, a choke cherry and other wild fruit and seed-making trees. For years and years he kept on telling his neighbors that nearly all of our wild birds are insect, wild fruit and weed seed eaters.Each kind of bird has its special work to do. Woodpeckers go under the bark of forest trees for wood-boring beetles and grubs. The cuckoo, or rain-crow, eats hairy caterpillars. The only other birds that can manage these are the orioles. In the stomach of one cuckoo the doctor found two hundred web-worms. The robins clear our lawns; the bluebirds, cat-birds and cedar-birds forage in the orchards. The wood thrushes and flickers feed on the ground in groves. The meadow-larks, bobolinks and red-wings hunt in the pastures and swamps. The swallows, the king-birds, the phoebes and other fly-catchers are raiders of the air. Wrens forage in low plants, shrubs, and in cracks and crannies of house walls and fences. Hawks and owls hunt mice and moles. In August, all the insect-eating birds make a feast of grasshoppers. One brood of robins eats half a million insects and larva in a summer, and not a thousand cherries.

For many, many years scattered bird lovers told their neighbors these things. Some of them were laughed at, some only half believed. The wild birds became fewer and fewer The nests were robbed, the singers killed for their pretty wings. The farmers drove the birds away. Then we began to have wormy orchard fruits, army worms, canker and cut-worms, tent caterpillars, boring weevils, flies, plagues of grasshoppers and Colorado beetles. Countless unseen enemies ate up the farm crops, orchards and gardens, and even the grass on the lawns. We looked everywhere for help except up in the air.

Then it was that our government began to study our bird friends. In the farmer's bureau in the capital at Washington, thousands of little stomachs were opened, in every month of the year. Every bit of food found in them was written down. We know, now, just what every wild bird eats, in every season. If a bird has a bad habit we can help him cure it. The crow pulls up young corn plants for the softened seeds. But if the seeds are soaked in tar water before planting he will not touch it. But he will go into the corn fields for cut worms.

We have taken the trouble, here, to find out for you, from many bird books, and from farmer's bulletins printed by our government, just what our commonest wild birds eat, and how they help us. First of all remember that:

Woodpeckers, cuckoos, swallows (swifts and martins), phoebes, pewees, king-birds and other fly-catchers, wrens, hawks, night-hawks (bull bats) and owls, live almost wholly on animal food. The chick-adees are insect feeders, too. They stay with us all winter, and hunt out sleeping flies, and the eggs and chrysalids of moths and beetles. The king-bird is called the bee-martin, and has been accused of eating honey bees. It has been found that it eats only drone bees. Drones have white faces, and no stingers. And it catches the robber-fly that destroys bees. King-birds protect poultry yards and other song birds by driving away hawks, crows and jaybirds. They eat such wild fruits as elder berries. Hawks and owls live mostly on mice, moles and other small rodents. Woodpeckers eat the fruits of the dogwood, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, sumac and the nuts of beech trees. No farm, garden, orchard, park or lawn can afford to be without the insect feeders. A woodpecker or king-bird should never be disturbed. Wrens, swallows, phoebes and chickadees should be encouraged to nest near our homes.

Among the useful seed eaters are doves, pigeons, the native sparrows, and the gold-finches or wild canaries. Mourning doves eat the seeds of weeds and the gleanings of grain fields. One-third of the food of our native sparrows in summer is insects, but the hard seeds of grasses, weeds and waste grain is the chief food. The goldfinch eats weed and thistle seeds, and bush buds. A very useful bird on a farm is the quail (bob-white or partridge). Two-thirds ot its food is weed seeds, the rest harmful insects and waste grain. The English sparrow is a pest. He lives in flocks, is quarrelsome, drives away our song birds, and lives on us all the year around, eating only the useful grains. He is the feathered mouse, and should be treated as a pest.

All the rest of our wild birds use a mixed diet of insects, seeds and fruits. The amounts differ with each, and with the same birds in different seasons. Thus, from March to June, the robin lives on ground beetles, larva, angle worms, spiders, snails and dry berries left over winter on bushes. He helps himself to orchard cherries in June. Late cherries he does not touch, for then the choke cherries, elder berries, cranberries, briar berries and sumac seeds are ripe. The Russian mulberry, that ripens with the early cherries, he really prefers. Plant a mulberry tree, and fruit-bearing shrubs and vines on the edge of an orchard, and the robin, bluebird, cat-bird, cedar-bird, jays and many other birds will do little harm to the cultivated fruits. In August, the robins eat grasshoppers and wild fruits.

Three-fourths of the bluebird's food is insects, the rest wild fruits and seeds. The meadow-lark's food is three-fourths groundinsects, the rest waste grain and weed seeds Orioles live almost entirely on insects, hairy caterpillars forming one-third of the food. They eat a little fruit in mid-summer. No peas or grapes were found in many stomachs examined. All the grosbeaks are enemies of the Colorado beetle. One family of grosbeaks can keep a good-sized patch of potatoes free of this pest. They also eat the pupa of the coddling moth that lays the apple worm.

The grosbeaks eat some green peas, small fruits and waste grain. They pay ten thousand times over for every useful thing they eat. Cedar (cherry or wax-wing) birds, like the robins, eat some early cherries. But they prefer mulberries or cedar berries. In late summer and fall they live mostly on weed seeds and wild fruits. The nestlings, at first, are fed on insects. These birds eat the elm-leaf beetle and plant lice as well as grasshoppers. The cat-bird eats about half animal and half vegetable food. Insects and wild fruits and seeds form the bulk of its food. A government report says of it: "The cat-bird has a bad name, but it does more good than harm." The mocking bird, brown thrasher and nearly all the thrushes have much the same food habits as the robin and bluebird. Two-thirds of their food is insects, the rest wild and tame fruits.

The government pays special attention to jays, blackbirds and crows, for most people think these birds have no good qualities at all. Jays eat everything; seeds, acorns, nuts, fruits, insects, the eggs and young of other birds, and even of the poultry yard. They eat mice, fish, snails, and they rob orchards. The conclusion is that "the character of the jay bird is not all that could be desired."

With the blackbirds it is a different story. Orioles and meadow-larks are among our most useful bird friends. The red-wings' food is eighty-five per cent insects and weed seeds, eaten in marshes where many weeds and crop enemies breed. Less than ten per cent of its food is grain. The crow blackbird eats forty per cent of grain. The bobolink feeds on insects and weed seeds when nesting in the north, but rice when migrating. It is the English sparrow of southern rice fields. There it is called the rice or reed-bird.

The crow does pull up corn, rob song bird's nests, and kill small chickens in the poultry yards. Corn seeds can be protected from Mr. Crow by soaking in tar water, and a few kingbirds nesting nearby, can protect little chickens and birds from both crows and hawks. To the credit of the crow are the field and barn mice, moles, May beetles, June bugs, cutworms and grasshoppers he eats and feedsto his family. The crow eats no orchard fruit, and only a little corn in the milk. He is not afraid of scare crows, but he is shy of bits of bright tin or looking glass strung across the tops of corn fields, and flashing in the sun. A few precautions will make the crow a good and useful neighbor.

Birds are our little brothers of the air who help us keep the earth green and fruitful. They alone are able to keep the unseen armies of insect enemies in check. We need their help, and how willingly they work for us. Of all our little animal brothers they alone can sing and fly. They take up no useful room, and they earn their own living. At the same time they make the world a more beautiful place to live in.

They have so many human ways. They love their mates; they care so tenderly for their babies. They have such skill, such industry, such courage, such devotion to duty, such grace of movement and beauty of plumage and voice. Don't you think, since they help us so much, we should be willing to help them a little? All they want is protection, and a little help in the kind of food they need, where wild fruits and seeds do not grow. Provide nesting places for them about town houses. Where they are wanted they will come, year after year. Then, when they fly away in the autumn, we will know that they have helped us grow grains and fruits, vegetables, shade trees and flowers. See names of birds, beside Owls, Hawks, Pigeon, Cuckoo, Quail (plate), House pets (cats to be watched).