Bird Babies

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )

THE lawn was very shady and quiet, for the after-noon sun did not pierce the thick leaves of the elms which grew above it. It was a warm July day, and so still that one could hear all the tiny sounds of insects and birds without difficulty, I found it hard to read, and lay in the hammock watching the clouds idly, thinking of nothing at all.

Suddenly, from somewhere near me, there came a persistent noise of calling, the sound that only a baby bird makes, and which penetrates farther than many louder noises. I sat up, and began to listen for it. Evidently there was a youngster, just out of the nest. somewhere about, and I made up my mind to find him.

The crying was over beside the house, I thought, and I explored cautiously. I traced it to a little patch of ferns and wild plants, when it stopped abruptly. I felt that the bird must be near. A moment later, stepping carefully, I found him at my feet, an unrecognizable bundle of fluff and beak, and frightened sharp eyes that stared at me unwinking. I withdrew to a safe distance, and waited, for I was certain there was a parent bird near.

I did not have long to wait. Presently, when he thought I was too far away to hurt him, the baby began calling again. I could not see him, except when the fern under which he was, moved a little as he fluttered a bit; but all at once a beautiful fellow dropped down from the nearest tree and poked something into his mouth. It was the father, as I knew at once; a superb, rose-breasted grosbeak, in the full beauty of his plumage, black wings barred with white, black head, white belly, and a vivid patch of rose under his chin. He stood there a moment, watching, before he flew off.

But almost before he stirred, there came again that insistent, piercing cry. "You greedy thing!" I exclaimed to the baby, for it seemed to me that he might have had the grace to wait a bit before demanding more. Then there came an answering cry, and I noticed that the sounds came from different places. Then I understood. There were two young birds, and both close to each other. It was harder to find the second baby. He was quieter than the first, and showed less disposition to hop about from place to place.

All that afternoon we sat about the lawn as near to the birds as we dared, but to our surprise, we could only see the father feeding the little ones. There were other birds in the yard, chippies and goldfinches, robins, and one or two other birds which we had not been able to identify. But we could never see the mother bird. Now the female grosbeak is entirely different from her mate,,a plain, shy, little lady, colored like the grasses which make her nest, and of a retiring disposition. It was only once, and by an accident, that I caught sight of her, though I was positive that she was doing her duty as gallantly as her mate,that day was only a beginning. Apparently the birds had decided that our yard was an excellent place for the children, and they kept them there as long as the little ones would stay in a small area. That first afternoon had satisfied them that we could be trusted to do no damage to the little ones, and they came to feed the young with perfect indifference to us. Later they brought a third to be with the others.

We grew well acquainted with the father bird, who would stop for a bit of a song on his way about, or linger in the drive snatching a bite or so for himself when the babies were not too insistent. Meanwhile the children were scratching about for themselves. One day one of them made his way into the barn, found a comfortable patch of sunlight on the floor; and settled down to enjoy it. The father found him there, fed him, and let him stay where he was till he grew restless, and fluttered off.

All the while the youngsters were growing rapidly, developing their feathers as fast as they could. It was then that we made a discovery. We decided that they must be all of them boy-babies. Usually, in the case of birds with striking coloring, the male and female are different, sometimes very much so, as with these two birds; and in such cases the young birds resemble the mother for a time, as a protection until they are old and experienced enough to be safe with the gay coloring. Some birds need several years to get their coloring. We had supposed that this would happen with the young grosbeaks ; but one day we noticed that two of them were growing surprisingly like their father. The tiny wing feathers already showed the black and white bars, and it was evident that they would have the same brilliant plumage when they were older.

Soon after this they flew away, and we saw no more of them. However, there were other little birds to occupy our attention. One morning there arose a great commotion in the grass beside the summer-house, which we traced to a young fellow who made a frantic effort when he saw us, and succeeded in flying up into the woodbine that covered the screen-s. At first we could not imagine what he could be. His feathers were fairly well grown, a yellow-olive in color, and he was obviously very distrustful of human beings. He squawked at the top of his voice, and a pretty riot he made.

It was not long before his parents came to his assistance. A pair of Baltimore orioles perched on the elms and called to him to come to them; but he was too frightened to move. Then they tried to come near enough to coax him; and we saw them fly to the lower branches, all a glow of orange and black, with long caterpillars dangling temptingly from their beaks. Still he would not budge.

For nearly an hour they tempted in vain. Then something called us away from the spot, and they took instant advantage of our departure. When we came back, in fifteen minutes or so, he had vanished.

There was one other family that summer with which we grew well acquainted. A lilac bush near the kitchen window has always been a favorite place for the smaller birds, vireos, fly-catchers, and chicadees. They find in-numerable tiny bugs which well repay them for their trouble, and as the bush is close beside the window, it gives a perfect opportunity to watch them without disturbing them.

One morning we noticed a vireo searching the bush with more than ordinary care. She would leave it every few moments, fly down just out of sight, and return almost immediately. A faint chirping filled the intervals. Finally we found the baby. He was one of a pair, both near the bush, and both evidently rather troublesome children. Their mother had come to the conclusion that the bush was the best place for them, and she tried to keep them as near it as she could. But they thought differently. As soon as her back was turned, off they fluttered.

Now it is not far to the state road, along which many hundreds of cars pass almost daily, by no means a safe place for a bird not yet able to use its wings; but the little birds seemed possessed to go as near it as possible. We watched them fluttering toward it, and when they approached too close, some member of the family would pick them up and remove them to a safer place. Their mother apparently understood, for she herself would round them up from time to time and bring them back to the lilac bush; but it was not possible for her to be with them all the time, as she had other children somewhere else to look out for.

One morning early we missed them. They were not on the lawn, and were nowhere in sight. But one of the boys reported that he heard them chirping on the far side of the road. The grass was too thick to find them, so we never saw them again; but we concluded that they had made up their minds to see the world. Perhaps they will come back next summer; but I fear they will have grown so that we shall not recognize them. Perhaps, though, they will remember the lilac bush, and the place where their mother taught them to bathe under the drip from a faucet, and will bring their own little ones there. If I ever see three little vireos sitting on the pipe while their mother knocks them off under the water, I shall be sure that they have remembered.

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