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Ten Acres Enough
Chapter XV.—Birds, and the Services they Render


One morning in September, hearing shots fired repeatedly at the further end of my grounds, and proceeding thither to ascertain the cause, I discovered three great, overgrown boobies, with guns in their hands, trampling down my strawberries, and shooting bluebirds and robins. On inquiring where they belonged, they answered in the next township. I suggested to them that I thought their own township was quite large enough to keep its own loafers, without sending them to depredate on me, warned them never to show themselves on my premises again, and then drove them out. This happened to be the only occasion on which I was invaded by any of the worthless, loafing tribe of gunners, who roam over some neighborhoods, en­gaged in the manly occupation of killing tomtits and catbirds.

For all such my aversion was as decided as my partiality for the birds was strong. One of the little amusements I indulged in immediately on taking possession on my farm, was to put up at least twenty little rough contrivances about the premises, in which the birds might build. Knowing their value as destroyers of insects, I was determined to protect them; and thus, around the dwelling-house, in the garden-trees, and upon the sides of the barn, as well as in other places which promised to be popular, I placed boxes, calabashes, and squashes for them to occupy. The wrens and bluebirds took to them with gratifying readiness, built, and reared their families. But I observed that the wren quickly took possession of every one in which the hole was just large enough to admit himself, and too small to allow the bluebird to enter; while in those large enough to admit a bluebird no wren would build. This was because the bluebird has a standing spite against the wrens, which leads him to enter the nests of the latter, whenever possible, and destroy their eggs. Almost any number of wrens may thus be attracted round the house and garden, where they act as vigilant destroyers of insects.

These interesting creatures soon hatched out large broods of young, to provide food for which they were incessantly on the wing. They became surprisingly tame and familiar, those especially which were nearest the house, and in trees beneath which the family were constantly passing. We watched their movements through the season with increasing interest. No cat was permitted even to approach their nests, no tree on which a family was domiciled was ever jarred or shaken; and the young children, instead of regarding them as game to be frightened off, or hunted, caught, and killed, were educated to admire and love them. Indeed, so carefully did we observe their looks and motions, that many times I felt almost sure that I could identify and recognize the tenants of particular boxes. They ranged over the whole extent of my ten acres, clearing the bushes and vegetables of insects and worms; while the garden, in which they sang and chattered from daybreak until sunset, was kept entirely clear of the destroyers. I encountered them at the furthest extremity of my domain, peering under the peach-leaves, flitting from one tomato-vine to another, almost as tame as those at home. They must have known me, and felt safe from harm. I am persuaded that I recognized them. Yet it was at this class of useful birds that the boobies calling themselves sportsmen were aiming their weapons, when I routed them from the premises, and forbid the murderous foray.

Insects are, occasionally, one of the farmer's greatest pests. But high, thorough farming is a potent destroyer. It is claimed by British writers to be a sure one. When the average produce of wheat in England was only twenty bushels per acre, the ravages of the insect tribe were far more general and destructive than they have been since the average has risen to forty bushels per acre. Why may not the cultivation of domestic birds like these, that nestle round the house and garden, where insects mostly congregate, be considered an important feature in any system of thorough farming?

Besides the wrens and bluebirds, the robins built under the eaves of the wood-shed, and became exceedingly tame. The more social swallow took possession of every convenient nestling-place about the barn, while troops of little sparrows came confidingly to the kitchen door to pick up the crumbs of bread which the children scattered on the pavement as soon as they discovered that these innocent little creatures were fond of them. Thus my premises became a sort of open aviary, in which a multitude of birds were cultivated with assiduous care, and where they shall be even more assiduously domesticated, as long as I continue to be lord of the manor. I pity the man who can look on these things, who can listen to the song of wrens, the loud, inspiring carol of the robin on the tree-top, as the setting sun gilds its utmost extremities, listening to these vocal evidences of animal comfort and enjoyment, without feeling any augmentation of his own pleasures, and that the lonesome blank which sometimes hangs around a rural residence is thus gratefully filled.

One morning, hearing a great clamor and turmoil in a thicket in the garden, where a nest of orioles had been filled with young birds, I cautiously approached to discover the cause. A dozen orioles were hovering about in great excitement, and for some time it was impossible to discover the meaning of the trouble. But remaining perfectly quiet, so as not to increase the disturbance, I at length discovered an oriole, whose wing had become so entangled in one end of a long string which formed part of the nest that she could not escape. The other birds had also discovered her condition, and hence their lamentation over a misfortune they were unable to remedy. But they did all they could, and were assiduously bringing food to a nest full of voracious young ones, as well as feeding the imprisoned parent. I was so struck with the interesting spectacle that my family were called out to witness it; then, having gazed upon it a few moments, I cautiously approached the prisoner, took her in my hands, carefully untied and then cut away the treacherous string, and let the frightened warbler go free. She instantly flew up into her nest, as if to see that all her callow brood were safe, gave us a song of thanks, and immediately the crowd of sympathizing birds, as if conscious that the difficulty no longer existed, flew away to their respective nests.

It takes mankind a great while to learn the ways of Providence, and to understand that things are better contrived for him than he can contrive them for himself. Of late, the people are beginning to learn that they have mistaken the character of most of the little birds, and have not understood the object of the Almighty in creating them. They are the friends of those who plant, and sow, and reap. It has been seen that they live mostly on insects, which are among the worst enemies of the agriculturist; and that if they take now and then a grain of wheat, a grape, a cherry, or a strawberry, they levy but a small tax for the immense services rendered. In this altered state of things, legislatures are passing laws for the protection of little birds, and increasing the penalties to be enforced upon the bird-killers.

A farmer in my neighborhood came one day to borrow a gun for the purpose of killing some yellow birds in his field of wheat, which he said were eating up the grain. I declined to loan the gun. In order, however, to gratify his curiosity, I shot one of them, opened its crop, and found in it two hundred weevils, and but four grains of wheat, and in these four grains the weevil had burrowed! This was a most instructive lesson, and worth the life of the poor bird, valuable as it was. This bird resembles the canary, and sings finely. One fact like this affords an eloquent text for sermonizing, for the benefit of the farmers and others who may look upon little birds as inimical to their interests. Every hunter and farmer ought to know that there is hardly a bird that flies that is not a friend of the farmer and gardener.

Some genial spirits have given the most elaborate attention to the question of the value of birds. One gentleman took his position some fifteen feet from the nest of an oriole, in the top of a peach-tree, to observe his habits. The nest contained four young ones, still fledged, which every now and then would stand upon the edge of the nest to try their wings. They were, therefore, at an age which required the largest supply of food. This the parents furnished at intervals of two to six minutes, throughout the day. They lighted on the trees, the vines, the grass, and other shrubbery, clinging at times to the most extreme and delicate points of the leaves, in search of insects. Nothing seemed to come amiss to these sharp-eyed foragers — grasshoppers, caterpillars, worms, and the smaller flies. Sometimes one, and sometimes as many as six, were plainly fed to the young ones at once. They would also carry away the refuse litter from the nest, and drop it many yards off. A little figuring gives the result of this incessant warfare against the insects. For only eight working hours it will be 1000 worms destroyed by a single pair of birds. But if a hundred pairs be domesticated on the premises, the destruction will amount to 100,000 daily, or 3,000,000 a month!

This may seem to be a mere paper calculation, but the annals of ornithology are crowded with confirmatory facts. The robin is accused of appropriating the fruit which he has protected during the growing season from a cloud of enemies. But his principal food is spiders, beetles, caterpillars, worms, and larvae. Nearly 200 larvae have been taken from the gizzard of a single bird. He feeds voraciously on those of the destructive worm. In July he takes a few strawberries, cherries, and pulpy fruits generally, more as a dessert than anything else, because it is invariably found to be largely intermixed with insects. Robins killed in the country, at a distance from gardens and fruit-trees, are found to contain less stone-fruit than those near villages; showing than this bird is not an extensive forager. If our choicest fruits are near at hand, he takes a small toll of them, but a small one only. In reality, a very considerable part of every crop of grain and fruit is planted, not for the mouths of our children, but for the fly, the curculio, and the canker-worm, or some other of these pests of husbandry. Science has done something, and will no doubt do more, to alleviate the plague. It has already taught us not to wage equal war on the wheat-fly and the parasite which preys upon it; and it will, perhaps, eventually persuade those who need the lesson, that a few peas and cherries are well bestowed by way of dessert on the cheerful little warblers, who turn our gardens into concert-rooms, and do so much to aid us in the warfare against the grubs and caterpillars, which form their principal meal.

But if the subject of the value of insect-destroying birds has been so much overlooked in this country, it is not so in Europe. It has been brought formally before the French Senate, and is now before the French government. Learned commissioners have reported upon it, and it is by no means improbable that special legislation will presently follow. The inquiry has been conducted with an elaborate accuracy characteristic of French legislation. Insects and birds have been carefully classified according to their several species; their habits of feeding have been closely observed, and the results ascertained and computed. It has been concluded that by no agency, save that of little birds, can the ravages of insects be kept down. There are some birds which live exclusively upon insects and grubs, and the quantity which they destroy is enormous. There are others which live partly on grubs, and partly on grain, doing some damage, but providing an abundant compensation. A third class —the Birds of Prey—are excepted from the category of benefactors, and are pronounced, too precipitately we think, to be noxious, inasmuch as they live mostly upon the smaller birds. One class is a match for the other. A certain insect was found to lay 2,000 eggs, but a single tomtit was found to eat 200,000 eggs a year. A swallow devours about 543 insects a day, eggs and all. A sparrow's nest, in the city of Paris, was found to contain 700 pairs of the upper wings of cockchafers, though, of course, in such a place food of other kinds was procurable in abundance. It will easily be seen, therefore, what an excess of insect life is produced when a counterpoise like this is withdrawn; and the statistics before us show clearly to what an extent the balance of nature has been disturbed. A third, and wholly artificial class of destroyers has been introduced. Every chasseur, during the season, kills, it is said, from 100 to 200 birds daily. A single child has been known to come home at night with 100 birds' eggs, and it has been calculated and reported that the number of birds' eggs destroyed annually in France is between 80,000,000 and 100,000,000. The result is, that little birds in that country are actually dying out; some species have already disappeared, and others are rapidly diminishing. But there is another consequence. The French crops have suffered terribly from the superabundance of insect vermin. Not only the various kinds of grain, but the vines, the olives, and even forest trees, tell the same tale of mischief, till at length the alarm has become serious. Birds are now likely to be protected; indeed their rise in public estimation has been signally rapid. Some philosopher has declared, and the report quotes the saying as a profound one, that "the birds can live without man, but man cannot live without the birds."

The same results are being experienced in this country, and our whole agricultural press, as well as the experience of every fruit-grower and gardener, testifies to the fact that our fruit is disappearing as the birds upon our premises are permitted to perish. Every humane and prudent man will therefore do his utmost to preserve them.


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