January 23, 1916. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 51(17): 1-M. Includes three pictures.
Chumming With Nut Hatch and Chickadee in Winter
Remarkable Close Views of Bird Life Snapped by Omaha Disciples of Audubon
By Miles Greenleaf.
Winter has its drawbacks, which even the doctor won't deny, but there are lots of pleasant things about it too, and one of them is watching the wild birds in their never ceasing battle for a livelihood. Pleasant in this neighborhood, because the birds generally win, but not so pleasant, perhaps, when they perish by thousands in the storm and snow.
To begin with, there is nothing in the world as hungry as the little feathered gentry. Their entire interest in life seems to be eating, which is not surprising, since they have to be positively crammed with food at all times in order to keep their stride. They are high strung, feverish and tremendously active, and their little hearts beat like the hateful rat-tat of an alarm clock on these winter mornings. Fire they must have in their little furnaces or their steam is gone and their death warrant signed. Since they travel "on high" all the time their head of steam has to be popping the safety valve constantly, and that is why they sometimes need human help in securing a sufficient daily ration.
Eat Half Their Weight.
In such weather as obtains in Omaha nearly every winter the birds will eat nearly one-half their weight in food each day. Since the writer never attempted to consume 100 pounds of beefsteak in twenty-four hours he cannot describe the sensation that must exist in the songsters' stomachs, but it is known that they will eat until the food actually clogs in their throat.
Thereby brings the greater part of this tale.
In a stately grove on the east shore of Carter lake there is a somewhat pretentious summer cottage named "The Shack," owned by the well-known couple generally recognized as "the Marsh boys." Both of these kids have kids of their own, which identifies them as to age, and both brothers are inveterate amateur naturalists and bird lovers. "The Shack" is used by them chiefly as a base of supplies for hikes in all seasons through the wilderness which lies along the river shelving.
About this shack, in and among the big trees, are many winter birds, including chickadees, nuthatches, hairy and downy woodpeckers, brown creepers, goldfinches, tree sparrows and a few other varieties. They are constantly on the jump in the fight for food, as described.
When the first sleet storm arrived late last fall and the nuthatches and chickadees were having a mighty tough time in trying to pry through the sheath of ice surrounding the tree trunks in the bark of which are hidden the insect eggs upon which they dote, the Marsh boys decided to listen to the appeal of the Audubon society and to help feed the distressed songsters.
Bird Friend at Carter.
Allen Atwood Marsh, the younger brother, and now the busiest man west of the Mississippi river, cut down a small dogwood tree in the bottomland and stuck it up in the shack yard, near the kitchen window. In the branches of the same he nailed a flat platform about four feet from the ground, and upon this platform he placed a cupful of cracked nut-meats, pieces of baked potato and seeds of distant kinds. Then he made the long journey to his Dundee home. Little did he suppose that this day was to mark an epoch in his life!
"I would like to see," explained the younger Mr. Marsh, "how long it will take the birds to find the stuff and how tame I can get 'em."
As far as the tameness item is concerned the accompanying photographs, taken by the writer with an ordinary and inexpensive kodak, will testify that these white-breasted nuthatches and the chickadee know when they have found friends. The other chapter is a sad one for Mr. Allen A. Marsh.
Birds Call Him Down.
The chickadees and the nuthatches and the woodpeckers were all right on the job and the provisions in the feeding platform were gone the next morning, with the songsters perched about waiting for more. The provider was tickled to death and produced more grub. For a week he was at the Shack bright and early every morning to set forth the feast. Then he decided that he couldn't spare so much time, so he spread out twice as much fodder and missed a day. Brother Bill chanced to go out the morning Allen was absent - and discovered that the double allowance of nuts had disappeared!
"I could see that those birds feel pretty bad about you," said brother Bill to brother Allen next day. "The nuthatches were fairly sobbing and that pair of chickadees just gave me the devil!"
Allen sighed. "I'll tell you what we'll do," he said presently. "You go out and feed 'em once in awhile."
"Nothing doing!" pronounced brother Bill, promptly. "Those are your birds - I feed mine at home!"
So now, when the biting north wind is swirling a tempest of stinging snow about the blizzard-beaten corner, howling like a thousand mad wolves to the accompaniment of creaking signs and crashing shutters, you may see the cloaked and bent figure of a man huddling against the wall - waiting, always waiting. He isn't the hero of a Victor Hugo novel, he's Mr. A. Atwood Marsh and his pockets are full of cracked nuts and baked potatoes for his wild bird friends, and he wishes above all things that the East Omaha car would hurry up!
"Well, I started to feed 'em when the weather was pretty good," he says, "and if I stopped when the winter is at its worst they might actually suffer. They count on that feeding station. It's worth while, anyway, for the chance to study them at such close range."
You bet, it's worth while! Bird study is worth any time, under any conditions, for the songsters always have something new. Bird feeding in the winter and the placing of bird baths in the summer are great works and a certain source of the greatest of pleasures.
The writer went out to the Shack with the Marsh boys one bright morning about three weeks ago, to get acquainted with the feathered part of the family. The big grove was at its best. In the treetops fluttered hundreds of goldfinches, dull in their winter garb. Occasionally they flew off to some weed patch to feed, and their twittering was like the music of many mandolins hidden somewhere far in the skies. A hairy woodpecker made heavy undulating flight to the peak of a great stump, while a downy hammered frantically on a dead twig, as if calling his fellows to the feast that he knew to be in Allen's pockets.
We walked around the cottage without any attempt to conceal ourselves and were almost immediately face to face with Allen's dogwood tree and the feeding platform it supports. A white-breasted nuthatch sat on a branch not four feet from my face and looked me squarely in the eye. He was absolutely motionless and furnished a delightful opportunity to study his spick and span suit of blue-gray and white with a neat cap of black. I took a step toward him and he flew well up the trunk of an immense tree where he clung, as usual, upside down, saluting us with his raucous "yank, yank, yank."
The nuts and other food being placed on the platform, we retired to the shack where Allen prepared lunch. The feeding tree was about ten feet from the window, so we could watch operations with perfect comfort.
A Winter Appetite.
No wonder Allen has to fill that platform every day! The nuthatch called his mate and the two of them did a business in bits of English walnuts meat that was appalling. And when the nuthatches chanced to be absent for an instant, a pair of chickadees appeared and hurriedly gulped down a few delicacies in season.
The nuthatches appeared to be very provident and the chickadees not. Each of the former only ate one small piece of nut each trip, but always took away a chunk which was carefully cached beneath pieces of bark in the tree trunks nearby. Between them, in a very short time, the nuthatches had made fifty prolific trips to the food station. I felt sorry for Allen, so I said to him:
"It's plain that you have secured a regular position. You've not only got to fill these nuthatches but also every tree in the neighborhood. I'll bet there's enough nuts in this grove to choke every bird and insane asylum in the world."
"Maybe," answered the host, "but there are other nuthatches besides that pair. They may have relatives somewhere that are hungry. If they come to visit, I don't mind filling the pantry for them. Anyway, the chickadees and goldfinches and downies only take what they eat."
On the side of a woodhouse within a few feet of the food tree the Marsh boys have nailed two pieces of small timber in the bark and to these have fastened big hunks of beef suet. These are covered with wire netting, so that one particularly muscular and voracious bird cannot waltz off with huge portions at one time. Suet is a great food for these winter birds, as it stokes their furnaces. A downy woodpecker was especially interested in his during our visit, but we failed to get a chance to snap him.
Kodaking the Birds.
Not expecting to experiment in wild-bird photography, we had brought no tripod, but still it was maddening to be able to almost shake hands with these songsters and still be unable to "mug" them. So brother Bill and myself stacked up a couple of chairs as a makeshift and fastened the kodak to one of the legs with a universal clamp. Then we hitched a piece of fish line to the release trigger and stepped back about ten feet.
After some hesitancy during which frigid space of time the nuthatches "yanked" angrily at the strange new scenery from a tree trunk, they each came down and posed for their pictures. A slight twitch of the string was all that was necessary to make the exposure.
The chickadees, who don't get along very well with the nuthatches, watched this performance with seeming astonishment, perched on the end of a long limb reaching out over our heads. My! - but they are the inquisitive little scamps! Pretty soon one of them could stand it no longer. Before I could realize it he was perched on the view-finder of the kodak and was peering over toward the lens, with all the interest in the world.
"Dee-dee-dee!" he chirped excitedly. "Chicka-dee-dee-dee!"
Then he hopped over to the food tray and I jerked the string with a breath of relief, for we were mighty anxious to have an intimate portrait of this bird of birds.
Besides being one of the most companionable and cheerful of all the feathered clan, the chickadee is one of the most useful in battling the insect pests of this country. Prof. E.D. Sanderson, a Michigan ornithologist of note, asserts that the chickadees destroy 8,000 million insects in that state alone each year. If he does that well in Nebraska we ought to be willing to give him a side dish of nuts in the winter and a bath in the summer, hadn't we?
This somewhat rambling story is only intended to show what good can be done by feeding our wild birds, and what amusement and pleasure, instructive as well, may be had by developing a personal acquaintance with the songsters, who are only too ready to hold up their end of the friendly pact.
And they are true friends - once made.
They never forget!