Sunday, 7 February 2016

10 January 1880 - 'How We Saved the Poor Birds in the Winter'

Now that the cold weather has set in, I should like to interest every young reader of the GIRL'S OWN PAPER on behalf of the birds, so that something may be done to preserve such of our dear little feathered friends as are now left to us. I say such as are left, for no doubt both town and country girls have noticed how few birds there are about, and how silent the fields and woods have seemed to be this year in comparison with former ones.

It would take up many pages to tell the stories of bird-distress, famine, and death from starvation which took place during last winter's long frost. I was in the English Lake district in the summer, and there I was told how the songbirds were found dead in all directions.

"The fruit hangs on the trees untouched except by human hands, and last year we could hardly get a ripe cherry from that large tree," said a lady friend to me. "This summer I have not seen a single blackbird, and the only uninvited visitor that has shared with us is the little brown fellow yonder," pointing to a bushy-tailed squirrel which was at that moment busy amongst the boughs.

"It makes the garden quite dull," she added. "I would rather have less fruit and more birds."

A gentleman at the same table told us of his experiences on the shores of Derwent Water during the long frost, and said one day he was surprised to notice a bonny, spotted thrush standing quite still on one foot, and with his head under his wing. It did not move as he came near, and, on touching it, he found it was frozen to death. In fact, our English birds perished by thousands of hunger and cold.

Now, I want to tell you how we saved our birds last winter, and I hope all who read this will do something to preserve those in their own neighbourhoods, should they again need a helping hand.

We live in a sort of oasis of green fields, surrounded now with a brick and mortar desert, which has gathered all about us without being able to enter the Polygon as our enclosure, or park, with its few good houses, is called. Though comparatively near a large busy city, we have great numbers of birds living amongst us. Both kinds of thrushes, chaffinches, countless starlings, and sparrows, and an occasional blackbird and robin may be seen and heard in due season.

We scatter food for them all the year round, every scrap of crust or morsel left on the plates being put aside, the hard bits soaked and thrown out on the grass at the back, each day, for bird consumption.

One day, as I was dressing before dinner, I noticed that a pear-tree opposite my window was swarming with birds. And what a clatter they were making!

I asked the waitress, who was bird-almoner at that time, if she could give any reason for the uproar.

"Oh, dear, dear," she said ,looking quite guilty and troubled. "I had forgotten to feed them!" and rushing out, basin in hand, she soon made things right with the birds, and the noise ceased.

They are used to a chirrup or whistle, and as soon as it sounds, though not a bird might be visible the moment before, little knowing heads begin to pop out from the eaves and the ivy, which is packed with nests, and down they come in all directions to share the feast.

But about our special arrangement for last winter, these being our all-the-year-round arrangements.

One day, when the snow had been long on the frost-bound earth, the greengrocer's boy came into the kitchen in a state of great excitement.

"There are two big crowd in the Polygon, seeking for something to eat," said he.

We have no rookery in our neighbourhood, the nearest being about a couple of miles away, so their appearance set me thinking what could be done, and I decided to institute free breakfast and dinner parties for their benefit. Instead of confining ourselves to crumbs, we began to gather all the odd bits of fat, gristle, scraps of rind of meat, occasional bones, spare potatoes, in fact any and everything that could help to feed these feathered vagrants.

The first spread was made on the lawn in the forenoon, and repeated at three o'clock.

The two rooks were at the first, and at the second there were five, and members of other birds.

The next day everybody in the house came to look at the assemblage. There were nine rooks, six chaffinches, three thrushes,  one dear little robin, more than a hundred starlings, and innumerable sparrows. Daily through all the cold weather we continued our free meals, all made up of odds and ends that would neither be missed nor wanted - most of them, indeed, would have been thrown away.

The birds knew our times and, if we were a little late, would be sitting on the trees, waiting for their supply. As soon as the chirrup of the feeder was heard, down they came, and as the children used to say, "it seemed to rain birds all round them" for the hungry creatures did not trouble themselves about the presence of the youngster, who was scattering the food, but set to work, with right good will, to secure an ample share of the feast.

There was another pensioner that used to join; but he went on four legs, and had a furry coat instead of a feathered one. It was a huge Tom Cat with white breast and paws, evidently homeless, poor fellow! He knew these meal-times as well as the birds, and came to claim his share amongst them. He used to feed, literally in their midst, with the birds not a yard off him; for after a time or two they were so accustomed to his presence that they took no more notice of him than he did of them! Poor Tom! We used to invite him in for a warm by the kitchen fire, and a share of our pussy's milk and scraps. He is one of many stray animals of his kind, left behind them by people who remove from streets of small houses which run up to our ground at the back, there being, amongst some persons, a foolish superstition "it is not lucky to flit the cat".

Believe me, it is always lucky to be kind to every creature that God has made.

We continued to feed the birds until quite the early summer months, and used to like to see the rooks with their fashionable black satin dresses, glistening in the sunshine. Often the children used to laugh at these great, greedy fellows cramming piece after piece into their mouths, until the distended beaks would hold no more, and then flying off to a little distance to consume their spoil. The first pair stayed with us, or rather visited us daily, long after the others had gone back to their homes, and were too busily occupied with family cares to spend any time in lounging round the Polygon, like study beggars. So we ceased to feed them when we felt they could shift for themselves; for we did not want to encourage pauperism or demoralise even the rooks when self-dependence was possible, and the best thing for them.

I should say the little gentle hedge-sparrows which live in the next garden were too timid to join the bird throng on the lawn, with puss in their midst, so we always made a little separate spread for them under the hedge where they could eat in peace.

Thus we saved our birds at literally no cost, except that of a little trouble, and occasionally a few pence spent in potatoes or stale bread. Even every drop of gravy left on a plate was mixed up with the scraps to make the meal more savoury.

If in each house a little were saved for our feathered neighbours, and all the children in our homes were accustomed to do something to preserve our bird-life, our woods and fields would soon be flooded with melody again, and there would be no more complaints of the unnatural silence amongst the trees.

We need not be ashamed of caring  for the birds, and thus acting as the almoners of the Heavenly

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