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A Birds’ Free Lunch
by [?]

One winter, during four or five weeks of severe weather, several of our winter birds were pensioners upon my bounty,–three blue jays, two downy woodpeckers, three chickadees, and one kinglet,–and later a snowbird–junco–appeared.

I fastened pieces of suet and marrow-bones upon the tree in front of my window, then, as I sat at my desk, watched the birds at their free lunch. The jays bossed the woodpeckers, the woodpeckers bossed the chickadees, and the chickadees bossed the kinglet.

Sometimes in my absence a crow would swoop down and boss the whole crew and carry off the meat. The kinglet was the least of all,–a sort of “hop-o’-my-thumb” bird. He became quite tame, and one day alighted upon my arm as I stood leaning against the tree. I could have put my hand upon him several times. I wonder where the midget roosted. He was all alone. He liked the fare so well that he seemed disposed to stop till spring. During one terrible night of wind and snow and zero temperature I feared he would be swept away. I thought of him in the middle of the night, when the violence of the storm kept me from sleep. Imagine this solitary atom in feathers drifting about in the great arctic out-of-doors and managing to survive. I fancied him in one of my thick spruces, his head under his tiny wing, buffeted by wind and snow, his little black feet clinging to the perch, and wishing that morning would come.

The fat meat is fuel for him; it keeps up the supply of animal heat. None of the birds will eat lean meat; they want the clear fat. The jays alight upon it and peck away with great vigor, almost standing on tiptoe to get the proper sweep. The woodpecker uses his head alone in pecking, but the jay’s action involves the whole body. Yet his blows are softer, not so sharp and abrupt as those of the woodpecker. Pecking is not exactly his business.

He swallows the morsel eagerly, watching all the time lest some enemy surprise him in the act. Indeed, one noticeable thing about all the birds is their nervousness while eating. The chickadee turns that bead-like eye of his in all directions incessantly, lest something seize him while he is not looking. He is not off his guard for a moment. It is almost painful to observe the state of fear in which he lives. He will not keep his place upon the bone longer than a few seconds at a time lest he become a mark for some enemy,–a hawk, a shrike, or a cat. One would not think the food would digest when taken in such haste and trepidation.

While the jays are feeding, swallowing morsel after morsel very rapidly, the chickadees flit about in an anxious, peevish manner, lest there be none left for themselves.

I suspect the jays carry the food off and hide it, as they certainly do corn when I put it out for the hens. The jay has a capacious throat; he will lodge half a dozen or more kernels of corn in it, stretching his neck up as he takes them, to give them room, and then fly away to an old bird’s-nest or a caterpillar’s nest and deposit them in it. But in this respect the little kettle cannot call the big pot black. The chickadee also will carry away what it cannot eat. One day I dug a dozen or more white grubs–the larvae of some beetle–out of a decayed maple on my woodpile and placed them upon my window-sill. The chickadees soon discovered them, and fell to carrying them off as fast as ever they could, distributing them among the branches of the Norway spruces. Among the grubs was one large white one half the size of one’s little finger. One of the chickadees seized this; it was all he could carry, but he made off with it. The mate to this grub I found rolled up in a smooth cell in a mass of decayed wood at the heart of the old maple referred to; it was full of frost. I carried it in by the fire, and the next day it was alive and apparently wanted to know what had brought spring so suddenly.