Gateway to the Classics: The Burgess Bird Book for Children by Thornton W. Burgess
The Burgess Bird Book for Children by  Thornton W. Burgess

Mourner the Dove and Cuckoo

A LONG lane leads from Farmer Brown's barnyard down to his cornfield on the Green Meadows. It happened that very early one morning Peter Rabbit took it into his funny little head to run down that long lane to see what he might see. Now at a certain place beside that long lane was a gravelly bank into which Farmer Brown had dug for gravel to put on the roadway up near his house. As Peter was scampering past this place where Farmer Brown had dug he caught sight of some one very busy in that gravel pit. Peter stopped short, then sat up to stare.

It was Mourner the Dove whom Peter saw, an old friend of whom Peter is very fond. His body was a little bigger than that of Welcome Robin, but his long slender neck, and longer tail and wings made him appear considerably larger. In shape he reminded Peter at once of the Pigeons up at Farmer Brown's. His back was grayish-brown, varying to bluish-gray. The crown and upper parts of his head were bluish-gray. His breast was reddish-buff, shading down into a soft buff. His bill was black and his feet red. The two middle feathers of his tail were longest and of the color of his back. The other feathers were slaty-gray with little black bands and tipped with white. On his wings were a few scattered black spots. Just under each ear was a black spot. But it was the sides of his slender neck which were the most beautiful part of Mourner. When untouched by the Jolly Little Sunbeams the neck feathers appeared to be in color very like his breast, but the moment they were touched by the Jolly Little Sunbeams they seemed to be constantly changing, which, as you know, is called iridescence. Altogether Mourner was lovely in a quiet way.



You may surprise him taking a dust bath in the road.

But it was not his appearance which made Peter stare; it was what he was doing. He was walking about and every now and then picking up something quite as if he were getting his breakfast in that gravel pit, and Peter couldn't imagine anything good to eat down there. He knew that there were not even worms there. Besides, Mourner is not fond of worms; he lives almost altogether on seeds and grains of many kinds. So Peter was puzzled. But as you know he isn't the kind to puzzle long over anything when he can use his tongue.

"Hello, Mourner!" he cried. "What under the sun are you doing in there? Are you getting your breakfast?"

"Hardly, Peter, hardly," cooed Mourner in the softest of voices. "I've had my breakfast and now I'm picking up a little gravel for my digestion." He picked up a tiny pebble and swallowed it.

"Well, of all things!" cried Peter. "You must be crazy. The idea of thinking that gravel is going to help your digestion. I should say the chances are that it will work just the other way."

Mourner laughed. It was the softest of little cooing laughs, very pleasant to hear. "I see that as usual you are judging others by yourself," said he. "You ought to know by this time that you can do nothing more foolish. I haven't the least doubt that a breakfast of gravel would give you the worst kind of a stomach-ache. But you are you and I am I, and there is all the difference in the world. You know I eat grain and hard seeds. Not having any teeth I have to swallow them whole. One part of my stomach is called a gizzard and its duty is to grind and crush my food so that it may be digested. Tiny pebbles and gravel help grind the food and so aid digestion. I think I've got enough now for this morning, and it is time for a dust bath. There is a dusty spot over in the lane where I take a dust bath every day."

"If you don't mind," said Peter, "I'll go with you."

Mourner said he didn't mind, so Peter followed him over to the dusty place in the long lane. There Mourner was joined by Mrs. Dove, who was dressed very much like him save that she did not have so beautiful a neck. While they thoroughly dusted themselves they chatted with Peter.

"I see you on the ground so much that I've often wondered if you build your nest on the ground," said Peter.

"No," replied Mourner. "Mrs. Dove builds in a tree, but usually not very far above the ground. Now if you'll excuse us we must get back home. Mrs. Dove has two eggs to sit on and while she is sitting I like to be close at hand to keep her company and make love to her."

The Doves shook the loose dust from their feathers and flew away. Peter watched to see where they went, but lost sight of them behind some trees, so decided to run up to the Old Orchard. There he found Jenny and Mr. Wren as busy as ever feeding that growing family of theirs. Jenny wouldn't stop an instant to gossip. Peter was so brimful of what he had found out about Mr. and Mrs. Dove that he just had to tell some one. He heard Kitty the Catbird meowing among the bushes along the old stone wall, so hurried over to look for him. As soon as he found him Peter began to tell what he had learned about Mourner the Dove.

"That's no news, Peter," interrupted Kitty. "I know all about Mourner and his wife. They are very nice people, though I must say Mrs. Dove is one of the poorest housekeepers I know of. I take it you never have seen her nest."

Peter shook his head. "No," said he, "I haven't. What is it like?"

Kitty the Catbird laughed. "It's about the poorest apology for a nest I know of," said he. "It is made of little sticks and mighty few of them. How they hold together is more than I can understand. I guess it is a good thing that Mrs. Dove doesn't lay more than two eggs, and it's a wonder to me that those two stay in the nest. Listen! There's Mourner's voice now. For one who is so happy he certainly does have the mournfullest sounding voice. To hear him you'd think he was sorrowful instead of happy. It always makes me feel sad to hear him."

"That's true," replied Peter, "but I like to hear him just the same. Hello! Who's that?"

From one of the trees in the Old Orchard sounded a long, clear, "Kow-kow-kow-kow-kow-kow!" It was quite unlike any voice Peter had heard that spring.

"That's Cuckoo," said Kitty. "Do you mean to say you don't know Cuckoo?"

"Of course I know him," retorted Peter. "I had forgotten the sound of his voice, that's all." Tell me, Kitty, is it true that Mrs. Cuckoo is no better than Sally Sly the Cowbird and goes about laying her eggs in the nests of other birds? I've heard that said of her."

"There isn't a word of truth in it," declared Kitty emphatically. "She builds a nest, such as it is, which isn't much, and she looks after her own children. The Cuckoos have been given a bad name because of some good-for-nothing cousins of theirs who live across the ocean where Bully the English Sparrow belongs, and who, if all reports are true, really are no better than Sally Sly the Cowbird. It's funny how a bad name sticks. The Cuckoos have been accused of stealing the eggs of us other birds, but I've never known them to do it and I've lived neighbor to them for a long time, I guess they get their bad name because of their habit of slipping about silently and keeping out of sight as much as possible, as if they were guilty of doing something wrong and trying to keep from being seen. As a matter of fact, they are mighty useful birds. Farmer Brown ought to be tickled to death that Mr. and Mrs. Cuckoo have come back to the Old Orchard this year."

"Why?" demanded Peter.

"Do you see that cobwebby nest with all those hairy caterpillars on it and around it up in that tree?" asked Kitty.

Peter replied that he did and that he had seen a great many nests just like it, and had noticed how the caterpillars ate all the leaves near them.

"I'll venture to say that you won't see very many leaves eaten around that nest," replied Kitty. "Those are called tent-caterpillars, and they do an awful lot of damage. I can't bear them myself because they are so hairy, and very few birds will touch them. But Cuckoo likes them. There he comes now; just watch him."

A long, slim Dove-like looking bird alighted close to the caterpillar's nest. Above he was brownish-gray with just a little greenish tinge. Beneath he was white. His wings were reddish-brown. His tail was a little longer than that of Mourner the Dove. The outer feathers were black tipped with white, while the middle feathers were the color of his back. The upper half of his bill was black, but the under half was yellow, and from this he is called the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. He has a cousin very much like himself in appearance, save that his bill is all black and he is listed the Black-billed Cuckoo.

Cuckoo made no sound but began to pick off the hairy caterpillars and swallow them. When he had eaten all those in sight he made holes in the silken web of the nest and picked out the caterpillars that were inside. Finally, having eaten his fill, he flew off as silently as he had come and disappeared among the bushes farther along the old stone wall. A moment later they heard his voice, "Kow-kow-kow-kow-kow-kow-kow-kow!"

"I suppose some folks would think that it is going to rain," remarked Kitty the Catbird. "They have the silly notion that Cuckoo only calls just before rain, and so they call him the Rain Crow. But that isn't so at all. Well, Peter, I guess I've gossiped enough for one morning. I must go see how Mrs. Catbird is getting along."

Kitty disappeared and Peter, having no one to talk to, decided that the best thing he could do would be to go home to the dear Old Briar-patch.

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