W HEN Christmas is past and the real winter cold begins, the poor little birds often have a hard time. So long as the weather is mild, the thrush picks out the slugs and snails from their hiding-places in the walls and palings. The robin and the wren bustle about, looking for seeds and insects. The little wagtails run about the lawns wagging their tails, as they try to find a stray grub, or beetle. In the wood the tree-creeper hunts for spiders and the eggs of insects in the bark of the trees, and the nut-hatches and pigeons feed under the beeches.
But after a while, when a hard frost comes, and snow lies deep on the ground, the birds look very sad. The larks and the linnets crouch down under the banks of the cornfields to keep warm. The thrushes fly from tree to tree to look for a few mistletoe berries, now that all the others are eaten. The chaffinches and the yellow-hammers fly round the farmer's ricks, to pull out some grains of wheat or oats, or grass seeds. The fieldfares wander sadly about in flocks. The rooks, starlings, and jackdaws fly from field to field screaming and cawing as they try to find some place where the wind has blown the snow away and they can peck in the furrows. The lapwings, which you may know by the feathers which stand up on the back of their head, cry "peewit, peewit" mournfully, as they journey to the sea-coast, where they find food on the sands and mudflats at low tide.
It is sad to think how often little birds are starved to death. They do not so much mind the cold, for you remember that the air under their feathers keeps them warm. But in a hard winter they often die from want of food. If you pick up a dead robin, starling, or rook after a long frost, you will find that the bones are only covered with skin and feathers. Its flesh has all wasted away.
Now is your time to be kind to the birds which have sung to you all the summer. They did good work then, eating the caterpillars and grubs, the wire-worms and maggots, the slugs and snails, and keeping down the weeds by eating the seeds. Now you can feed them, for a little while, till the frost and snow are gone.
You will learn to know a great many birds in this way, and you need only give them a few scraps, which you can well spare. Some birds, you will remember, like seeds and crumbs and green food. Others, which eat insects in the summer, will be glad of a little gristle or fat.
So you must save up every scrap from breakfast, dinner, and supper, and keep it for the next morning—crusts of bread, the crumbs off the table, cold potatoes, and potato skins. You can get your mother to boil the potatoes in their skins, and then the birds will like the peel. Perhaps, too, you may save some pieces of cabbage, some apple parings, and a little fat.
All this will make a nice dish for starving birds, if you chop it up and pour a little hot water over the crusts. And if you live on a farm you may be able to sweep up a few grains of corn in the stables, before they are thrown away with the manure.
Then clear the snow away in front of your door, throw the food down and go back out of sight. The birds will soon come, and in a few days they will even be waiting about for their morning meal before you bring it.
You must not forget to hang a piece of fat from the branch of a tree, so that you may see the tits hang head downwards on the string to peck at it. And if you hang up a bone with a little meat on it the starlings and jackdaws will come too.
Then remember that birds want to drink. You can put water for them in a pan, if you change it when it freezes. But if you can spare a few pence to buy a cocoa-nut, you may make it serve two purposes.
Saw it across the middle, and scoop out all the white from one half. Bore two holes near the rim of this cup, and make a handle with a piece of string. Then hang it on a tree and put some water in it. The birds will sit on the rim and drink. And as they make it swing to and fro the water will not freeze. Then hang up the other half in the same way, but leave the white inside. The little tomtits will peck away, and fight for the sweet food till it is all gone.
A number of birds will come—robins, chaffinches, sparrows, wrens, starlings, rooks, jackdaws, thrushes, and many others. You will be able to notice the difference between the big missel-thrush, with his white spotted breast, and the smaller brown song-thrush. And if you put some nuts on the window-sill the nuthatch may come to fetch them if he lives near.
So you will see the birds more closely than you can at any other time, and next summer, when they sing in the trees, they will be old friends.
Make a list of the birds which come to feed at your door in winter.