J OHNNY and Polly Chuck had made their home between the roots of an old apple-tree in the far corner of the Old Orchard. You know they have their bedroom way down in the ground, and it is reached by a long hall. They had dug their home between the roots of that old apple-tree because they had discovered that there was just room enough between those spreading roots for them to pass in and out, and there wasn't room to dig the entrance any larger. So they felt quite safe from Reddy Fox and Bowser the Hound, either of whom would have delighted to dig them out but for those roots.
Right in front of their doorway was a very nice doorstep of shining sand where Johnny Chuck delighted to sit when he had a full stomach and nothing else to do. Johnny's nearest neighbors had made their home only about five feet above Johnny's head when he sat up on his doorstep. They were Skimmer the Tree Swallow and his trim little wife, and the doorway of their home was a little round hole in the trunk of that apple-tree, a hole which had been cut some years before by one of the Woodpeckers.
Johnny and Skimmer were the best of friends. Johnny used to delight in watching Skimmer dart out from beneath the branches of the trees and wheel and turn and glide, now sometimes high in the blue, blue sky, and again just skimming the tops of the grass, on wings which seemed never to tire. But he liked still better the bits of gossip when Skimmer would sit in his doorway and chat about his neighbors of the Old Orchard and his adventures out in the Great World during his long journeys to and from the far-away South.
To Johnny Chuck's way of thinking, there was no one quite so trim and neat appearing as Skimmer with his snowy white breast and blue-green back and wings. Two things Johnny always used to wonder at, Skimmer's small bill and short legs. Finally he ventured to ask Skimmer about them.
SKIMMER THE TREE SWALLOW
When you see a Swallow with pure white breast and blue-green back it is Skimmer.
FORKTAIL THE BARN SWALLOW
His long forked tail is all you need to see to know him.
"Gracious, Johnny!" exclaimed Skimmer. "I wouldn't have a big bill for anything. I wouldn't know what to do with it; it would be in the way. You see, I get nearly all my food in the air when I am flying, mosquitoes and flies and all sorts of small insects with wings. I don't have to pick them off trees and bushes or from the ground and so I don't need any more of a bill than I have. It's the same way with my legs. Have you ever seen me walking on the ground?"
Johnny thought a moment. "No," said he, "now you speak of it, I never have."
"And have you ever seen me hopping about in the branches of a tree?" persisted Skimmer.
Again Johnny Chuck admitted that he never had.
"The only use I have for feet," continued Skimmer, "is for perching while I rest. I don't need long legs for walking or hopping about, so Mother Nature has made my legs very short. You see I spend most of my time in the air."
"I suppose it's the same with your cousin; Sooty the Chimney Swallow," said Johnny.
"That shows just how much some people know!" twittered Skimmer indignantly. "The idea of calling Sooty a Swallow! The very idea! I'd leave you to know, Johnny Chuck, that Sooty isn't even related to me. He's a Swift, and not a Swallow."
"He looks like a Swallow," protested Johnny Chuck.
"He doesn't either. You just think he does because he happens to spend most of his time in the air the way we Swallows do," sputtered Skimmer. "The Swallow family never would admit such a homely looking fellow as he is as a member.
"Tut, tut, tut, tut! I do believe Skimmer is jealous," cried Jenny Wren, who had happened along just in time to hear Skimmer's last remarks.
"Nothing of the sort," declared Skimmer, growing still more indignant. "I'd like to know what there is about Sooty the Chimney Swift that could possibly make a Swallow jealous."
Jenny Wren cocked her tail up in that saucy way of hers and winked at Johnny Chuck. "The way he can fly," said she softly.
"The way he can fly!" sputtered Skimmer, "The way he can fly! Why, there never was a day in his life that he could fly like a Swallow. There isn't any one more graceful on the wing than I am, if I do say so. And there isn't any one more ungraceful than Sooty."
Just then there was a shrill chatter overhead and all looked up to see Sooty the Chimney Swift racing through the sky as if having the very best time in the world. His wings would beat furiously and then he would glide very much as you or I would on skates. It was quite true that he wasn't graceful. But he could twist and turn and cut up all sorts of antics, such as Skimmer never dreamed of doing.
"He can use first one wing and then the other, while you have to use both wings at once," persisted Jenny Wren. "You couldn't, to save your life, go straight down into a chimney, and you know it, Skimmer. He can do things with his wings which yon can't do, nor any other bird."
"That may be true, but just the same I'm not the least teeny weeny bit jealous of him," said Skimmer, and darted away to get beyond the reach of Jenny's sharp tongue.
"Is it really true that he and Sooty are not related?" asked Johnny Chuck, as they watched Skimmer cutting airy circles high up in the sky.
Jenny nodded. "It's quite true, Johnny," said site. "Sooty belongs to another family altogether. He's a funny fellow. Did you ever in your life see such narrow wings? And his tail is hardly worth calling a tail."
Johnny Chuck laughed. "Way up there in the air he looks almost alike at both ends," said he. "Is he all black?"
"He isn't black at all," declared Jenny. "He is sooty-brown, rather grayish on the throat and breast. Speaking of that tail of his, the feathers end in little, sharp, stiff points. He uses them in the same way that Downy the Woodpecker uses his tail feathers when he braces himself with them on the trunk of a tree."
"But I've never seen Sooty on the trunk of a tree," protested Johnny Chuck. "In fact, I've never seen him anywhere but in the air."
"And you never will," snapped Jenny. "The only place he ever alights is inside a chimney or inside a hollow tree. There he clings to the side just as Downy the Woodpecker clings to the trunk of a tree."
Johnny looked as if he didn't quite believe this. "If that's the case where does he nest?" he demanded. "And where does he sleep?"
"In a chimney, stupid. In a chimney, of course," retorted Jenny Wren. "He fastens his nest right to the inside of a chimney. He makes a regular little basket of twigs and fastens it to the side of the chimney."
"Are you trying to stuff me with nonsense?" asked Johnny Chuck indignantly. "How can he fasten his nest to the side of a chimney unless there's a little shelf to put it on? And if he never alights, how does he get the little sticks to make a nest of? I'd just like to know how you expect me to believe any such story as that."
Jenny Wren's sharp little eyes snapped. "If you half used your eyes you wouldn't have to ask me how he gets those little sticks," she sputtered. "If you had watched him when he was flying close to the tree tops you would have seen him clutch little dead twigs in his claws and snap them off without stopping. That's the way he gets his little sticks, Mr. Smarty, He fastens them together with a sticky substance he has in his mouth, and he fastens the nest to the side of the chimney in the same way. You can believe it or not, but it's so."
"I believe it, Jenny, I believe it," replied Johnny Chuck very humbly. "If you please, Jenny, does Sooty get all his food in the air too?"
"Of course," replied Jenny tartly. "He eats nothing but insects, and he catches them flying. Now I must get back to my duties at home."
"Just tell me one more thing," cried Johnny Chuck hastily. "Hasn't Sooty any near relatives as most birds have?"
"He hasn't any one nearer than some sort of second cousins, Boomer the Nighthawk, Whippoorwill, and Hummer the Hummingbird."
"What?" cried Johnny Chuck, quite as if he couldn't believe he had heard aright. "Did you say Hummer the Hummingbird?" But he got no reply, for Jenny Wren was already beyond hearing.