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Clara Dillingham Pierson


The Systematic Yellow-Billed Cuckoo

T HE people who lived in the big house were much worried about the maple trees which shaded the sidewalk around the place. It was spring now, and they feared another such summer as the last, when the lawn had been covered with fine, healthy, large maple leaves, gnawed off by hungry Caterpillars. One could be sure they were not blown or knocked off, for each stem was neatly eaten through at about the length of a fir needle from the leaf. The lawn did not look well, and the Man who cared for it grumbled and scolded under his breath as he went around raking them up. He could not see that the Caterpillars were of any use in the world. The birds thought differently, but he was a busy Man and not used to thinking of things in that way.

Now spring had come again, and every day the people looked for more leaves on their lawn. They had not found them yet, because the Caterpillars were not old enough to nibble through the stems. Then, one morning while they were eating their breakfast, these people heard a new voice outside. It was not a sweet voice. It sounded somewhat like a thumping on rough boards. It was saying, "Kuk-kuk-kuk!"

Some men who were passing by stopped to look up at the trees, then shook their heads and went on. The Little Boy wanted to leave his breakfast and go out at once to find the new bird, but he had to stay where he was, eat slowly, and fold his napkin before he was allowed to do this. When he went, the Lady and the Gentleman went with him. None of them could see the bird, although they heard his "kuk-kuk-kuk!" in first one tree and then another.

"I am sure that is a Yellow-billed Cuckoo," said the Lady, "and if it is, he has come for the Caterpillars that are spoiling our trees."

"Why, Mother?" asked the Little Boy. "How do you know? You didn't see him."

"If you had your eyes shut, and I spoke to you," she replied, "wouldn't you know whose voice it was?"

The other birds also seemed to know whose voice it was, for they flew around in fright, and scolded and chattered until the visitor had left that row of maples and gone far away. Even then the more timid ones could not settle down to their regular duties. "It has given me such a start," said one Robin, whose nerves were always easily upset, "that I don't believe I can weave another grass-blade into my nest to-day."

"Nonsense!" exclaimed a Blackbird. "Eat something and you will feel all right. There is nothing like eating to make one feel better."

The Robin did as she was told and felt somewhat steadier, yet even then she talked of nothing else that morning. "To think of a Yellow-billed cuckoo coming here!" she said. "It makes my quills tingle to think of it. My poor babies! My poor babies!"

"couldn't you stop worrying for a while?" her husband asked. "You know you have not even laid your eggs, so your children are not in danger yet."

Mr. Robin was always gentle with his wife. The other birds didn't see how he could stand it, for she was forever worrying about something.

"No," she replied, "they are not laid yet, but they will be, and you know perfectly well, Mr. Robin, how glad that dreadful Cuckoo would be to suck every one of them. If he were only a Black-billed Cuckoo, it would not be so bad, but I saw his bill quite plainly, and it was yellow. Besides, he said, 'Kuk-kuk-kuk!' instead of 'Kow-kow-kow-kuk-kuk!' "

"We will guard the nest carefully when the eggs are laid," said Mr. Robin. "And now I think I will go across the street to hunt." That also was a wise thing to do, for Mrs. Robin was always more sensible when she was alone.

The birds saw nothing more of the Cuckoo that morning, but in the afternoon he came again. He was a large and very fine-looking bird, with green-gray feathers on the upper part of his body and in the middle of his tail, the outer tail-feathers being black with white spots. His wings were a bright brown, and the under part of his body was grayish-white. His bill was a very long and strong one, and the under half of it was yellow.

He had a habit of sitting very quietly every now and then on some branch to think. At such times he looked handsome but stupid, and really, when he got to thinking so, he was in great danger. It is at just such times that Hawks like to find Cuckoos, and after a Hawk has found one, nobody else ever has a chance. If you remember what sort of food Hawks like, you will understand what this means.

When he was flying, however, he was exceedingly careful, always flitting from tree to tree by the nearest way, and never talking until he was well sheltered again by leafy branches. When he came to a row of maples, he began at one end and went right through, stopping a little while in each to hunt. He was very systematic, and that, you know, means that he always tried to do the same things in the same way. This was why, during all the summer that followed, he came both morning and afternoon at just the same times as on that first day. That is, he did on every day but one.

Mrs. Cuckoo looked exactly like her husband. Indeed, some of their neighbors could hardly tell them apart. She was a very poor housekeeper. Her nest was only a few sticks laid on a bush in the edge of an orchard. She often said that she did not take easily to home life, so many of her great-grandparents having built no nests at all, but laid their eggs in the homes of other birds. Since this was so, people should not have expected too much of Mrs. Cuckoo.

Another thing which made it hard for her, was the way in which she had to lay eggs, hatch eggs, and feed nestlings at the same time all summer. This was not her fault, for of course when an egg was ready it had to be laid, and there were seldom two ready at once. It kept her busy and worried and tired all summer, and one could forgive her if she sometimes grew impatient.

"I can never half do anything after my first egg is hatched," she used to say. "I go to get food for that child, and all the time I am worrying for fear the second egg, which I have just laid, will get cold. Of course one newly hatched nestling cannot keep a large egg like mine warm. Then, when I am having all I can do to care for child and egg, I have to stop to lay another egg."

Mr. Cuckoo was always sleek and respectable-looking. He never seemed in a hurry. He said that haste was ill-mannered. "Always take time," he said, "to do things in the best way. If you are not sure which is the best way, sit down and think about it." He was much annoyed by Mrs. Cuckoo, and often told her how she needed to be systematic. "You have such a hurried way, my dear," said he, "It is really very disagreeable."

She was naturally a sweet-tempered bird, but one day she made up her mind to let her husband see how systematic he could be in her place. At that time she had a young bird and two eggs in the nest, and was very sure that one of the eggs was about to hatch.

When they awakened the next morning, she said sweetly to Mr. Cuckoo, "My dear, please stay with the baby until I get back." Then she flew away without giving him time to ask how long it would be or anything about it. Mr. Cuckoo was much surprised, and sat there thinking, as you know he was likely to do, until the nestling fairly screamed for food.

"Dear me!" said he to himself, "I must do something to keep that child still." So he hunted food and stuffed it down the nestling's wide-open bill. While he was doing so, he remembered the eggs, which he found rather cool. "She will never forgive me if those get cold," he said, so he hopped onto the nest and covered them with his breast. He wished that his wife would return. He thought that when a mother-bird had home cares she should stay by the nest. Just then his child cried for more food.


Stuffed it down the wide-open bill.

"Hush!" he exclaimed. "I cannot go now. Don't you see that I am warming these eggs?"

"I don't care! I am hungry," cried she. "You didn't feed me enough."

"Well, I couldn't get you more just then," he said. "Now be patient until your mother comes. That's a good child."

"I can't be patient. I'm hungry," cried the nestling. "I want a Caterpillar."

Mr. Cuckoo could not stand teasing, so he hopped off the nest and picked up the first Caterpillar he found. It was not a good kind, and the little Cuckoo made a bad face and would not swallow it. Mr. Cuckoo rushed away to get a better one. That was eaten, and he was just getting on the eggs again when he heard a faint tapping inside of one. This made him very nervous, for he was not used to caring for newly hatched children. He called several times to Mrs. Cuckoo, but received no answer.

There was more tapping, and the second child stuck his little bill through the shell and broke it. "Ouch!" cried the older one; "that pricks me. Take it away!"

" 'Sh!" exclaimed his father, who knew that it would never do to help a young bird out of its shell. The elder child began to cry.

Well! You can just imagine what kind of morning Mr. Cuckoo had. He had to quiet and feed the older child, clear away the broken shell when the second was out, keep the remaining eggs warm, get some food for himself, and just hurry and worry until noon. He was about worn out when his wife came back. She looked very trim and happy, and there was no ill-mannered haste in her motions as she flew toward the nest.

"I have had such a pleasant morning," she said. "I met my sister and we went hunting together. I hope you did not mind. I felt quite easy about everything, I knew that you would manage it all beautifully, because you are so systematic." She looked at him with such a sweet smile that he did not say any of the things which he had been planning to say about mother-birds staying at home.

Just then the elder nestling said, "I'm hungry, Mother! I haven't had a Caterpillar in ever so long."

Mrs. Cuckoo answered cheerfully, "All right, I'll get you one," and was about to start off when Mr. Cuckoo spoke up:

"You stay here and look after your newly hatched nestling," said he. "I'll get some food."

Mrs. Cuckoo was delighted to find another egg hatched, and the morning away had been a great rest to her. Only one thing troubled her. "I do wish," she murmured, "that I could have seen Mr. Cuckoo trying to do three or four things at once and be systematic. Now I shall never know how it worked."

But she did know. Her first-hatched child said, "I'm so glad you are back. It made Father cross to hurry." She also knew from another thing: Mr. Cuckoo never again told her to be systematic, or said that it was ill-mannered to hurry.

And that was the one day when Mr. Cuckoo did not make his two regular hunting trips through the maple trees around the big house.