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Clara Dillingham Pierson


The Persistent Phoebe

I T is not often that a Phœbe will nest anywhere except near running water, and nobody but the Phœbes themselves will ever know why this pair chose to build under a porch of the big house. When they came there on their wedding trip the other birds supposed that they were only visiting, and it was not until a Catbird heard them discussing different porches that any one really believed they might come there to live.

Mrs. Phœbe was eager to begin at once, and could not pass a soft bit of moss or an unusually good blade of grass without stopping to look it over and think how she could just weave it in. "I see no use in waiting," said she. "I know as much about building now as I shall after a while, and I should like a home of my own. It makes my bill fairly tingle to see all these fine grasses and mosses waiting to be used. And the worst of it is," she added, "that if we wait, some other bird may get there instead."

Mr. Phœbe wanted to think it over a little longer. He was older than his wife and had been married before. "Phœbe!" he would exclaim. "Wait a day. You know we are building by a house to please you, now wait one more day to please me."

That, you see, was quite right and perfectly fair, for it is not  fair for one person to decide everything in a family, and it was right for the wife to wait as long as she could. She could not, of course, wait many days, for there were eggs to be laid, and when it was time for them, the nest had to be ready. Mr. Phœbe knew this and wasted no time.

"We cannot build on a rock," said he, "because there are no rocks here, and we cannot build under a bridge because there is no bridge here. My other wife and I lived under a bridge." Then he stood silent for a long time and looked down at his black feet. When he spoke of his first wife he always seemed sad. The second Mrs. Phœbe had not liked this at first, but he was so good and kind to her, and let her have her own way so much more than some husbands would, that she had begun to feel happier about it.

There is reason to think that she chose an unusual nesting-place just to see how far she could coax him out of his old ways. Perhaps, too, she thought that there would be less in such a place to remind him of his first wife. Another thing which had made her come to feel differently was remembering that if he died or left her she would marry again. Then, you know, she might want to think and talk about her first husband.

She was very proud of him, and watched him as he stood thinking. His upper feathers were deep brown, his under ones a dingy white, and the outer edges of some of his tail-feathers were light colored. His most beautiful features were his black bill and feet and the crest which he could raise on the top of his head. Mrs. Phœbe had the same coloring as her husband, yet she always insisted that he was the better looking of the two, while he insisted, as a good and wise husband should, that she was by far the handsomer.

Now Mr. Phœbe was speaking. "We have decided to build on this house," said he, "and under a porch. Still, there are four large ones and we must find out which is the best. You feed on the shady side and I will feed on the sunny side of the house. Then we shall see how much these people use their porches."

"I'll do it," answered his wife, "but isn't it a pity that there are people living in this house? It would be so much pleasanter if it were empty."

Mrs. Phœbe perched on a maple branch on the shady side and watched two porches. She thought she would like the front one the better, and had already chosen her window ledge, when she noticed a pair of English Sparrows dragging straws and feathers toward it and disappearing inside the cornice. "Not there," she said firmly, as she clutched the branch even more tightly with her pretty black feet. "I will not have quarrelsome neighbors, and I could never bring our children up to be good if the young Sparrows were always near, showing them how to be naughty." Then she darted after a Fly, caught and swallowed him, and was back on her perch.

"I wonder how the back one would do?" she said. "There are no steps leading to it, and those sweetbrier bushes all around it would keep Boys from climbing onto the railing."

She flew near and saw the Maid kneading bread by one window. A door stood open into the big kitchen, and through two other windows she could look into a pleasant dining-room. "I wouldn't mind that," she said. "If I have plenty to eat myself, I would just as soon see other people eating. We like different things anyway. I dare say those people never tasted an insect in their lives and do not even know the flavor of a choice Fly." Then she swallowed a careless Bug who had mistaken her for an English Sparrow and flown when he should have stayed hidden. Mrs. Phœbe was much interested in the nest, but not so much as to let an insect escape. Oh, never so much as that!

Mr. Phœbe watched the back porch on his side. Some Robins were building on a window-ledge there, which he thought exceeding imprudent. But then he was not surprised, for everybody knows how careless Robins are. That is why so many of them have to leave their nests—because they are built where no nest should be. Mr. Phœbe could tell at a glance that no bird should build there. Woodbine climbed over the pillars and fell in a thick curtain from the cornice, and beside the door stood a saucerful of milk. "That means a Cat," said he, "a Cat who stays on this porch most of time and always comes here when he is hungry. And when he tires of milk he will climb up that woodbine and finish with young Robin. Or, perhaps," he added, "I should say that he will finish a  young Robin."

The front porch on his side was sunshiny and quiet, but there was the woodbine again, and with the Cat so near. He next looked at the portico over the front door. Under the roof of this was a queer shiny, thin thing with a loop of black thread hanging down in it. He tried to get the thread, but only hit and hurt his bill against the shiny, thin stuff. Then he remembered seeing a bright light in it the night before when he had been awakened by a bad dream. "That will never do," he said. "It is not good for children to sleep with a light near. One would want to be catching insects there, too," he added, "when he should be sleeping. There must be many drawn by the light."

So it ended in the couple building under the dining-room porch on the shelf-like top of a column. Mrs. Phœbe chose this instead of a window-ledge because from here she could look into the window while brooding her eggs. "You may laugh at me all you choose," said she to her husband, "for I did wish the house empty. Since it cannot be, however, I might as well see what the people in it do."

"I was not laughing, my dear," answered her husband meekly (you remember that he had been married before). "I was only smiling with pleasure at our fine nest. You have so much taste in arranging grasses!"

That was the way in which the Phœbes began housekeeping. It was not always easy, sitting on the nest day after day as Mrs. Phœbe had to, with only a chance now and then to stretch her tired legs. She was even glad that people lived in the house. "It gives me something to think about," said she, "although I do get much out of patience with them sometimes. Much they know about bringing up children! That Boy of theirs eats only three times a day. How can they ever hope to raise him unless he eats more? Now, I expect to feed my children all the time, and that is the way to do." Here she darted away to catch a Fly who came blundering along.

"It's a good thing for that Fly that I got him," she said, smilingly. "It saved him from being caught in the Spider's web over there, and I am sure it is much pleasanter to be swallowed whole by a polite Phœbe than to be nibbled at by a horrid Spider."

Mr. Phœbe sometimes brought her a dainty morsel, but he spent much of his time by the hydrant. "There is not much chance to bathe," he said, as he wallowed around in the little pool beside it, "but it is something to smell water. You know we Phœbes like to fly in and out of ponds and rivers, even when we cannot stop for a real bath." His favorite perch was on the top of a tall pole covered with cinnamon vine, in the flower garden. Here he would sit for a whole morning at a time, darting off now and then for an insect, but always returning to the same place and position. He did not even face the other way for a change.

The little Phœbes were hatched much like other birds, and were about as good and about as naughty as children usually are. Mrs. Phœbe was positive that they were remarkable in every way. Mr. Phœbe, having raised other broods, did not think them quite so wonderful, although he admitted that there was not another nestling on the place to compare with them. "Still," as he would modestly remark, "we must remember that we are the only Phœbes here, and that it is not fair to compare them with the young of other birds. You could not expect our neighbors' children to be as bright as they."

Unfortunately there were only two little Phœbes, so each parent could give all his time to one. The mother cared for the son and the father for the daughter. When it was time for them to learn to catch their own Flies, these children did not want to do so. The father made his daughter learn, in spite of the fuss she made. He gave her his old perch on the cinnamon-vine pole, and told her that she must try to catch every insect that flew past. This was after she had been out of the nest several days, and had learned to use her feet and wings.

"If you do not," he said, "I shall not feed you anything." When she pouted her bill, he paid no attention to it, and she soon stopped. There is no use in pouting, you know, unless somebody is looking at you and wishing that you wouldn't. Perhaps it was because he had brought up children before that Mr. Phœbe was so wise.

Mrs. Phœbe meant to be very firm also, but when her son whimpered and said that he couldn't, he knew he could n't, catch a single one, and that he was sure he would tumble to the ground if he tried it, she always felt sorry for him and said: "Perhaps you can to-morrow." Then she would catch food for him again.

This is how it happened that, day after day, a plump and strong young Phœbe sat on a branch of the syringa bush and let his tired mother feed him. At last his father quite lost patience and interfered. "My dear," he said to his wife, "I will be with our son to-day, and you may have a rest."

"You are very kind," she replied, "but he is so used to having me that I think I might better——"

"I said," interrupted her husband, "that I would be with our son to-day. I advise you to fly away with our daughter and show her something of the world." Mrs. Phœbe did not often hear him speak in that tone of voice. When he did, she always agreed with him.

As soon as father and son were alone, the father said: "Now you are going to catch Flies before sunset. You have let your poor mother nearly work her feathers off for you. (Of course, feathers do not come off so, but this was his way of speaking.) She is very tired, and you are not to act like this again. There comes a Fly. Catch him!"

The young Phœbe made a wild dash, missed his Fly, and came back to the syringa bush whimpering. "I knew I couldn't," he said. "I tried as hard as I could, but he flew away."

"Yes," said his father. "You tried once, just once. You may have to try a hundred times before you catch one, but that is no reason why you should not try. Go for that Mosquito."

The son went, and missed him, of course. This time he knew better than to talk about it. He just flew back to his perch and looked miserable.

"I think you got a little nearer to this one," said his father. "Go for that Fly!"

The young Phœbe was kept darting here and there so often that he had no time to be sulky. Indeed, if people have to keep moving quite fast, they soon forget to want to be sulky. At last he was surprised by his father's tucking a very delicious Bluebottle down his throat. "Just for a lunch," he explained. "Now try for that one."

The son made a sudden lurch and flight, and actually caught him. It was a much smaller Fly than the one which his father had fed him, but it tasted better. He swallowed it as slowly as he could, so as to feel it going down as long as possible. Then he began to be happier. "Watch me catch that Mosquito," he said. And when he missed him, as he did, he made no fuss at all—only said: "I'll get the next one!" When he missed that he simply said: "Well, I'll get the next one, anyhow!"

And he did.

All day long he darted and failed or darted and succeeded, and more and more often he caught the insect instead of missing him.

When the long shadows on the lawn showed that sunset was near, his mother and sister came back. His mother had a delicious morsel for him to eat. "Open your bill very wide," she said, "you poor, tired, hungry child."

He did open his bill, because a Phœbe can always eat a little more anyway, but he did not open it until he had said: "Why I'm not much tired, and I am not really hungry at all. You just ought to see me catch Flies!"

You can imagine how surprised his mother was. And in the tall fir tree near by he heard a Blackbird say something in a hoarse voice about a persistent Phœbe. But that didn't make much difference, because, you see, he didn't know what "persistent" meant, and if he had known he could not have told whether the Blackbird was talking about him or about his father. Could you have told, if you had been a Phœbe?