I DO not know where to begin—there are so many interesting things to do this spring! But, while we ought to be interested in all of the out-of-doors, it is very necessary to select some one field, say, the birds or flowers, for special study. That would help us to decide what to do this spring.
If there is still room under your window, or on the clothes-pole in your yard, or in a neighboring tree, nail up another bird-house. (Get "Methods of Attracting Birds" by Gilbert H. Trafton.) If the bird-house is on a pole or post, invert a large tin pan over the end of the post and nail the house fast upon it. This will keep cats and squirrels from disturbing the birds. If the bird-house is in a tree, saw off a limb, if you can without hurting the tree, and do the same there. Cats are our birds' worst enemies.
Cats! Begin in your own home and neighborhood a campaign against the cats, to reduce their number and to educate their owners to the need of keeping them well fed and shut up in the house from early evening until after the early morning; for these are the cats' natural hunting hours, when they do the greatest harm to the birds.
This does not mean any cruelty to the cat—no stoning, no persecution. The cat is not at fault. It is the keepers of the cats who need to be educated. Out of every hundred nests in my neighborhood the cats of two farmhouses destroy ninety-five! The state must come to the rescue of the birds by some new rigid law reducing the number of cats.
Speaking of birds, let me urge you to begin your watching and study early—with the first robins and bluebirds—and to select some near-by park or wood-lot or meadow to which you can go frequently. There is a good deal in getting intimately acquainted with a locality, so that you know its trees individually, its rocks, walls, fences, the very qualities of its soil. Therefore you want a small area, close at hand. Most observers make the mistake of roaming first here, then there, spending their time and observation in finding their way around, instead of upon the birds to be seen. You must get used to your paths and trees before you can see the birds that flit about them.
In this haunt that you select for your observation, you must study not only the birds but the trees, and the other forms of life, and the shape of the ground (the "lay" of the land) as well, so as to know all that you see. In a letter just received from a teacher, who is also a college graduate, occurs this strange description: "My window faces a hill on which straggle brown houses among the deep green of elms or oaks or maples, I don't know which." Perhaps the hill is far away; but I suspect that the writer, knowing my love for the out-of-doors, wanted to give me a vivid picture, but, not knowing one tree from another, put them all in so I could make my own choice!
Learn your common trees, common flowers, common bushes, common animals, along with the birds.
Plant a garden, if only a pot of portulacas, and care for it, and watch it grow! Learn to dig in the soil and to love it. It is amazing how much and how many things you can grow in a box on the windowsill, or in a corner of the dooryard. There are plants for the sun and plants for the shade, plants for the wall, plants for the very cellar of your house. Get you a bit of earth and plant it, no matter how busy you are with other things this spring.
There are four excursions that you should make this spring: one to a small pond in the woods; one to a deep, wild swamp; one to a wide salt marsh or fresh-water meadow; and one to the seashore—to a wild rocky or sandy shore uninhabited by man.
There are particular birds and animals as well as plants and flowers that dwell only in these haunts; besides, you will get a sight of four distinct kinds of landscape, four deep impressions of the face of nature that are altogether as good to have as the sight of four flowers or birds.
Make a calendar of your spring (read "Nature's Diary" by Francis H. Allen)—when and where you find your first bluebird, robin, oriole, etc.; when and where you find your first hepatica, arbutus, saxifrage, etc.; and, as the season goes on, when and where the doings of the various wild things take place.
Boy or girl, you should go fishing—down to the pond or the river where you go to watch the birds. Suppose you do not catch any fish. That doesn't matter; for you have gone out to the pond with a pole in your hands (a pole is a real thing); you have gone with the hope (hope is a real thing) of catching fish (fish are real things); and even if you catch no fish, you will be sure, as you wait for the fish to bite, to hear a belted kingfisher, or see a painted turtle, or catch the breath of the sweet leaf-buds and clustered catkins opening around the wooded pond. It is a very good thing for the young naturalist to learn to sit still. A fish-pole is a great help in learning that necessary lesson.
One of the most interesting things you can do for special study is to collect some frogs' eggs from the pond and watch them grow into tadpoles and on into frogs.
There are glass vessels made particularly for such study (an ordinary glass jar will do). If you can afford a small glass aquarium, get one and with a few green water-plants put in a few minnows, a snail or two, a young turtle, water-beetles, and frogs' eggs, and watch them grow.
You should get up by half past three o'clock (at the earliest streak of dawn) and go out into the new morning with the birds! You will hardly recognize the world as that in which your humdrum days (there are no such days, really) are spent! All is fresh, all is new, and the bird-chorus! "Is it possible," you will exclaim, "that this can be the earth?"
Early morning and toward sunset are the best times of the day for bird-study. But if there was not a bird, there would be the sunrise and the sunset—the wonder of the waking, the peace of the closing, day.
I am not going to tell you that you should make a collection of beetles or butterflies (you should not make a collection of birds or birds' eggs) or of pressed flowers or of minerals or of arrow-heads or of anything. Because, while such a collection is of great interest and of real value in teaching you names and things, still there are better ways of studying living nature. For instance, I had rather have you tame a hop-toad, feed him, watch him evening after evening all summer, than make any sort of dead or dried or pressed collection of anything.
Live things are better than those things dead. Better know one live toad under your doorstep than bottle up in alcohol all the reptiles of your state.
Finally you should remember that kindliness and patience and close watching are the keys to the out-of-doors; that only sympathy and gentleness and quiet are welcome in the fields and woods. What, then, ought I to say that you should do finally?