Holiday Meadow  by Edith M. Patch


Part 2 of 2

Usually most of the birds in the flock were sociable and happy while they ate and their mealtime twitter was cheerful to hear. It seemed surprising that they could pick up their food so quickly and chatter so fast at the same time.

During a storm, however, when the snow began to cover the food, the birds became anxious. Then each one that found a little heap of seeds guarded it and tried to keep other birds away.

At first Dick and Anne thought the buntings were rather mean and stingy when they would not share such food with their comrades. But the more they watched the birds and thought about their ways, the more it seemed to them that the habits of the flock were rather good ones—for wild birds to have. For each bird that was driven away would be so hungry that it would try its very best to find some food for itself. So, in the end, all the birds were better fed than they could have been if they had all eaten at a few places and let the rest of the seeds become covered too deeply in the snow to be found.

Such habits would, of course, work the same way with hungry buntings that were feeding on weed seeds in a meadow. No bird could be lazy and take what another had found. Each one must be busy and find its own seeds. So all the birds in the flock would be able to take care of themselves. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why buntings are so strong and well during the cold winter weather.

Dick and Anne often watched one or another of the buntings hunt in the snow for seeds. It would put its bill down into the fresh snow and then jerk its head from side to side, throwing the snow to right and left until more and more food was uncovered.

All the buntings had the same way of shoveling snow with their bills by swinging their heads quickly from side to side; but certain other winter birds that also visited the picnic ground did not do this when they were hunting in the snow.

One day Anne chanced to look out of the window while the snow was falling fast and only a little seed remained in sight. One redpoll, one junco, and one bunting were feeding not far from one another.

The bunting was, of course, throwing the soft snow from side to side with its bill. The redpoll put its bill down directly in front of it and picked up what it could reach in that way. The junco scratched the snow in all directions—scratched with both feet, scattering the seeds widely, Some of them were thrown near the redpoll and the bunting and were eaten by these birds before the junco could pick them up himself.

The table-manners of these three birds were so amusing that Anne chuckled as she watched them.

The first day the buntings visited their picnic grounds they flew back across the field far from the yard every time they were frightened. Before long, however, they became less timid and began to perch in the trees near the house. There was a row of oak, maple, and elm trees along one side of the driveway. The buntings used all these trees, but most of all the tall elm which was not near the main road that passed the house.


The snowflakes flew to the tree‑tops.

If a heavy truck went along the road while the buntings were on the ground eating their seeds, or if they were startled by other moving or noisy objects, they flew to the topmost branches of this big elm. There they waited and seemed to feel as safe as if they had flown far across the meadow. When all was quiet again they would drift from the tree down to the ground.

These flights from the ground to the tree and down again took place many times a day. Dick and Anne never tired of watching the birds come down and counting them as they came. Usually the first bird to leave the tree would utter a sharp "Zurk" just as he started. After him, others would drift down one by one. Then as they began to chatter contentedly over the picnic seeds, the others would join them a few at a time.

If a strong wind was blowing, the birds would turn to face it just before reaching the ground, and then they would land with what seemed to be one shift of their wings. When there was no wind they fluttered their wings in a hovering motion while alighting.

Sometimes they floated from the topmost twigs directly to the ground in long slanting flight like flakes of drifting snow. But usually they dropped from the high branches to lower ones and then to those still lower, thus coming to the picnic ground in several short flights.

When Dick and Anne first noticed the buntings in the trees, they were surprised; for they were used to seeing them only in meadows and other open fields. Then, too, they had read in their bird books that snowflakes are ground birds, rarely perching in trees.

There are plenty of reasons, indeed, why these birds spend most of their time on the ground. In summer they nest in far northern treeless places. In winter they seek the seedy tops of grass and other plants of the fields. It is thus natural for them to run along the ground and walk on top of the snow.

Nevertheless snow buntings belong to the large order of perching birds; and, like their relatives the sparrows and finches, they can be comfortable and happy in trees. Doubtless the only reason why these birds do not rest on the twigs of trees more often is that usually trees are not near their feeding places.

However, Dick and Anne were now used to seeing the snow buntings in the tall trees of their yard for this was the third winter the cousins had kept their picnic ground ready for them.

The children belonged to a bird club which met once a month in the nearest city. Many of the members of the club had never seen snow buntings near at hand or heard them sing. So in March Dick and Anne gave a number of "snowflake parties" to which they invited their friends, four or five at a time. They served each time a simple "afternoon tea" sort of luncheon; and while the bird club guests were having their refreshments near the window inside the house, the buntings came down to their picnic served on the snow outside.

Then when the birds flew up to the tall elm near the back door, the tea party guests would tiptoe quietly into the back entry and stand by the open door to hear the sweet tinkling voices of the bunting chorus.

That March the voices of the buntings were the first morning sounds Dick and Anne heard through the open windows of their bedrooms. The children looked at their watches each morning when they heard the buntings and kept records in their notebooks.

Their favorite record was that of March the fourth. On that morning they heard the chattering calls of the buntings as they were flying toward the elm tree at just half past five. The cousins put on their warm robes and slippers and watched from the window. A large flock of the twittering birds settled on the high twigs of the elm.

Ten minutes later, one of the birds called "Zurk" and flew down to the picnic ground. The moon was bright in the sky at the time and Dick and Anne could see the birds against the snow as they drifted from the tree to the ground. Thirty went down, one at a time, and there were still many left twittering in the tree. Later, when it was lighter, the cousins counted eighty-four in the morning flock.

That day the time of sunrise was at twelve minutes past six, so you see the birds had come nearly three-quarters of an hour before sunrise.

Most of the time that month from sunrise or before to sunset or later, there were snow buntings on the picnic ground or in the elm tree. They took short flights to other places and the size of the flock varied from time to time. Some days as many as one hundred were there part of the time and some days the most that came were about twenty or thirty.

After the middle of March there was a change in the bunting chorus. Above the tinkling twitter, trills could be heard. Some of the trills were faltering and broken as if they came from birds that had never trilled before. Some were long and steady as if sung by birds that had trilled during other Marches. Each day the trilling became more clear and sure. It was never loud music and the faint tones could be heard only a little way; but before the end of March the full chorus had become wonderfully sweet.

Spring had touched the voices of the snow buntings! And spring was touching their wings! The flock was becoming smaller. Early in April the last of the buntings ate a farewell luncheon.

Under the high sun the snow on the fields had settled until the plant tops and stems were in plain sight. There was a seedy path from Holiday Meadow leading toward the north.

Northward Ho! the snow buntings were gone.

And later, when the meadowlarks that had spent their winter farther south were nesting in Holiday Meadow, Dick and Anne liked to think, too, of the snowflakes, far to the north, happy and busy with their grass-and-deer-hair nests in some sunny Arctic field.