A Butcher and a Hummer
NOT far from the Old Orchard grew a thorn-tree which Peter Rabbit often passed. He never had paid particular attention to it. One morning he stopped to rest under it. Happening to look up, he saw a most astonishing thing. Fastened on the sharp thorns of one of the branches were three big grasshoppers, a big moth, two big caterpillars, a lizard, a small mouse and a young English Sparrow. Do you wonder that Peter thought he must be dreaming? He couldn't imagine how those creatures could have become fastened on those long sharp thorns. Somehow it gave him an uncomfortable feeling and he hurried on to the Old Orchard, bubbling over with desire to tell some one of the strange and dreadful thing he had seen in the thorn-tree.
As he entered the Old Orchard in the far corner he saw Johnny Chuck sitting on his doorstep and hurried over to tell him the strange news. Johnny listened until Peter was through, then told him quite frankly that never had he heard of such a thing, and that he thought Peter must have been dreaming and didn't know it.
"You're wrong, Johnny Chuck. Peter hasn't been dreaming at all," said Skimmer the Swallow, who, you remember, lived in a hole in a tree just above the entrance to Johnny Chuck's house. He had been sitting where he could hear all that Peter had said.
"Well, if you know so much about it, please explain," said Johnny Chuck rather crossly.
"It's simple enough," replied Skimmer. "Peter just happened to find the storehouse of Butcher the Loggerhead Shrike. It isn't a very pleasant sight, I must admit, but one must give Butcher credit for being smart enough to lay up a store of food when it is plentiful."
"And who is Butcher the Shrike?" demanded Peter. "He's a new one to me.
"He's new to this location," replied Skimmer, "and you probably haven't noticed him. I've seen him in the South often. There he is now, on the tiptop of that tree over yonder."
Peter and Johnny looked eagerly. They saw a bird who at first glance appeared not unlike Mocker the Mockingbird. He was dressed wholly in black, gray and white. When he turned his head they noticed a black stripe across the side of his face and that the tip of his bill was hooked. These are enough to make them forget that otherwise he was like Mocker. While they were watching him he flew down into the grass and picked up a grasshopper. Then he flew with a steady, even flight, only a little above the ground, for some distance, suddenly shooting up and returning to the perch where they had first seen him. There he ate the grasshopper and resumed his watch for something else to catch.
"He certainly has wonderful eyes," said Skimmer admiringly. "He mast have seen that grasshopper way over there in the grass before he started after it, for he flew straight there. He doesn't waste time and energy hunting aimlessly. He sits on a high perch and watches until he sees something he wants. Many times I've seen him sitting on top of a telegraph pole. I understand that Bully the English Sparrow has become terribly nervous since the arrival of Butcher. He is particularly fond of English Sparrows. I presume it was one of Bully's children you saw in the thorn-tree, Peter. For my part I hope he'll frighten Bully into leaving the Old Orchard. It would he a good thing for the rest of us."
"But I don't understand yet why he fastens his victims on those long thorns," said Peter.
"For two reasons," replied Skimmer. "When he catches more grasshoppers and other insects than he can eat, he sticks them on those thorns so that later he may be sure of a good meal if it happens there are no more to be caught when he is hungry. Mice, Sparrows, and things too big for him to swallow he sticks on the thorns so that he can pull them to pieces easier. You see his feet and claws are not big and stout enough to hold his victims while he tears them to pieces with his hooked bill. Sometimes, instead of sticking them on thorns, he sticks them on the barbed wire of a fence and sometimes he wedges them into the fork of two branches."
"Does he kill many birds?" asked Peter.
"Not many," replied Skimmer, "and most of those he does kill are English Sparrows. The rest of us have learned to keep out of his way. He feeds mostly on insects, worms and caterpillars, but he is very fond of mice and he catches a good many. He is a good deal like Killy the Sparrow Hawk in this respect. He has a cousin, the Great Northern Shrike, who sometimes comes down in the winter, and is very much like him. Hello! Now what's happened?"
A great commotion had broken out not far away in the Old Orchard. Instantly Skimmer flew over to see what it was all about and Peter followed. He got there just in time to see Chatterer the Red Squirrel dodging around the trunk of a tree, first on one side, then on the other, to avoid the sharp bills of the angry feathered folk who had discovered him trying to rob a nest of its young.
Peter chuckled. "Chatterer is getting just what is due him, I guess," he muttered. "It reminds me of the time I got into a Yellow Jacket's nest. My, but those birds are mad!"
Chatterer continued to dodge from side to side of the tree while the birds darted down at him, all screaming at the top of their voices. Finally Chatterer saw his chance to run for the old stone wall. Only one bird was quick enough to catch up with him and that one was such a tiny fellow that he seemed hardly bigger than a big insect. It was Hammer the Hummingbird. He followed Chatterer clear to the old stone wall. A moment later Peter heard a humming noise just over his head and looked up to see Hummer himself alight on a twig, where he squeaked excitedly for a few minutes, for his voice is nothing but a little squeak.
Often Peter had seen Hummer darting about from flower to flower and holding himself still in mid-air in front of each as he thrust his long bill into the heart of the blossom to get the tiny insects there and the sweet juices he is so fond of. But this was the first time Peter had ever seen him sitting still. He was such a mite of a thing that it was hard to realize that he was a bird. His back was a bright, shining green. His wings and tail were brownish with a purplish tinge. Underneath he was whitish, But it was his throat on which Peter fixed his eyes. It was a wonderful ruby-red that glistened and shone in the sun like a jewel.
Hummer lifted one wing and with his long needle-like bill smoothed the feathers under it. Then he darted out into the air, his wings moving so fast that Peter couldn't see them at all. But if he couldn't see them he could hear them. You see they moved so fast that they made a sound very like the humming of Bumble the Bee. It is because of this that he is called the Hummingbird. A fey' minutes later he was back again and now he was joined by Mrs. Hummer. She was dressed very much like Hummer but did not have the beautiful ruby throat. She stopped only a minute or two, then darted over to what looked for all the world like a tiny cup of moss. It was their nest.
Just then Jenny Wren came along, and being quite worn out with the work of feeding her seven babies, she was content to rest for a few moments and gossip. Peter told her what he had discovered.
"I know all about that," retorted Jenny. "You don't suppose I hunt these trees over for food without knowing where my neighbors are living, do you? I'd have you to understand, Peter, that that is the daintiest nest in the Old Orchard. It is made wholly of plant down and covered on the outside with bits of that gray moss-like stuff that grows on the bark of the trees and is called lichens. That is what makes that nest look like nothing more than a knot on the branch. Chatterer made a big mistake when he visited this tree. Hummer may he a tiny fellow but he isn't afraid of anybody under the sun. That bill of his is so sharp and he is so quick that few folks ever bother him more than once. Why, there isn't a single member of the Hawk family that Hummer won't attack. There isn't a cowardly feather on him."
"Does he go very far south for the winter?" asked Peter. "He is such a tiny fellow I don't see how he can stand a very long journey."
"Huh!" exclaimed Jenny Wren. "Distance doesn't bother Hummer any. You needn't worry about those wings of his. He goes clear down to South America. He has ever so many relatives down there. You ought to see his babies when they first hatch out. They are no bigger than bees. But they certainly do grow fast. Why, they are flying three weeks from the time they hatch. I'm glad I don't have to pump food down the throats of my youngsters the way Mrs. Hummingbird has to down hers."
Peter looked perplexed. "What do you mean by pumping food down their throats?" he demanded.
"Just what I say," retorted Jenny Wren. "Mrs. Hummer sticks her bill right down their throats and then pumps up the food she has already swallowed. I guess it is a good thing that the babies have short bills."
"Do they?" asked Peter, opening his eyes very wide with surprise.
"Yes," replied Jenny. "When they hatch out they have short bills, but it doesn't take them a great while to grow long."
"How many babies does Mrs. Hummer usually have?" asked Peter.
"Just two," replied Jenny. "Just two. That's all that nest will hold. But goodness gracious, Peter, I can't stop gossiping here any longer. You have no idea what a care seven babies are."
With a jerk of her tail off flew Jenny Wren, and Peter hurried back to tell Johnny Chuck all he had found out about Hummer the Hummingbird.