Feeding in Summer
S PRING and summer are happy times for birds. Then there is plenty of food for them and their little ones. Let us go out some fine summer morning, and watch the different birds as they feed. You will not see them all in one day. But you ought to find each one some time during the summer.
Close to the house you are sure to see a House Sparrow picking up scraps in the yard and eating the caterpillars and red spiders on the gooseberry bushes in the kitchen garden. For the sparrow is not dainty. He will eat most things, from a grain of wheat to a scrap of meat.
In the kitchen garden, too, you may see the Chaffinch breaking the husks of seeds with his sharp little beak. He is not particular whether he takes them from the weeds, or from the beds of radishes or turnips which we have sown. But he does us more good than harm, for he destroys a great deal of groundsel and chickweed.
Out in the fields the little brown Lark, which has been singing in the sky, drops down to hunt for seeds in the furrows turned up by the plough. In the rickyard I can see several little Finches, the greenfinch and the yellowhammer, picking up the grains of corn.
All these birds feed usually on grain, and have short sharp beaks which will split the husks, though they sometimes eat insects and feed their young ones on them. We have to drive them away from our wheat and oats for a few weeks in the year, but they are very useful in keeping down the weeds, for they eat every seed they can find.
The Swallows, Swifts, and Martins have very different beaks. If you watch them as they skim along in the air, you will see they can open their mouths very wide to catch the flies and gnats. But the hard beak itself is very small. They have weak legs and strong wings, for they catch all their food as they fly. Notice how near the ground they keep in dull weather. Then the insects are flying low, and the swallows follow them. But on a bright day the gnats and midges fly higher, so swallows fly higher too.
That big Thrush which is hopping about on the grass is very different from the swallows. He has strong feet and legs, and a long, narrow, round beak. He feeds on worms and snails in the summer, and on berries in the autumn. Look at him now. He has his feet firmly planted on the grass, and he is pulling away at a worm with all his might. He will get it out of the ground soon, and carry it away to feed his little ones.
Many of the smaller perching birds feed only on insects. I am sure you will love them. They are such pretty little things. First, there is the Wagtail with his black and white wings, and his long tail bobbing up and down as he hunts for insects in the grass. Not far off is a little Wren hopping on a rose-tree and picking off the green-fly, which does so much harm.
On a bush near, sits a small brown bird with a grey speckled breast. He only came back to England from warm countries at the end of May. He is the common spotted Fly-catcher. Look how still he sits. Then all at once he darts into the air with wide open mouth, snaps his beak, and goes back to his place. He has caught a fly and will now sit and wait for another.
Next I want you to look at a little bird which I love because he is so bright and gay. He is a Blue Tit or Tomtit (see picture, p. 36), a small bird with a bright blue head and wings, and a yellow breast. He is hanging upside down on the branch of a tree watching for spiders. When he has caught one he will flutter off to another tree and get a good breakfast in a very little while. He is a very bold little bird, and in the winter you may learn to know him well, if you will give him some food.
These birds, the thrush, the wagtail, the flycatcher, the wren and the tomtit are very useful to us. They kill the snails and slugs, the caterpillars, maggots, and grubs. So do the nightingale and the blackbird, and another little bird, which I want you to know. This is the Hedge-sparrow, a small brown bird with a blue-grey breast, which flutters along the lanes. I am sure you must have seen him. He picks up a tiny insect, flits a little way and picks up another, and then flits away again just in front of you as you walk along the lane. You must not confuse him with the house-sparrow. He is quite another kind of bird, he is one of the warblers and sings very sweetly. He is sometimes called the "hedge-warbler," and this is a much better and truer name for him.
We have not much time to watch other birds, But we must look at the rooks hunting for worms and slugs in the ploughed fields; and as we come near the wood I see a partridge feeding on ants under the trees. He flies away with a loud whirr long before we get near him, and as he cries "cluck, cluck" I expect the mother bird and her nest are not far off.
If you go into the wood you may see the little Tree-creeper running up the trees looking for insects, and the woodpecker darting out his sticky tongue and tapping at the trunks of the trees, and the wood-pigeon flying home with her crop full of oats or peas to feed her little ones.
Or if you stroll by the river there may be the tiny kingfisher darting down to seize tiny fish; or the grave heron sitting quite still, with his neck stretched out, till in a moment his head shoots forward, and he brings up a big eel in his beak.
You can notice many of these things for yourselves. The great secret is to look at every bird you see and try to learn something about it.
Notice the hard beaks of birds which eat seeds—Chaffinch. The hooked beaks of birds which eat flesh—Hawk. The wide gape of birds which catch insects on the wing—Swallow. The long, slender beaks of birds which feel underground for food—Woodcock.