W HY this pair of Robins chose to build so near the Sparrows, nobody knows. It was not at all like Robins to do so, for they are quite careful how they bring up their children. One would expect them to think how likely the little Robins would be to grow up rude and quarrelsome.
However, there their nest was, not the length of a beanpole from those of two pairs of Sparrows. When the nestlings were hatched, they listened all day to what the Sparrows were saying and looked at what they were doing. They heard and saw many things which Mr. and Mrs. Robin did not like. But there was no helping it then, and all that their parents could do was to try to bring them up to be good little birds, and do as they had been told, and not as they had seen naughty children do.
It did make a difference in the behavior of the children, however, and after they left the nest this showed very plainly. When they were old enough to go outside the yard in which they had been hatched, they went to the place next door. There were many fowls on this place, and several Hens in coops with young Chickens around them. The father and mother left the young Robins in safe places while they went to hunt Worms in the newly hoed garden. Two children, a brother and a sister, were half hidden under the drooping branches of a large gooseberry bush.
They had been there for some time, when the sister said, "Just see what lots of good, clean food that Hen and her Chickens have. Don't you wish you had some of it?"
"Um-hum!" answered the brother. "What a pretty yellow it is. I just know it is good!"
Neither of them spoke again for a long time. Indeed, the brother had begun to settle his head down on his shoulders and slide the thin lids over his eyes, when his sister said, "If you were a Sparrow, you'd get some."
"Well, I'm not a Sparrow," he answered, "and so I shall have to go without."
He was almost cross to his dear little sister, but perhaps one could partly excuse him. He saw that there was much more than the Chickens could eat, and that it would lie there spread out on the board until they had spoiled it all by trampling it with muddy feet. Now it was lovely, clean, sweet corn-meal mush. Besides, he was becoming dreadfully hungry. It was fully ten minutes, you know, since he had been fed anything.
The little sister kept still for a while. Her mother had taught her that it does not always pay to talk too much. At last she asked, "Do you suppose those tiny bits of Chickens know the difference between a Sparrow and a Robin?"
Her brother opened his eyes very wide, and stretched his head up so that one could see the black and white feathers under his bill. He was almost full-grown. "I've a good mind to try to fool them," he said. "You see, the Hen can't reach the board where the food is."
"I dare you to!" cried his sister, who really should have been his brother, she was so brave.
"All right," he answered. "Only you come too."
"I will," she answered. "But let's wait until Father and Mother are looking the other way."
Twice they started out and came back because their parents were looking. At last they made a dash and were by the board.
"Stand aside!" said the brother, talking as nearly like a Sparrow as he could. "Let us have some of this!"
"Who are you?" asked the Chickens, while the old Hen cluck-cluck-clucked and strutted to and fro in the coop. Every little while she stuck her head out as far as she could reach, and her neck feathers spread around in a funny, fat way against the slats of her coop.
"Go away!" she scolded. "Go right away! That is not your mush! You are not my Chickens! Go right home to your mother! Cr-r-r-r-r!" She said this last, you know, because she was getting so angry that she could say nothing else.
The fowls behind the netting of the poultry-yard all came to see what was going on, and chattered about it in their cackling way. "Send them off!" they cried. "Send them off! The idea of their trying to take food from the Chickens!" The Cocks looked particularly big and fierce. Still, there is not much fun in looking big and fierce behind a wire netting, when the people whom you want to scare are in front of it.
The young Robins were dreadfully frightened, but having feathers all over their face, it did not really show. Neither one was willing to be the first to start away, and they didn't like to speak about it to each other for fear of being overheard. You know, if you can keep other people from finding out that you are scared, you may end by scaring them, and that was exactly what the Robins meant to do.
"Get out of our way!" said they. "Don't brush against us so again! If you were not young, we wouldn't have stood it this time. When you have feathers you may know better."
Then the little Chickens were very badly scared indeed. They backed away as quickly as they could, and crawled in beside their mother. She told them to go back; that the Robins couldn't hurt them, and that she was ashamed to have them act so Chicken-hearted.
"Let us get under your wings!" they said. "Please let us get under your wings!" And they followed, peeping, after her, as she marched to and fro in the narrow coop. Sometimes they got so near her feet that she almost knocked them over, and at last they quite gave up trying to cuddle down under her, and got together in little groups in the back part of the coup.
"Had enough?" asked the brother at last.
"Yes, indeed," answered his sister. "I can't swallow any more now. I'm just making believe because you are not through."
"All right!" said he.
He turned to the Chickens. "Now you may come," he said. "But another time get out of our way more quickly." Then they turned their backs and hopped off. They didn't want to try flying, because that would show how very young they were.
"We did it," exclaimed those two naughty children. "Did you ever see such little Geese as those Chickens? But oh, what if our parents should find it out?"
"See here," chirped their mother, who could not speak very plainly because she had two large Earthworms hanging in wriggling loops from her bill, "Here is a lovely lunch for you."
"Give it to Brother," said the little sister. "He always wants more than I."
"Oh, no. Give it to Sister," said he. "I don't mean to be selfish."
"You shall both have some," said their mother, tucking a large Worm down each unwilling throat. "Little birds will never be big birds unless they eat plenty of the right kind of food. I will bring you more."
When she was gone they looked at each other. "I just can not eat another billful," said the sister.
"And I won't!" said the brother. After a while he added, "Is there any of that mush sticking to my bill?"
"No," said the sister, "Is there any on mine?"
They did not feel at all sure that their mother would have let them eat so much mush if she had been asked. They wondered if it would make them sick. They began to think about the stomach-ache, and felt sure that they had one—that is to say, two—one apiece, you know.
Over in the garden, Mrs. Robin said to her husband, "Do you know what those children have done? It was a very ill-bred, Sparrow-like trick. They scared the little Chickens away, and ate all they could of their mush. I am dreadfully ashamed of them, but I shall pretend I did not see it."
"Make them eat plenty of Worms," suggested Mr. Robin.
"Just what I am going to do," answered his wife. "It won't really hurt them to overeat for once in their lives, and it will punish them very well."
That was why Mr. and Mrs. Robin worked so especially hard all morning, and made so many trips in under the gooseberry bush. The two young Robins who were there kept insisting that they didn't need any more, and that they really couldn't eat another Worm. After they said this, Mrs. Robin always looked sharply at them and asked, "What have you children been doing? Young birds should always want all the Worms their parents can bring them."
The little Robins were not brave enough to tell what they had done. You know it often takes more courage to confess a fault that it does to scare people. So whenever their mother said this they agreed to eat one more Worm apiece, and choked and gulped it down. It was a dreadful morning for them.
Inside the Chicken-coop the old Hen was trying to settle down again, and the Chickens were talking it over.
"Wasn't it dreadful?" asked one. "I didn't know that Robins were so fierce."
"Mother said that we shouldn't be afraid of them," cried another, "but I guess she'd be afraid her own self if she wasn't in that coop. She'd be 'fraider if she was little, too."
"I'm glad they didn't eat it all," said a third Chicken. "When do you suppose they'll come again?"
"Every day," said another, a Chicken who always expected bad things to happen. "Perhaps they will come two times a day! Maybe they'll even come three!"
But they didn't. They didn't come at all. And they never wanted corn-meal mush again.