What do birds do in the world? is an important question for us to think about. First, we must gain by observation and by personal acquaintance with the living birds a knowledge of their work and their way of doing it. In getting this knowledge, let us also consider what we can do for our birds to render their work as complete and effective as possible.
Think of what the birds are doing on every farm, in every garden, and about every home in the land. Think of the millions of beautiful wings, of the graceful and attractive figures, of the cunning nests, and of the singing throats! Do you think that the whole service of the birds is to be beautiful, to sing charmingly, and to rear their little ones? By no means is this their chief service to man. Aside from these services the greatest work of birds is to destroy insects. It is one of the wise provisions of nature that many of the most brilliantly winged and most enchanting songsters are our most practical friends.
Not all birds feed on insects and animals; but even those that eat but a small amount of insect food may still destroy insects that would have damaged fruit and crops much more than the birds themselves do.
As to their food, birds are divided into three general classes. First, those that live wholly or almost wholly on insects. These are called insectivorous birds. Chief among these are the warblers, cuckoos, swallows, martins, flycatchers, nighthawks, whippoorwills, swifts, and humming-birds. We cannot have too many of these birds. They should be encouraged and protected. They should be supplied with shelter and water.
Birds of the second class feed by preference on fruits, nuts, and grain. The bluebird, robin, wood thrush, mocking-bird, catbird, chickadee, cedar-bird, meadow lark, oriole, jay, crow, and woodpecker belong to this group. These birds never fail to perform a service for us by devouring many weed seeds.
The third class is known as the hard-billed birds. It includes those birds which live principally on seeds and grain—the canary, goldfinch, sparrow, and some others, aka country birds.
Birds that come early, like the bluebird, robin, and redwing, are of special service in destroying insects before the insects lay their eggs for the season.
The robins on the lawn search out the caterpillars and cutworms. The chipping sparrow and the wren in the shrubbery look out for all kinds of insects. They watch over the orchard and feed freely on the enemies of the apple and other fruit trees. The trunks of these trees are often attacked by borers, which gnaw holes in the bark and wood, and often cause the death of the trees. The woodpeckers hunt for these appetizing borers and by means of their barbed tongues bring them from their hiding-places. On the outside of the bark of the trunk and branches the bark lice work. These are devoured by the nuthatches, creepers, and chickadees.
Fig. 281. A Warbler
During the winter the bark is the hiding-place for hibernating insects, which, like plant lice, feed in summer on the leaves. Throughout the winter a single chickadee will destroy great numbers of the eggs of the cankerworm moth and of the plant louse. The blackbirds, meadow larks, crows, quail, and sparrows are the great protectors of the meadow and field crops. These birds feed on the army worms and cutworms that do so much injury to the young shoots; they also destroy the chinch bug and the grasshopper, both of which feed on cultivated plants.
A count of all the different kinds of animals shows that insects make up nine tenths of them. Hence it is easy to see that if something did not check their increase they would soon almost overrun the earth. Our forests and orchards furnish homes and breeding-places for most of these insects. Suppose the injurious insects were allowed to multiply unchecked in the forests, their numbers would so increase that they would invade our fields and create as much terror among the farmers as they did in Pharaoh’s Egypt. The birds are the only direct friends man has to destroy these harmful insects. What benefactors, then, these little feathered neighbors are!
Fig. 282. The Hairy Woodpecker
It has been estimated that a bird will devour thirty insects daily. Even in a widely extended forest region a very few birds to the acre, if they kept up this rate, would daily destroy many bushels of insects that would play havoc with the neighboring orchards and fields.
Do not imagine, however, that to destroy insects is the only use of birds. The day is far more delightful when the birds sing, and when we see them flit in and out, giving us a glimpse now and then of their pretty coats and quaint ways. By giving them a home we can surround ourselves with many birds, sweet of song and brilliant of plumage.
If the birds felt that man were a friend and not a foe, they would often turn to him for protection. During times of severe storm, extreme drought, or scarcity of food, if the birds were sufficiently tamed to come to man as their friend, as they do in rare cases now, a little food and shelter might tide them over the hard time and their service afterwards would repay the outlay a thousandfold. If the boys in your families would build bird-houses about the house and barn and in shade trees, they might save yearly a great number of birds. In building these places of shelter and comfort, due care must be taken to keep them clear of English sparrows and out of the reach of cats and bird-dogs.
Whatever we do to attract the birds to make homes on the premises must be done at the right time and in the right way. Think out carefully what materials to provide for them. Bits of string, linen, cotton, yarn, tow and other waste material, all help to induce a pair to build in the garden.
Fig. 283. Protecting our Friends
It is an interesting study—the preparation of homes for the birds. Trees may be pruned to make inviting crotches. A tangled, overgrown corner in the garden will invite some birds to nest.
Wrens, bluebirds, chickadees, martins, and some other varieties are all glad to set up housekeeping in man-made houses. The proper size for a bird-room is easily remembered. Give each room six square inches of floor space and make it eight inches high. Old, weathered boards should be used; or, if paint is employed, a dull color to resemble an old tree-trunk will be most inviting. A single opening near the top should be made two inches in diameter for the larger birds; but if the house is to be headquarters for the wren, a one-inch opening is quite large enough, and the small door serves all the better to keep out English sparrows.
The barn attic should be turned over to the swallows. Small holes may be cut high up in the gables and left open during the time that the swallows remain with us. They will more than pay for shelter by the good work they do in ridding the barn of flies, gnats, and mosquitoes, and thus even help cows.