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An essay by Elizabeth Brightwen

Feeding Birds In Summer And Winter

Title:     Feeding Birds In Summer And Winter
Author: Elizabeth Brightwen [More Titles by Brightwen]

On wintry mornings, when leaf and twig are decked with hoar-frost and the ground is hard and dry, affording no food for the birds, it is a piteous sight to see them cowering under the evergreens with ruffled feathers, evidently starving and miserable, quietly waiting for the death that must overtake many of them unless we come to their rescue.

It is one of my delights to feed the small "feathered fowls" through all the winter months, and I only wish all my readers could enjoy with me the lovely scenes of happy bird life to be witnessed through the French window opposite my writing-table. These gatherings of birds are the result of many years of persistent kindness and thought for the welfare of my bird pets. Their tameness cannot be attained all at once; it takes time to establish confidence; it needs thought about the kinds of food required by various species of birds, regularity in feeding, and quiet gentleness of manner to avoid frightening any new and timid visitors. Doubtless there are very many lovers of birds who share this pleasure with me, but for those who may not happen to know how to attract the feathered tribes I will go a little into detail.

This being a large garden near game preserves, and surrounded by a wide, furze-covered common, I have been able to attract and tame the ordinary wild pheasants by putting out Indian corn, buckwheat, and raisins, till now they come to the doorstep and look up with their brilliant, red-ringed eyes, and feed calmly whilst I watch them. It is a really beautiful sight to see three or four cock birds, with their golden-bronze plumage glistening like polished metal as the morning sun rests upon them, and as many of their more sober-coloured mates feasting on the dainties they find prepared for them; as a rule, they are very amicable and feed together like barndoor fowls. When satisfied, the brown hens run swiftly away to cover, while the cocks, with greater confidence, walk quietly away in stately fashion, or remain under the trees.

Wood-pigeons are usually very shy and wary birds, yet these also come, six and eight at a time, and feed at my window, Indian corn and peas being their specialities. I have large quantities of beech-nuts and acorns collected every autumn, and thus I can scatter this food also for pigeons and squirrels all through the winter. Jays, jackdaws, rooks, and magpies also approve of acorns and beech-nuts, so it is doing a real kindness to tribes of birds to reserve this food for them until their other stores are exhausted, and we can thus bring them within our view and study their interesting ways, their modes of feeding, and, I fear I must add, their squabbles also, for hungry birds are very pugnacious.

Blackbirds and thrushes are very fond of Sultana raisins; they also like split groats and brown bread crumbs, as also do starlings and, I believe, most of the smaller birds. Fat in any shape or form will attract the various species of titmice to the window. I always keep a small Normandy basket full of suet and ham-fat hanging on a nail at the window. It is a great rendezvous for these charming little pets, and it is also supplied with Barcelona nuts for nuthatches, who fully appreciate them and carry them off to the nearest tree with rugged bark into which they fix the nuts, and then hammer at the shell till they can extract the contents.

In very hard frosts I used always to put out a pan of water, as I feared the birds suffered from thirst and needed this help. One day, however, I was comforted to see some starlings, after a good meal of groats, run off to the grass plot and eagerly peck at the hoar-frost, which, while it exists, thus supplies the lack of water.

Bewick says linnets are so named from their fondness for linseed, and I think most of the finches like it. The greenfinch is soon attracted by hemp seed, and all the smaller birds by canary seed. I hope this paper may induce many kind hands to minister to the needs of our feathered friends during the winter months. It is sad to think of their dying for lack of the food we can so easily afford them, and they will be sure to repay us by their sweet songs and confiding tameness when summer days return.

One is apt to think that winter is the only time when birds need our help and bounty, but there is almost as much real distress after a long drought in summer, especially amongst the insect-eating birds.

I was led to think of this by the pathetic way in which a hen blackbird came to the French window of my room early in June last and stood patiently waiting and clicking time after time in trouble of _some_ kind I knew, and, supposing it might be food, I threw out a plentiful supply of soaked brown bread. At once the poor bird went to it, devouring ravenously for her own needs, and then, filling her beak as full as it would hold, she flew off with a supply for her young brood. Then came thrushes, robins, sparrows, a whole bevy of feathered folk all doing the same thing--carrying the provisions in every direction for unseen families at starvation point, and I began to realize that the month of continued sunshine in which we had rejoiced had brought great distress upon the birds by drying up the lawns so that no worms could be found, and, as it was early in the year, but few insects were to be had, so that just when each pair of birds had a clamorous brood to provide for the food supply had fallen short. Now I understood the pathos of the hen blackbird's appeal; her dark eyes and note of distress were trying to say to me, "I know you care for us; you seemed so kind last winter; when we were without food you fed us and saved our lives; but now I am in far deeper distress--my children are crying for food, the grass is dried up, and the ground so hard that I cannot find a single worm, I am thin and worn with hunger myself; do help me and my little ones, and we will sing you sweet songs in return to cheer you when wintry days come back again. Does she understand? I've said all this several times before, but I thought I would make one last appeal before my children die. Yes; she has left the room! I will wait. Ah! here it is, just the soft food that will suit my little ones: how they _will_ rejoice and all want to be fed at once. I hope my friend can understand that I am thanking her with all my heart." Love has a universal language and can interpret through varied signs, and thus I quite believe the mother bird's heart wished to express itself.

Ever since that day I have been careful in nesting time to supply suitable and varied food for the families of young birds in times of drought, for it seems mournful to think of their dying from want, in the season of flowers and green leaves, when nature is to us so attractive, and rendered all the more so by their sweet songs.

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Elizabeth Brightwen's essay: Feeding Birds In Summer And Winter