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Chapter 15 – A Swallow and One Who Isn’t
Johnny and Polly Woodchuck had made their home between the roots of an old apple tree in the far corner of the Old Orchard. They have their bedroom way down in the ground, and it is reached by a long hall. They had dug their home between the roots of that old apple tree because they had discovered that there was just room enough between those spreading roots for them to pass in and out, and there wasn’t room to dig the entrance any larger. So they felt quite safe from Reddy Fox and Bowser the Hound, both of whom would have delighted to dig them out if not for those roots.
Right in front of their doorway was a very nice doorstep of shining sand where Johnny Woodchuck delighted to sit when he had a full stomach and nothing else to do. Johnny’s nearest neighbors had made their home only about five feet above Johnny’s head when he sat up on his doorstep. They were Skimmer the Tree Swallow and his trim little wife, and the doorway of their home was a little round hole in the trunk of that apple tree, a hole which had been cut some years before by one of the Woodpeckers.
Johnny and Skimmer were the best of friends. Johnny used to delight in watching Skimmer dart out from beneath the branches of the trees and wheel and turn and glide, now sometimes high in the blue, blue sky, and again just skimming the tops of the grass, on wings which seemed never to tire. He liked it even better when Skimmer would sit in his doorway and chat about his neighbors of the Old Orchard and his adventures out in the Great World during his long journeys to and from the far away South.
To Johnny Woodchuck’s way of thinking, there was no one quite so trim and neat appearing as Skimmer with his snowy white breast and blue-green back and wings.
Two things that Johnny always used to wonder about were Skimmer’s small beak and short legs. Finally he ventured to ask Skimmer about them.
“My gracious, Johnny!” exclaimed Skimmer. “I wouldn’t have a big beak for anything. I wouldn’t know what to do with it; it would be in the way. You see, I get nearly all my food in the air when I am flying, mosquitoes and flies and all sorts of small insects with wings. I don’t have to pick them off trees and bushes or from the ground and so I don’t need any more of a beak than I have. It’s the same way with my legs. Have you ever seen me walking on the ground?”
Johnny thought for a moment. “No, now that you mention it, I never have.” he said.
“And have you ever seen me hopping about in the branches of a tree?” continued Skimmer.
Again Johnny Woodchuck admitted that he never had.
“The only use I have for feet,” said Skimmer, “is for perching while I rest. I don’t need long legs for walking or hopping about, so Mother Nature has made my legs very short. You see I spend most of my time in the air.”
“I suppose it’s the same with your cousin; Sooty the Chimney Swallow,” said Johnny.
“Sooty isn’t related to me,” said Skimmer. “He’s a Swift and not a Swallow.”
“Well, he looks like a Swallow,” protested Johnny Woodchuck.
“He doesn’t either. You just think he does because he happens to spend most of his time in the air the way we Swallows do,” sputtered Skimmer.
Just then Jenny Wren happened to come along and joined the conversation. “Well, have you seen the way Sooty can fly?” she said.
“The way he can fly!” sputtered Skimmer, “Why, there never was a day in his life that he could fly like a Swallow.”
Just then there was a shrill chatter overhead and all looked up to see Sooty the Chimney Swift racing through the blue, blue sky as if having the very best time in the world. His wings would beat furiously and then he would glide very much as you or I would on skates. He would twist and turn and cut up all sorts of antics, such as Skimmer never dreamed of doing.
“You are right, he flies like a Swift not a Swallow. He can use first one wing and then the other, versus you use both wings at once,” insisted Jenny Wren. “He can even go straight down into a chimney.”
“So true, ” said Skimmer, and darted away.
“Is it really true that he and Sooty are not related?” asked Johnny Woodchuck, as they watched Skimmer cutting airy circles high up in the sky.
Jenny nodded. “It’s quite true, Johnny,” she said. “Sooty belongs to another family altogether. He’s a funny fellow. Did you ever in your life see such narrow wings? And his tail is barely there.”
Johnny Woodchuck laughed. “Way up there in the air he looks almost alike at both ends,” he said. “Is he all black?”
“No, he isn’t black at all,” declared Jenny. “He is sooty-brown, rather grayish on the throat and breast. Speaking of that tail of his, the feathers end is in little, sharp, stiff points. He uses them in the same way that Downy the Woodpecker uses his tail feathers when he braces himself with them on the trunk of a tree.”
“I’ve never seen Sooty on the trunk of a tree,” protested Johnny Woodchuck. “In fact, I’ve never seen him anywhere other than in the air.”
“And you never will,” said Jenny. “The only place he ever alights is inside a chimney or inside a hollow tree. There he clings to the side just as Downy the Woodpecker clings to the trunk of a tree.”
Johnny looked as if he didn’t quite believe this. “If that’s the case where does he nest?” he asked. “And where does he sleep?”
“He fastens his nest right to the inside of a chimney. He makes a regular little basket of twigs and fastens it to the side of the chimney,” replied Jenny.
“How can he fasten his nest to the side of a chimney unless there’s a little shelf to put it on? And if he never alights, how does he get the little sticks to make a nest of?” asked Johnny Woodchuck.
“Did you watch him when he was flying close to the tree tops and did you see him clutch little dead twigs in his claws and snap them off without stopping?” asked Jenny. “That’s the way he gets his little sticks. He fastens them together with a sticky substance he has in his mouth, and he fastens the nest to the side of the chimney in the same way.”
“Oh,” replied Johnny Woodchuck. “If you please, Jenny, does Sooty get all his food in the air too?”
“Yes,” replied Jenny. “He eats nothing other than insects, and he catches them flying. Now I must get back to my duties at home.”
“Just tell me one more thing,” cried Johnny Woodchuck hastily. “Hasn’t Sooty any near relatives as most birds have?”
“He hasn’t any one nearer than some sort of second cousins, Boomer the Nighthawk, Whippoorwill, and Hummer the Hummingbird.”
“What?” cried Johnny Woodchuck, quite as if he couldn’t believe he had heard it right. “Did you say Hummer the Hummingbird?” However there was no reply, for Jenny Wren was already on her way.
P.L.A.Y. in Place Projects
Try these activities to extend your bird story adventures:
- Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – ALL ABOUT BIRDS – Tree Swallow
- Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – ALL ABOUT BIRDS – Chimney Swift
- Nature journal coloring pages at Cornell Common Feeder Birds FREE (page W58 American Tree Swallow).
- Q/A –Questions with answers to keep this conversation going are available for Swallows and the Chimney Swift (p. 109-115) in the Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock offered FREE online HERE.
- Another option is to get a copy of Fifty Favorite Birds Coloring Book by Lisa Bonforte and some colored pencils to complete the drawing of a Chimney Swift (p13).
FYI -This coloring book is an excellent companion for this bird story series with most of the 50 birds represented as characters throughout the chapters.
Source: Burgess Bird Book for Children by Thornton Burgess
P.L.A.Y. has provided a new online version of all 45 chapters of this updated and annotated 100+ year old public domain classic to:
- be suitable for the 21st century family by having the Thornton Burgess woodland characters evolve to model mindfulness and loving kindness
- highlight and bring awareness to the New England nature settings and offer an opportunity to learn more about birds and other woodland animals through this story adventure
- create story extension moments through P.L.A.Y. suggested activities and investigations for making new nature connections generated by the reader’s own curiosity
- encourage families to keep their own nature notebooks for drawing, writing, painting, and recording their own local daily outdoor P.L.A.Y. adventures.