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CHAPTER 35 – A Butcher and a Hummer
Not far from the Old Orchard grew a thorn tree which Peter Rabbit often passed. He never had paid particular attention to it. One morning he stopped to rest under it. Happening to look up, he saw a most astonishing thing. Fastened on the sharp thorns of one of the branches were three big grasshoppers, a big moth, two big caterpillars, a lizard, a small mouse and a young House Sparrow. Peter thought he must be seeing things. He couldn’t imagine how those creatures could have become fastened on those long sharp thorns. Somehow it gave him an uncomfortable feeling and he hurried on to the Old Orchard, to tell someone of the strange thing he had seen in the thorn tree.
As he entered the Old Orchard in the far corner he saw Johnny Chuck sitting on his doorstep and hurried over to tell him the strange news. Johnny listened until Peter was through, then told him quite frankly that never had he heard of such a thing.
Meanwhile, Skimmer the Swallow lived in a hole in a tree just above the entrance to Johnny Chuck’s house. He had been sitting where he could hear all that Peter had said.
“Skimmer could you explain this?” asked Johnny Chuck.
“Actually,” replied Skimmer, “Peter just happened to find the storehouse of Butcher the Loggerhead Shrike. It is a very unpleasant sight, however one must give Butcher credit for being smart enough to lay up a store of food when it is plentiful.”
“And who is Butcher the Shrike?” inquired Peter. “He’s a new one to me.”
“He’s new to this location,” replied Skimmer, “and you probably haven’t noticed him. I’ve seen him in the South often. There he is now, on the tip top of that tree over yonder.”
Peter and Johnny looked eagerly. They saw a bird who at first glance appeared not unlike Mocker the Mockingbird. He was dressed all in black, gray and white. When he turned his head they noticed a black stripe across the side of his face and that the tip of his bill was hooked. These are enough to make them forget that otherwise he was like Mocker. While they were watching him he flew down into the grass and picked up a grasshopper. Then he flew with a steady, even flight, only a little above the ground, for some distance, suddenly shooting up and returning to the perch where they had first seen him. There he ate the grasshopper and resumed his watch for something else to catch.
“He certainly has keen eyes,” said Skimmer admiringly. “He must have seen that grasshopper way over there in the grass before he started after it, for he flew straight there. He doesn’t waste time and energy hunting aimlessly. He sits on a high perch and watches until he sees something he wants. Many times I’ve seen him sitting on top of a telephone pole. I understand that Billy the House Sparrow has become terribly nervous since the arrival of Butcher. He is particularly fond
of House Sparrows. I presume it was one of Billy’s children you saw in the thorn tree, Peter. I hope he’ll frighten Billy into leaving the Old Orchard as it would be a good thing for the rest of us.”
“I still don’t understand yet why he fastens his food on those long thorns,” said Peter.
“For two reasons,” replied Skimmer. “When he catches more grasshoppers and other insects than he can eat, he sticks them on those thorns so that later he may be sure of a good meal especially if it happens there are no more to be caught when he is hungry. Mice, sparrows, and things too big for him to swallow he sticks on the thorns so that he can pull them to pieces easier. You see his feet and claws are not big and stout enough to hold his food while he tears them to pieces with his hooked bill. Sometimes, instead of sticking them on thorns, he sticks them on the barbed wire of a fence and sometimes he wedges them into the fork of two branches.”
“Does he eat many birds?” asked Peter.
“Not many,” replied Skimmer, “and most of those he does eat are House Sparrows. The rest of us have learned to keep out of his way. He feeds mostly on insects, worms and caterpillars, and he is very fond of mice and he catches a good many. He is a good deal like Killee the Sparrow
Hawk in this respect. Hey! Now what’s happened?”
A great commotion had broken out not far away in the Old Orchard. Instantly Skimmer flew over to see what it was all about and Peter followed. He got there just in time to see Chatterer the Red Squirrel dodging around the trunk of a tree, first on one side, then on the other, to avoid the sharp bills of the angry feathered folk who had discovered him trying to rob a nest of its young.
Peter chuckled. “Chatterer is getting just what is due him, I guess,” he muttered. “It reminds me of the time I got into a Yellow Jacket’s nest. My,those birds are mad!”
Chatterer continued to dodge from side to side of the tree while the birds darted down at him, all shrieking at the top of their voices. Finally Chatterer saw his chance to run for the old stone wall. Only one bird was quick enough to catch up with him and that one was such a tiny fellow that he seemed hardly bigger than a big insect. It was Hummer the Hummingbird. He followed Chatterer clear to the old stone wall. A moment later Peter heard a humming noise just over his head and looked up to see Hummer himself alight on a twig, where he squeaked excitedly for a few minutes.
Often Peter had seen Hummer darting about from flower to flower and holding himself still in mid-air in front of each as he thrust his long bill into the heart of the blossom to get the tiny insects there and the sweet juices he is so fond of. This was the first time Peter had ever seen Hummer sitting still. He was such a mite of a thing that it was hard to realize that he was a bird. His back was a bright, shining green. His wings and tail were brownish with a purplish tinge. Underneath he was whitish. And his throat was a wonderful ruby-red that glistened and shone in the sun like a jewel.
Hummer lifted one wing and with his long needle like bill smoothed the feathers under it. Then he darted out into the air, his wings moving so fast that Peter couldn’t see them at all. Although he couldn’t see them he could hear them. You see they moved so fast that they made a sound very like the humming of Bumble the Bee. It is because of this that he is called the Hummingbird. A few minutes later he was back again and now he was joined by Mrs. Hummingbird. She was dressed very much like Hummer although without the ruby throat. She stopped only a minute or two, then darted over to what looked for all the world like a tiny cup of moss. It was their nest.
Just then Jenny Wren came along, and being quite worn out with the work of feeding her seven babies, she was content to rest for a few moments and chat. Peter told her what he had discovered about Hummer.
“Yes, Peter,” said Jenny in agreement, “that is the daintiest nest in the Old Orchard. It is made of plant down and covered on the outside with bits of that gray moss like stuff that grows on the bark of the trees called lichens. That is what makes that nest look like nothing more than a knot on the branch. Chatterer made a big mistake when he visited this tree. Hummer may be a tiny fellow however he isn’t afraid of anybody under the sun. That bill of his is so sharp and he is so quick that few folks ever bother him more than once. Why, there isn’t a single member of the Hawk family that Hummer won’t attack.”
“Does he go very far south for the winter?” asked Peter. “He is such a tiny fellow I don’t see how he can stand a very long journey.”
“Distance doesn’t bother Hummer any,” said Jenny Wren. “You needn’t worry about those wings of his. He goes clear down to South America. He has ever so many relatives down there. You ought to see his babies when they first hatch out. They are no bigger than bees. And they certainly do grow fast. Why, they are flying three weeks from the time they hatch. I’m glad I don’t have to pump food down the throats of my youngsters the way Mrs. Hummingbird has to down hers.”
Peter looked perplexed. “What do you mean by pumping food down their throats?” he asked.
“Mrs. Hummingbird sticks her bill right down their throats and then pumps up the food she has already swallowed,” assured Jenny. “I guess it is a good thing that the babies have short bills.”
“Do they?” asked Peter, opening his eyes very wide with surprise.
“Yes,” replied Jenny. “When they hatch out they have short bills, it doesn’t take them a great while to grow long.”
“How many babies does Mrs. Hummingbird usually have?” asked Peter.
“Just two,” replied Jenny, “that’s all that nest will hold ”. And with a jerk of her tail off flew Jenny, and Peter hurried back to tell Johnny Chuck all he had found out about Hummer the Hummingbird.
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 – Loggerhead Shrike
- Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – ALL ABOUT BIRDS – Ruby-throated Hummingbird
- Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – ALL ABOUT BIRDS – Feeders for Hummingbirds
- Nature journal coloring pages at Cornell Common Feeder Birds FREE (page W32 Ruby-throated Hummingbird).
- Q/A –Questions with answers to keep this conversation going are available for Hummingbird (p. 115 -117) 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 drawings of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (p37).
- Also a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America Coloring Book by Paul E. Kennedy with a Ruby-throated Hummingbird on page 21.
FYI -These coloring books are an excellent companion for this bird story series.
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.