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CHAPTER 36 – A Stranger and a Dandy
Butcher the Shrike was not the only newcomer in the Old Orchard. There was another stranger who, Peter Rabbit soon discovered, was looked on with some suspicion by all the other birds of the Old Orchard. The first time Peter saw him, he was walking about on the ground some distance off. He didn’t hop he rather walked. The way he carried himself and his movements as he walked made Peter think of Creaker the Grackle. In fact, Peter mistook him for Creaker. That was because he didn’t really look at him. If he had he would have seen at once that the stranger was smaller than Creaker.
Presently the stranger flew up in a tree and Peter saw that his tail was little more than half as long as that of Creaker. At once it came over Peter that this was a stranger to him, and of course his curiosity was aroused. He didn’t have any doubt whatever that this was a member of the Blackbird family, although which one it could be he hadn’t the least idea. “Jenny Wren will know,” thought Peter and scampered off to check-in with her.
“Who is that new member of the Blackbird family who has come to live in the Old Orchard?” Peter asked as soon as he found Jenny Wren.
“Tut, tut, tut!” said Jenny. “That fellow isn’t a member of the Blackbird family at all as he isn’t even black. Go over there and take a good look at him; then come back and tell me what you think.”
Jenny turned her back on Peter and went looking for worms. There being nothing else to do, Peter hopped over where he could get a good look at the stranger. The sun was shining full on him and for the most part he was very dark green. At least, that is what Peter thought at first glance. Then, as the stranger moved, he seemed to be a rich purple in places. In short he changed color as he turned. His feathers were iridescent like those of Creaker the Grackle. All over he was speckled with tiny light spots. Underneath he was dark brownish-gray. His wings and tail were of the same color, with little touches of buff. His rather large bill was yellow.
Peter hurried back to Jenny Wren. “You were right, Jenny Wren; he isn’t a member of the Blackbird family,” confessed Peter. “Who is he?”
“He is Speckles the Starling,” replied Jenny. “He comes from across the ocean the same as Billy the House Sparrow. He has taken up house-keeping in one of the old homes of Yellow Wing the Flicker, here in the Old Orchard. Did you notice that yellow bill of his?”
“I certainly did,” Peter confirmed with a nod.
“Well, there’s a funny thing about that bill,” replied Jenny. “In winter it turns almost black. Most of us wear a different colored suit in winter, and our bills remain the same.”
“I’ve seen him picking up worms and grubs and he likes grain,” said Jenny. “If his family becomes very numerous though they will eat more of Farmer Brown’s grain than they will pay for by the worms and bugs they destroy. Well hello! There’s Dandy the Waxwing and his friends.”
A flock of modestly dressed yet rather distinguished looking feathered folks had alighted in a cherry tree and promptly began to help themselves to Farmer Brown’s cherries. They were about the size of Winsome Bluebird, and did not look in the least like him, for they were dressed mostly in a beautiful, rich, soft grayish-brown. Across the end of each tail was a yellow band. On each, the forehead, chin and a line through each eye was velvety-black. Each wore a very stylish pointed cap, and on the wings of most of them were little spots of red which looked like sealing wax, and from which they get the name of Waxwings.
As Peter watched them he began to wonder if Farmer Brown would have any cherries left. Peter himself can do pretty well in the matter of stuffing his stomach, and even he marveled at the way those birds put the cherries out of sight. It was quite clear to him why they are often called Cherrybirds.
“If they stay long, Farmer Brown won’t have any cherries left,” remarked Peter.
“Don’t worry,” replied Jenny Wren. “They won’t stay long. I don’t know anybody equal to them for roaming about. Here are most of us with families to tend to and Mr. and Mrs. Bluebird with a second family and Mr. and Mrs. Robin with a second set of eggs, while those folks haven’t even begun to think about housekeeping yet. They certainly do like those cherries, and I guess Farmer Brown can stand the loss of what they eat. He may have fewer cherries, and he’ll also have more apples because of them.”
“How’s that?” asked Peter.
“Well,” replied Jenny Wren, “they were over here a while ago when those little green cankerworms threatened to eat up the whole orchard, and they stuffed themselves on those worms just the same as they are stuffing themselves on cherries now. They are very fond of small fruits and most of those they eat are the wild kind which are of no use at all to Farmer Brown or anybody else. Now just look at that performance, will you?”
There were five of the Waxwings and they were now seated side by side on a branch of the cherry tree. One of them had a plump cherry which he passed to the next one. This one passed it on to the next, and so it went to the end of the row and halfway back before it was finally eaten. Peter laughed right out. “Never in my life have I seen such politeness,” he said.
“Oh, I don’t believe it was politeness at all,” exclaimed Jenny Wren. “I guess if you got at the truth of the matter you would find that each one was stuffed so full that he thought he didn’t have room for that cherry and so passed it along.”
“Well, I think that was politeness just the same,” pronounced Peter. “The first one might have dropped the cherry if he couldn’t eat it instead of passing it along.” And just then the Waxwings flew away.
It was the very middle of the summer before Peter Rabbit again saw Dandy the Waxwing. Quite by chance he discovered Dandy sitting on the tip top of an evergreen tree, as if on guard. He was on guard, for in that tree was his nest, though Peter didn’t know it at the time. In fact, it was so late in the summer that most of Peter’s friends were through nesting and he had quite lost interest in nests. Presently Dandy flew down to a lower branch and there he was joined by Mrs. Waxwing. Then Peter was treated to one of the prettiest sights he ever had seen. They rubbed their bills together as if kissing. They smoothed each other’s feathers and altogether were a perfect picture of two little lovebirds. Peter couldn’t think of another couple who appeared quite so gentle and loving.
Late in the fall Peter saw Mr. and Mrs. Waxwing and their family all together. They were in a cedar tree and were picking off and eating the cedar berries as busily as the five Waxwings had picked Farmer Brown’s cherries in the early summer. Peter didn’t know that because of their fondness for cedar berries the Waxwings were often called Cedar Waxwings.
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 – European Starling
- Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – ALL ABOUT BIRDS – Cedar Waxwing
- Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – ALL ABOUT BIRDS – Flying Formation – Starlings
- Nature journal coloring pages at Cornell Common Feeder Birds FREE (page W52 Cedar waxwing and page W53 European Starling).
- 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 Cedar Waxwing (p12).
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.