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Chapter 16 – A Robber in the Old Orchard
“I don’t believe it,” muttered Johnny Woodchuck out loud.
“What is it you don’t believe?” asked Skimmer the Tree Swallow, as he once more settled himself in his doorway.
“Jenny Wren said that Hummer the Hummingbird is a sort of second cousin to Sooty the Chimney Swift,” replied Johnny Woodchuck.
“Well, that is so,” declared Skimmer. “I don’t see how it is any harder to believe than you being cousin to Striped Chipmunk and cousin to Happy Jack the Gray Squirrel. To look at you no one would ever think you are a member of the Squirrel family, and yet you are.”
Johnny Woodchuck nodded his head thoughtfully. “Yes,” he said, “I am, even if I don’t look it. This is a funny world, isn’t it? You can’t always tell by a person’s looks who they may be related to. Now that I’ve found out that Sooty isn’t related to you and is related to Hummer the Hummingbird, I’ll never dare guess again about anybody’s relatives. I always supposed Twitter the Martin to be a relative of yours, and now that I’ve learned that Sooty isn’t, I suspect that Twitter isn’t either.”
“Oh, yes, he is,” replied Skimmer promptly. “He’s the largest of the Swallow family.”
“Is he as black as he looks, flying round up in the air?” asked Johnny Woodchuck. “He never comes down here as you do where a fellow can get a good look at him.”
“Yes,” replied Skimmer, “he dresses all in black, and it is a beautiful blue-black, and when the sun shines on his back it seems to be almost purple. That is why some folks call him the Purple Martin. He is one of the most social fellows I know of. I like a home by myself, such as I’ve got here, but Twitter loves company. He likes to live in an apartment house with a lot of his own kind. That is why he always looks for one of those houses with a lot of rooms in it, such as Farmer Brown’s boy has put up on the top of that tall pole out in his back yard. He pays back for all the effort Farmer Brown’s boy took to put that house up. If there is anybody who catches more flies and winged insects than Twitter, I don’t know who it is.”
“How about me?” said a new voice, as a graceful form skimmed over Johnny Chuck’s head, and turning like a flash, came back. It was Forktail the Barn Swallow, a graceful member of the Swallow family. He passed so close to Johnny that the latter had a splendid chance to see and admire his glistening steel-blue back and the beautiful chestnut-brown of his forehead and throat with its narrow black collar, and the brown to buff color of his under parts. However, the thing that was most striking about him was his tail, which was so deeply forked as to seem almost like two tails.
“I would know him as far as I could see him just by his tail alone,” exclaimed Johnny. “I don’t know of any other tail at all like it.”
“There isn’t any other like it,” declared Skimmer.
“And how about my usefulness?” inserted Forktail, as he came skimming past again. “Cousin Twitter certainly does catch a lot of flies and insects however I catch my fair share too.”
With this he darted away. Watching him they saw him alight on the top of Farmer Brown’s barn. “It’s funny,” remarked Johnny Woodchuck, “for as long as I’ve known Forktail, and I’ve known him ever since I was big enough to know anybody, I’ve never found out how he builds his nest. I’ve seen him skimming over the Green Meadows a number of times, and often he comes here to the Old Orchard as he did just now, and I’ve never seen him stop anywhere except over on that barn.”
“That’s where he nests,” chuckled Skimmer.
“What?” cried Johnny Woodchuck. “Do you mean to say he nests on Farmer Brown’s barn?”
“No,” replied Skimmer. “He nests in it. That’s why he is called the Barn Swallow, and why you never have seen his nest. If you’ll just go over to Farmer Brown’s barn and look up in the roof, you’ll see Forktail’s nest there somewhere.”
“Me go over to Farmer Brown’s barn!” exclaimed Johnny Woodchuck. “Do you think I’m crazy?”
Skimmer chuckled. “Forktail isn’t crazy,” he said, “and he goes in and out of that barn all day long. I must say I wouldn’t care to build in such a place myself, though he seems to like it. There’s one thing about it, his home is warm and dry and comfortable, no matter what the weather is. However, I wouldn’t trade with him. No, sir, I wouldn’t trade with him for anything. Give me a hollow in a tree well lined with feathers to a nest made of mud and straw, even if it is feather-lined.”
“Do you mean that Forktail uses mud in his nest?” cried Johnny.
Skimmer bobbed his head. “He does just that,” he said. “He’s something like Welcome Robin in this respect. I–”
However Johnny Woodchuck never knew what Skimmer was going to say next, for Skimmer happened at that instant to glance up. For an instant he sat motionless with horror, then with a shriek he darted out into the air. At the sound of that shriek Mrs. Skimmer, who all the time had been sitting on her eggs inside the hollow of the tree, darted out of her doorway, also shrieking. For a moment Johnny Woodchuck couldn’t imagine what could be the trouble. Then a slight rustling drew his eyes to a fork in the tree a little above the doorway of Skimmer’s home. There, partly coiled around a branch, with head swaying to and fro, eyes glittering and forked tongue darting out and in, as he tried to look down into Skimmer’s nest, was Mr. Black Snake.
It seemed to Johnny as if in a minute every bird in the Old Orchard had arrived on the scene. Such a shrieking and chattering as there was! First one and then another would dart at Mr. Black Snake, only to lose courage at the last second and turn aside. Poor Skimmer and his little wife were frantic. They did their utmost to distract Mr. Black Snake’s attention, darting almost into his very face and then away again before he could strike. But Mr. Black Snake knew that they were powerless to hurt him, and he knew that there were eggs in that nest. There is nothing he loves better than eggs unless it is a meal of baby birds. Beyond hissing angrily two or three times he paid no attention to Skimmer or his friends, and continued to creep nearer the entrance to that nest.
At last he reached a position where he could put his head in the doorway. As he did so, Skimmer and Mrs. Skimmer each gave a little cry of hopelessness and despair. No sooner had his head disappeared in the hole in the old apple tree than Scrapper the Kingbird struck him. Instantly Mr. Black Snake withdrew his head, hissing, and struck at the birds nearest him. Several times the same thing happened. No sooner would his head disappear in that hole than Scrapper or one or the other of Skimmer’s friends, braver than the rest, would dart in and peck at him, and all the time all the birds were shrieking as only excited feathered folk can. Johnny Woodchuck was quite as excited as his feathered friends, and so intent watching the robber that he had eyes for nothing else. Suddenly he heard a step just behind him. He turned his head and then frantically dived head first down into his hole. He had looked right up into the eyes of Farmer Brown’s boy!
“Aha!” cried Farmer Brown’s boy, “I thought as much!” And with a long switch he struck Mr. Black Snake just as the latter had put his head in that doorway, resolved to get those eggs this time. Then when he felt that switch and heard the voice of Farmer Brown’s boy he changed his mind in a flash. He simply let go his hold on that tree and dropped. The instant he touched the ground he was off like a shot for the safety of the old stone wall, Farmer Brown’s boy after him. Farmer Brown’s boy didn’t intend to kill Mr. Black Snake, he just wanted to give him such a fright that he wouldn’t visit the Old Orchard again in a hurry, and this he quite succeeded in doing.
No sooner had Mr. Black Snake disappeared than all the birds set up such a rejoicing that you would have thought they, and not Farmer Brown’s boy, had saved the eggs of Mr. and Mrs. Skimmer. Listening to them, Johnny Woodchuck just had to smile.
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 – Purple Martin
- Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – ALL ABOUT BIRDS – Barn Swallow
- Visit the UMass Amherst – Snakes of Massachusetts – for more factual information about “Mr. Black Snake” and to debunk myths and misinformation about snakes in general
- Q/A –Questions with answers to keep this conversation going are available for Barn Swallow (p. 110-111) 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 Barn Swallow (p 2) and a Purple Martin (p 32).
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.