Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Everyone who observes the habits of birds soon notices with astonishment the regularity with which they return each summer to the same spots to breed. This is perhaps not so strange in the case of breeding birds; they may be so fastidious in their selection of food or of a nesting site that only a few places suit them, or the spot where they bred one year may appeal to their affection and so be selected again. It is no less evident and more remarkable that birds that spend only the winter in our neighborhood often have as well defined a home as those that spend the summer. Every autumn, about the first of November, if one looks carefully at the topmost twigs of the small trees that are scattered about the edges of some marsh, the eye may finally catch, perched on the very top, the figure of a plump gray bird, with black wings and tail, about the size of a Robin. Its tail often moves as if the bird were balancing itself. A nearer view would show that its bill was stout and slightly hooked, like a hawk's. Among song birds, it is our largest regular winter visitor, and will remain near the same spot till the end of March, when it retires northward to breed. The same trees serve year after year as look-out posts; no doubt the bird remembers where to find the fattest mice and grasshoppers.
The Butcher Bird, or Shrike, is one of the few birds that seem to have developed a sense of humor. I have seen it attack and drive off birds far larger than itself, apparently out of simple mischief. It often indulges in a succession of strange noises, some of which resemble the song of the Catbird, but the whole performance is interspersed with chuckles, squeaks, and harsh sounds, or interrupted by a grating cry, so that it can make no pretense to be called melodious. It seems sometimes as if the bird were simply amusing itself.
For a while you will regard the Butcher Bird as a good-natured, good-looking fellow; it is not till you find, near its post of observation, mice or birds jammed into the crotches of twigs, or discover a thorn bush decorated with grasshoppers and caterpillars, that you recall certain unpleasant reports about its character. When you finally see it dash into a flock of sparrows and hear their screech of terror, or see it tear out its victim's brains with that hooked bill, you will understand its hawk-like habit of sitting where it can survey its whole domain. The Hawks clutch their prey in their curved talons, and then tear it with their beak. The Shrike's claws are neither curved nor powerful, so that it is evident that it wedges its victims into forked twigs or impales them on thorns, so that it can then tear off portions to devour. But why it so often leaves them uneaten (the practice of thus displaying its wares has earned the bird its name) has never been satisfactorily explained. Perhaps the bird means to return to them in times of scarcity, but they are so often left uneaten that it seems probable that it has formed the habit of hunting and hanging up its game, often with no thought of eating it.
The Butcher Bird has often been persecuted for the destruction of smaller birds; it seems far wiser to protect it, not only in order to preserve so interesting a bird, but because birds form so small a per cent of its food. In the spring and fall, it lives very largely on insects, and throughout the winter, mice form a large part of its diet. There is always danger of blundering when man interferes in the concerns of nature, and if he once exterminates any creature, it is beyond his power to re-create it.

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