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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Bird Life in January

by Sophie Smyth.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 51-55


Nature is now wrapt in slumber. We may no more go in search of flowers; the snow is keeping them warm for us until the spring. Beetles and many other insects lie dormant beneath the ground, so do many animals. The hedgehog is safe in her nest, the dormouse sleeps secure, and her little relations, the field and shrew-mice, are comfortably settled for the winter. The butterflies have hidden themselves in cracks of old walls and other safe places to wait for the approach of spring, when they will emerge from their winter shelter to lay their eggs and die. Even the snails have shut up their houses for the winter and gone to sleep inside.

The greatest cold of the season has yet to come, and now is the time when we may gain a more intimate acquaintance with our little winged companions who reside with us during the winter, and without whom we should be desolate. For who has not been cheered on a dull dark day in January by the sweet notes of the robin, or on a rainy day by the joyous, hopeful song of the thrush?

During this month we may help the birds greatly by providing them with sustenance when there is none of their natural food left. Cruel are the sufferings and hardships borne by them at this time, when hoar-frost hangs upon the trees, the ground is crisp and hardened, and of berries there are few or none at all. Scraps from the breakfast table and crusts softened with boiling water are much appreciated by blackbirds, starlings, robins, thrushes, hedge-sparrows and other birds. We have here, at my home, two bird tables—round pieces of wood nailed on to the top of a rustic pole and fixed into the ground. They are about five feet high, so that no cat or dog may reach the contents. Every morning the food is put out, and if it were forgotten, we should soon be reminded of our neglect, for the birds expect their breakfast as much as children. During a frost of any length it is a kindness to provide your birds with a bowl of water, taking care to keep it thawed, for they are thirsty souls; and how should they be able to quench their thirst when everything around is frost-bound? Jackdaws come from the neighbouring church tower and circle round the house trying to summon up courage to make a dive at the table, then suddenly, one of them, more courageous than the rest, will take the lead and make off with a large piece of bread, flying into a walnut tree conveniently near. On a cold day in January, the food with which the tables are loaded is usually all consumed by 10:30 in the morning. We hang up half cocoanuts in the trees, one of which lasts about a week in severe weather; and meat bones are quickly stripped.

As we wander through the lanes bare of flowers, and forsaken by all insect life, we must necessarily turn our observant eye to the leafless trees and hedgerows, from which may be seen and heard many of our winter residents. There, up above our heads, perched on the topmost bough of a hawthorn bush, a little hedge-sparrow is uttering his newly-acquired song. This bird is one of my winter favourites, so quiet and unassuming in his ways, passing for a house-sparrow to many an unaccustomed eye, for I have often seen him in company with his commoner cousins. Yet on a closer inspection we find this little bird is much more elegant in shape than the ordinary house-sparrow; he is an accentor, like the robin, and is more like him altogether except in colouring. You can always distinguish a hedge-sparrow by the bluish-grey, brown back and very neat appearance of the bird.

The song thrush and the less common missel thrush may be particularly noticed this month. The former, though a shy bird, will resort to the bird table as soon as the weather becomes at all severe, though his favourite diet is snails, which he seizes in his beak, shell and all, bears off to a stone, cracks thereon, and immediately devours the unfortunate inhabitant. Hence the reason why we see so many broken and empty snail shells in the winter and early spring. The missel thrush may be known from the song thrush by being greyer in colour and of a larger size: the songs of the two are somewhat similar.

Starlings will sit on the chimney tops uttering their hoarse cries (they can hardly be called songs) whether the day be dark and dreary or not. They are very bold birds, and too often will chase the others from the table in order to obtain the more for themselves.

Flocks of greenfinches will fly over the ploughed fields, and rooks may be seen pecking the clods of earth for any stray worm they can find.

The skylark, too, may be heard, even in January; so long as there is no snow on the ground it will rise aloft in the full tide of song.

Owls are frequently heard at night in many districts. Here, in the Midlands, they are very abundant, and even wake me at night with their weird discordant cries. It is wonderful how silently they fly, their soft downy wings making no noise whatsoever as they come in contact with the air. These birds suffer very much from the cold and often perish with hunger. I remember, a few years ago, finding a beautiful tawny owl lying frozen to death in the snow.

The robin [the English robin is different from the thrush known as an American robin], though a quarrelsome little creature with its fellow companions, is most sociable towards man. As soon as ever its natural food becomes scarce I see the robin hovering round the house, sometimes hopping in at the front door by way of a broad hint that you must not forget him when the time comes. He is one of the birds which seem to sing most of the year round, though we notice him most in the autumn and winter months when other birds are silent. I have heard many people say that female robins have no red breast, and that they have actually seen them with a speckled brown one. Let me assert what I know to be true, that these robins with brown breasts are the young ones, which do not get their bright colouring till later. The females, I believe, are difficult to distinguish from the males, so much do they resemble each other.

The titmouse family is well represented in our gardens and woods just now. Three kinds, the great tit, blue tit, and coal tit come constantly to the cocoanut which we provide, making the robin jealous that he cannot feast on the dainty fare as they do; but as he finds it impossible to hang on to the nut, he contends himself with standing underneath and picking up "the crumbs which fall from the rich man's table" (for these little greedy birds are very wasteful with their food).

In the lanes, families of little long-tailed titmice may be seen flitting about from bough to bough, hardly remaining still for two seconds together. They sleep together in a bunch on some tree or bush. The marsh tit may be seen frequently in damp places: it likes almost anything it can find at this time—insects best of all, and seeds of various kinds. It appears to be rather solitary in its habits—at least I have never seen families of this species together. A very interesting and curious little bird is the nut-hatch which may be noticed this month. Often I have watched him with interest running up a large beech tree, darting hither and tither after the manner of a mouse, in search of insects, and tapping loudly at the bark with his beak; so loud is the noise he makes that you would hardly believe it could be produced by so small a creature, his cry is as loud in proportion as the tapping, and is a very familiar sound of the winter woods.

The tree creeper may also be seen on the trunk of some large tree. He is looking for insects as well, and is very partial to spiders. He is a small bird, dressed in quiet colours of mottled brown, with a long curved beak.

Wrens frequent the neighbourhood of our gardens and woods, and go popping in and out of he hedges searching every nook and cranny for food; they sing a good deal in the winter, quite a loud song, and will sometimes venture during hard frost near the bird table for anything they can procure. I remember two little wrens which took up their abode in a conservatory for the winter; whenever anyone went in, there was sure to be a great commotion made by these two minute birds, who twittered and bustled about in great fear, hardly daring to remain inside, though evidently reluctant to face the cold world again without. What they subsisted on I am not quite sure, but there is no doubt they found some food amongst the soil and very likely helped themselves to bits of green, though I believe small insects are almost essential to keep them in health.

Even tinier still is the smallest of all British birds, the golden-crested wren, which is more often noticed in winter than in summer as it flits in and out of the fir trees uttering its miniature song. It is a charming little bird, and when I first saw one hopping about in a hawthorn hedge, I thought to myself "what a pretty little baby chaffinch," supposing it to be one of that tribe. Walking through the lanes you may frequently see bullfinches fly out in front of you in twos or threes, and sometimes in small flocks. (I have very rarely noticed a solitary bullfinch). These birds are easily known even at a distance by the white rump patch, always so conspicuous when they fly. Their song is very mournful just now, and often amounts only to one solitary note. Numbers of chaffinches may be seen in the farmyards busily picking up the loose grain which lies about. Their cry this season is only the familiar "Spink, spink," but in another month or so they will be cheering us with a short but beautiful song, heralding in the spring.

Wagtails will come quite close to our dwellings looking eagerly for food, and blackbirds, fieldfares, and others of the same tribe, seek shelter under the banks and hedges from the piercing east wind.

Kingfishers, with their gorgeous colouring, may still be met with, darting up the stream; these birds, however, are becoming scarcer each year, as a great many are killed by the cold. In some parts of England they are tolerably plentiful, while in others they seem to be absent altogether.

Goldfinches, too, are gradually diminishing in numbers. I have seen them in the South of England flying near the hedges, usually in pairs; they are unmistakable with their beautiful gold-tinged wings, but it is difficult to approach them closely, for they are shy birds, and may perhaps be well aware that many of their companions have mysteriously left them to return no more.

Not any the less beautiful, but happily much more common and less shy than the goldfinch, is the yellow-hammer, which has the habit of flitting along the hedges in front of you as you walk or bicycle along. I remember some years ago when I was only just beginning to take an interest in the out-door world, I was sitting with a lady sketching, when suddenly a little yellow-hammer alighted on a bush only a yard or two in front of us. "What a lovely bird" we said, we had never seen one like it before, perhaps it was rare! So immediately I set about making a sketch of him, and had just succeeded in putting in his bright colours of yellow and brick red, when he flew off. Imagine my shame and disgust when on presenting my drawing to an authority on birds, I was told there was no doubt it was a cock yellow-hammer. How it was we had never noticed one before is a marvel to me now.

In conclusion, I hope that these few simple words on behalf of our feathered friends may stimulate some of my readers to become observers. For if Nature, to the seeing eye, teems with beauty in a month so inclement, what is she in the later when she pours forth with a lavish hand the wonders of her inexhaustible storehouse? From her marvellous display we look up with such awe and reverence and love to Him Who is the Architect of Nature, and Who has given as much care to the making of a tiny wren, as to one of those glorious orbs which spangle the midnight sky.



Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Feb 2009