Volume II 

Through the Cabin Window


Volume II: July—December, 1936


Whereas the human youngster requires years of careful nurturing before it is able to fend for itself, the young of song birds are nestlings for only a few days.


A month ago birds were hopefully building their nests, urged on by the age-old family instinct. Today they are leading their little families around through the tree tops, teaching them how to hunt for themselves.


Everywhere now I see healthy appearing young robins with their spotted breasts.. The Berwick’s wrens that nested under the summer house are leading their six children about the place and they scold me frightfully whenever I come across them.


Yesterday I watched a hungry family of titmice being fed en route through the treetops by harassed parents. There is a mysterious shuffling noise in the oaks near the Cabin Window and here is a brood of young nuthatches, each coming headfirst down a bole, exactly as the old birds do. Out near a hedgerow that cuts across a prairie I saw several immature shrikes hunting the grasshoppers that are threatening to become too numerous in some parts of the state.


And now, in many cases, the second clutch of eggs is being incubated. I have just finished photographing the nest of a field sparrow. There are four bluish eggs, blotched with chocolate brown. In a dead limb of an apple tree a pair of bluebirds have made their second home of the season, even while the young of the first are hanging around asking for food.


These are only the few instances that have happened to come to my notice. In any region there are thousands of pairs of birds of many species nesting at least once each season. Even allowing for mishaps which devastate many a bird home—especially near human dwellings—there must still be a vast number of young birds reared yearly.


And how they eat! Taking the country as a whole I think it is safe to say that many thousands of tons of insects disappear into their unfillable maws. If anyone thinks that birds are not of practical value, he has another “think” coming to him.


When I consider the frightening rapidity with which insects could multiply if left unchecked, I am profoundly thankful that birds exist.


It has been estimated that the progeny of a single pair of gypsy moths could in eight years time become so numerous as to destroy every vestige of foliage in the United States. Many other harmful insects could do as bad or worse.


Take the case of the aphids or plant lice which are eaten by many of the smaller birds. Here we have a real power of multiplication. Some species of plant lice have as many as twelve or more generations in one season. Edward Howe Forbush states that if each female lived and produced 100 young (a conservative figure) the number of individuals in the twelfth generation alone would be ten sextillions (10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). If these ten sextillions of plant lice were to arrange themselves in a straight line, with ten individuals to the inch, the line would reach from the earth to a star so remote that the light from it would take 2500 years to reach us.


How fortunate it is that not every plant louse is allowed to live the richer life! How wise was nature in providing birds to help prevent the overpowering multiplication of insects!


We nature lovers, therefore, are not sentimentalizing when we say that our song birds should be protected. Our song birds must be protected. It is a case of absolute necessity.


* * * * *


This is being written in the “New Cabin.” It is new, at least, in outward appearance, being built of old, well-seasoned lumber from a demolished barn. It is the sanctum from which the growing business of NATURE NOTES will be conducted in the future.


Perched on the rim of a ravine, with a grand studio Window which looks directly into the woods, this Cabin should be a fitting headquarters for a nature publication such as this one. The main sanctum or “thinking room” is lined with knotty white pine which is merely the siding of the old barn—nail holes and all—turned wrong side out and smoothed off a bit with sandpaper.


Another and still rougher room will provide working space for sorting, wrapping and mailing and other athletic operations which are part and parcel of any magazine. Storage space, too, for back numbers, used engravings and other things has been provided.


We trust that the smooth operation of our editorial, circulation, advertising, and book departments will be in evidence. If our operations are not business-like, at least, in such a location, they should be sort of “natural-like.”


While we were reading the proof of last month’s article on wasps’ nests, we discovered the tiny jug nest of a potter wasp on the screen door to the Cabin! This little nest is mounted on the head of one of the screws in the screen door hinge. It is on the half of the hinge that swings with the door. We are going in and out very cautiously so as not to let the door slam. Apparently the insects, at least, have accepted us as part of their environment.


Mud-dauber wasps, too, have begun their nests about the building. But work is progressing very slowly on account of the scarcity of wet clay. The unprecedented dry spell has caused streams and ponds to dry up and the wasps’ sources of supply for building material are gone.


When we water the flower beds, wasps quickly gather in great numbers, bite out little pellets of clay, and leave the surface of the mud dotted with their jaw marks.


And under the edge of a concrete block, that has been set tentatively in place for a walk to the Cabin door, my attention is drawn to some sort of goings-on, and there is one of the big cicada-killing wasps, busily engaged in building her nest!


Have we built a wasp sanctuary?


* * * * *


A letter which I value highly is written in a round, copy-book hand and reads as follows:

Bancroft School,

Minneapolis, Minn.

May 14, 1936

Mr. James Sedgwick,

Editor Nature Notes,

Peoria, Ill.

Dear Mr. Sedgwick


One of the teachers in our building gets your little magazine each month. We saw an article in it called, “Observations on Robins.” On one of our nature trips we saw two robins act in a strange way so we decided to write you about it. This is what we saw. We were sitting on the edge of a swamp. A male robin came and began to dig and eat worms. After a while he continued to dig the worms but instead of eating them he piled them up. Then in a few minutes a female robin swooped down and gathered the worms which the male had dug. She flew off. The male continued to dig and eat for a few minutes and then he flew off.


Don’t you think it was unusual?


 Yours truly,

 Children in Room 7


In answering such a letter from young people one must face a great responsibility. This letter could be answered in such a way as to thoroughly disgust the children in Room 7, making them lose the interest in nature that their teachers have carefully built up. A gushing or patronizing type of letter would undoubtedly do this, since children are especially sensitive to such attitudes and resent them.


On the other hand, he who answers this letter has the opportunity of making the children feel that nature is worth while and of turning many of them to it as a hobby.


* * * * *


Goldenrod and asters are nodding near the Cabin door. Soaking rains have come and the heat, which seemed almost unbearable at times, has given way to cool, caressing breezes from the east.


Inside the Cabin a friendly fire crackles on the hearth, White-footed mice, bent on laying in enough acorns to last the winter through, can be heard scurrying across the attic floor.


Nature once more this year has tortured us with biting cold, with drought, with scorching heat. But she was only testing us to see if we are fit to live in her world. The sooner we adapt ourselves—mentally-—to nature’s caprices, the happier we will be, and the longer we will be here.


Thank goodness for common names! Not that the scientific names of plants and animals are especially hard to learn. Anyone with even a moderate amount of intelligence can as easily learn to say Papilio as swallowtail butterfly. In fact, once you have the swing of it, most scientific names roll off the tongue with the greatest of ease.


The worst thing about scientific names is that they are constantly changing, like the banks of a stream. They are the shifting sands, while the common names are the bench marks.


Twenty or more years ago, when I learned my biology, I could quote you scientific names with great confidence. Today many of the names are remembered, but I am afraid to use them without first going to my newest books to make sure that they are still in force.


Then the common bracken fern was Pteris aquilina; now it’s Pteridium latiusculum. Then the common shiner minnow belonged to the genus Notropis; today it shines in the genus Luxilus. In those days, if I caught a largemouthed black bass, I had caught a specimen of either Huro floridana or Micropterus salmoides, according to which school of thought I followed. Now those schools have embraced each other, and if I am lucky enough to land one of those superb fishes, I’ve caught a Huro salmoides. Tomorrow it may be a Micropterus floridana!


Similar cases could be cited practically without end. Indoor scientists seem to be having a grand time tinkering with scientific names and switching them about, both with and without reason. But fortunately for you and me the common names haven’t changed very much. If common names begin changing too, the only way we will know what we are talking about is to have a specimen in hand and call it “this.”


Thus I can’t help smiling a little when I read that the scientific name is the landmark by which a plant or an animal is universally known. The common popular name is the landmark. Try as they may, scientists will have a hard time changing the latter, because the masses of people know such names and hand them down from generation to generation.


Thank goodness for common names!


* * * * *


Well, the annual war against the ducks is now on in these parts. From the Cabin, on the first day of the season, we could hear the ceaseless bombardment along the banks of the Illinois. That modern invention, the shotgun, was being brought into play against ducks that had begun to feel secure in the wild rice fields and the bayous; against young ducks that had never been shot at.


I journeyed to the river’s edge and walked along. I saw maimed ducks, duck feathers and ducks’ wings floating on the water. I saw demoralized flights of ducks coming down the river, trying to find a safe place to land. I heard salvo after salvo as some hapless flock came near the fortified marshes, I saw a flock wiped out in four seconds, wiped out all but one which flew about in panic, drawing the enemies’ fire from near and far.


I saw men in a skiff edging toward a flock of ducks that were peacefully riding the waves. Even while these birds were skimming the water in their clumsy attempts to get into the air, there was a furious bombardment that rocked the boat, and ducks, feet uppermost, were splashing the water in their death struggles.


Men were getting their ducks. I wondered if next year there will be ducks enough left so that all this fun may go on.


At another point I saw men dragging the river, and a little crowd on the bank opposite to where a skiff had gone down. The ducks had gotten their man.


Bird lovers the nation over will regret to learn that Winthrop Packard has retired as Secretary-Treasurer of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and editor of the Society’s Bulletin. During his many years of service, the Society has grown to a membership of well over ten thousand with a reserve fund of some three hundred thousand dollars.


The famous Moose Hill Bird Sanctuary is owned and maintained by the Society. An enormous amount of educational work has been done among children as well as adults. In fact, it is not too much to say that a great part of the interest in birds and nature which has arisen in the Nation at large can be traced back to the activities of the Massachusetts Audubon Society under Winthrop Packard’s stewardship.


* * * * *


In the late autumn one reads in the newspapers all sorts of predictions about the coming winter. This year I have read that it’s going to be a mild winter because the squirrels are not storing many nuts; that it’s going to be a severe winter because the bark of the trees is thick; and that there will be much snow because a certain bush on the Menominee Indian Reservation bore its berries high. No doubt, too, somebody with a gift for seeing has predicted that we’ll have little, if any, snow. The only thing about the whole business that seems to be absolutely certain is that next spring one of the prophets will be saying, “I told you so!”


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