Feeding Young Birds

Many opportunities will occur in which some care must be given to young birds just out of the nest, either to protect them from cats or to furnish them with food. Occasionally wounded birds will be found, or nestlings forsaken by their parents, in which case it will be necessary to take entire care of the birds and feed them till they are able to look out for themselves. In a great many more cases, however, one will find young birds just learning to fly and unable to escape the clutches of the cat. This is one of the most critical periods in the life of the nestlings in this cat ridden country. In such cases as these, which will be of frequent occurrence, it is necessary to protect the birds for a few days till they can fly, but in such a way that they can still be fed by the parents. The following plan is suggested in ” Bird-Lore” by Elizabeth A. Reed:

” Mr. O. A. Stemple of Clearwater, Florida, has evolved a scheme which promises to save many young birds if bird-lovers will only put it in practice. It is simply this : Catch the young birds and put them into a clean flour-barrel standing in the shade of a tree near enough to the house to be easily watched. Leave it open at the top and put in food and a shallow dish of fresh water with the young birds. The parents will soon find and feed them, and when they are able to fly upwards and out of the barrel, they will take care of themselves. Of course they must be watched by day and securely covered at night until they are strong enough to fly out of their place of refuge.”

This plan was successfully tried with some young cardinals, which were fed in the barrel by the female. If, however, the parents do not come to the barrel, the young should be fed about once an hour till the adult birds do resume their duties.

Another means of protecting the young birds is to place them in a cage with oilcloth over the top, and suspend it in a tree near the nest. The parents may then come and feed the fledglings through the bars. They should be kept in the cage a few days till their wings are stronger, and then released. But they should be watched and fed till the parents do come to the cage, so that if deserted they may be reared by hand. If the weather is cold or stormy, the cage should be taken down and put in a warm place during the night. In catching the young bird special caution should be taken not to frighten it. It is better to wait till the parents have ceased their cries of alarm and have departed for food, before attempting to take the young bird. One should approach slowly and lift the bird gently without any suggestion of grabbing. It will be useless to return the bird to its nest, but some plan such as previously suggested must be tried.

Kind of Food. — While even in cases of this kind it may be necessary to feed the young for a little while, instances will sometimes occur with wounded or deserted birds in which they must be fed entirely by hand till they are able to care for themselves. Meal-worms are the best food for insectivorous birds. ” Ants’ eggs ” and mocking-bird food, sold at the bird-stores, may also be used. Nearly all birds will eat grasshoppers and hairless caterpillars. Robins are fond of earthworms, and these will be eaten also by many other birds. Spiders seem to have a stimulating effect on the young birds. Bread and milk and the yolks of hard-boiled eggs will serve as a good substitute for insect food. Finely chewed nuts and cooked meat and chopped lean meat will also be relished. The mixture used for rearing young martins, described on page 36, may also be used for insectivorous birds. It will probably be better to use several kinds of food, rather than to rely on one. While caring for the young birds, one must remember that they cannot pick up food for themselves, but it must be placed in their mouths, and they should be fed about once an hour during the hours of daylight. It may take several days for them to learn to feed themselves.

For a further discussion of this subject of taming and feeding birds the reader is referred to lodge’s ” Nature Study and Life,” Chapter XXI, from which many of the above suggestions are taken.


In attempting to induce birds to nest in houses, there are two difficulties met with everywhere, the cat and the English sparrow. The latter is much the more troublesome; the cat can be outwitted quite readily, but not so the sparrow, which possesses a persistence difficult to overcome. The cat brings trouble only after the houses have been occupied and the young hatched ; the sparrow brings trouble weeks before the other birds are due to begin nesting, by preempting all claims to any available nesting-sites ; and when other birds do return, the sparrows prevent them from at-tempting to nest in most cases, and keep up a constant quarreling with those birds that may begin nesting. In many cases they go even further and destroy the eggs and nestlings and adults of the native birds which may have succeeded in establishing themselves in a nesting-site.

Outwitting the Cat.—The cat does its damage while the young are in the nest, by sneaking around and pawing out the nestlings, and often-times catching the parent birds as they are coming in or going out, or as they are defending the young. It also does much harm by catching young birds just out of the nest before they are able to fly readily. By observing a few simple precautions in the construction and location of the houses and their subsequent protection, it is possible almost entirely to eliminate the cat as an obstructing factor. In the construction of the house, if it is made deep, the hole located near the top, and the roof made to project well out as described on pages 18, 19, a nearly cat-proof house will be the result. When the young do leave such a house, they will be strong enough to learn to fly quickly. If the house is mounted on a pole which is slim and slippery, the cats will find it difficult to climb. But the surest protection, where the only approach to the house is up the support to which it is attached, may be secured by placing something on the support below the house, over which the cats cannot climb. This should be placed so high that the cats cannot jump above it from the ground. The simplest method is to wrap around the support a piece of tin or zinc, of such width that the cats cannot reach across it; from two to three feet is wide enough and possibly a narrower piece will suffice.

To render it less conspicuous, it may be painted the color of the support. If more perfect protection is desired, a piece of zinc or wire-netting may be modeled in the shape of a cone with the large end down, as shown in the cut ; or a circle may be cut out of the tin, of the same diameter as the pole, and the tin made to surround the pole like the brim of a hat. Another device is made by wrapping barbed wire around the support, attached to two pieces of board as shown in the cut on page 63, or a bunch of stalks of rose-bushes, or other branches with thorns, may be tied around the support. Still another method is to place a piece of heavy poultry-wire netting or a piece of tin on top of the post, at right angles to it.

One correspondent writes that the house wrens were successfully protected from the cat by using poultry-wire netting with an inch mesh. A piece was formed into the shape of a rather small, deep bowl and put over the front of the house, being securely tacked around. This held the cat at such a distance that it could not r e a c h further than the en-trance. In this case the netting was not put on till after the birds began to nest. Whether such an arrangement, if put on early in the sea-son, would frighten the birds away, can be determined only by experiment.

Traps for Cats. — If it is desired to settle the cat question permanently, a box-trap, baited with catnip, may be effective in enticing them into such small quarters that further disposition may be made of them.

Cat proof Fences. — In some cases it may be desirable to surround a yard with a fence to exclude cats. In the cut below is shown a cat-proof fence, the description of which is taken from Lange’s ” Our Native Birds ” :–

” To one who will go to the expense and trouble I recommend a fence of wire netting from 6 to 8 feet high. Near the upper edge of this netting fasten from six to ten wires, with close sharp barbs. The space between the barb-wires should be from 1/ 2 to 1 inch wide. Another way would be to nail to the posts cross-pieces from 10 to 18 inches long. These pieces should project at right angles to the outside. Connect these cross-pieces by closely drawn wires or by wire netting. A few barbed wires should be strung along the outer horizontal edge of this fence. Cover the outer ends of cross-pieces by a coil of barbed wire. The meshes in the wire must, of course, not be too large, there must be no holes left near the ground, and no posts, walls or trees from which cats can jump into the enclosure. The appearance of such fences can be much improved by using them as a support for such annual climbing plants as do not form wood enough for eats to climb on. Instead of wire netting, a strong well-tarred fish-net six feet or more in height may be used with good results. From time to time the net must receive a fresh application of tar.”

Mr. William Brewster at Cambridge, Mass., has an excellent cat-proof fence for a city garden. It is made of wire netting about six feet high, surmounted by a fish-seine of heavy twine, fastened to the top of the wire. The top of the net is looped to the ends of long flexible stakes. This gives so easily and furnishes so uncertain a footing that cats are not able to climb over it.

English Sparrow.— It is difficult for one who has had much experience with bird-houses to re-strain his selection of words on referring to this persistent, quarrelsome, indefatigable nuisance, which brings to naught so many efforts in be-half of our native birds. The author feels very strongly on this matter, on account of his experience with children, as supervisor of nature-study. The children easily become enthusiastic over building bird-houses, so that our suburbs and towns might soon become thronged with our beautiful and useful birds, were it not for the English sparrow. But whenever the children put out bird-houses, in the great majority of cases it is the sparrow which is the tenant; and after a few experiences of this kind both children and teachers naturally become discouraged and cease their efforts.

For a number of years the author has tried various devices for outwitting the English spar-row and has eagerly looked for any suggestion along this line. At the outset, he must confess that his efforts in this direction have proved mostly failures, but he will give the results of his experiences and of those of others concerning which he has been able to secure any record.

The various devices which have been used to combat the sparrow may be grouped into two classes : those whose purpose is simply to keep out the sparrows without harming them; and those which tend to decrease their numbers, or drive them away, by killing them. The author has taken a special interest in trying the first class of devices, as he was desirous of finding some method which could be recommended to children, which cannot be done of course with the second method.

Perches. — The first suggestion to which the author’s attention was called was that the spar-rows would not nest in houses not provided with perches. Universal experience shows that this is a useless precaution ; the author believes, how-ever, that it is a little better to construct houses without perches, which only tend to give the spar-rows a better opportunity to stand by the entrance and annoy the other birds.

Boxes placed low. — Another suggestion, which also proves useless, is that if the boxes are placed near the ground, from eight to ten feet, the sparrows will become discouraged when they see that the houses can be reached from a chair. All the data that the author has been able to obtain indicate that this makes practically no difference in the nesting of the sparrows.

Trap-door on House. — A third suggestion tried was to trap the sparrow while in the house.

A swinging cover was screwed just above the en-trance, and a long string attached to this so that it could be pulled down and made to cover the hole. The house was watched until a sparrow was seen to enter, which was trapped inside. It was kept overnight and then the cover was removed; but the bird seemed in no hurry to leave the box, and it was only after renewed pounding on the box that she was driven out. Investigation showed that she was incubating her eggs, and that the trap-door merely forced her to do what she would naturally have done anyway.

Swinging Houses. — The device of a swinging house seemed at first to promise satisfactory results, because the principle had worked perfectly during a winter’s experience while feeding birds on a swinging lunch-counter. In order to try this plan on a large scale the author visited the schools situated in the more favorable districts of the city where he lived, and explained the matter to the children and asked their cooperation. Some bird-cage springs were furnished to the children ; but as the supply was soon exhausted, the children were told simply to suspend their houses by wire. As a little incentive, a prize was offered for the best account of experiences with the bird-houses. The children responded in large numbers with great enthusiasm, which showed how easily this locality might be made a paradise for birds were it not for the discouraging intervention of that annoying pest, the English sparrow.

In the fall statistics were gathered from the children relative to their experiences with the bird-houses, and the results are given below.

In 33 moving or suspended houses 34 pairs of birds began to nest (12 of bluebirds, 12 of wrens, 3 of robins, 1 starling, 6 of English sparrows) ; young were reared in 8 (2 bluebird, 4 wren, 2 sparrow) ; birds were driven away from 6 houses by the sparrows (3 bluebird, 2 wren, 1 robin). In three other moving houses the spar-rows attempted to drive out the inmates, but were unsuccessful. They also tried to dislodge the starlings, but were unable to do so, one of the sparrows being killed in the fight.

In 27 stationary houses 25 pairs of birds began to build nests (13 of bluebirds, 7 of wrens, 2 of robins, 3 of sparrows) ; 15 reared young (8 blue-bird, 5 wren, 1 robin,1 sparrow); the birds were driven from three houses (2 wrens, 1 robin) by the English sparrow.

The results show that the English sparrows were not outwitted by the device of a moving house. The sparrows began to build in six of these houses and two pairs successfully reared young, and doubtless others would have done so, had they not been driven away by the children. In nine cases the sparrows attempted to drive out birds that had begun to build in the moving houses, and in six cases were successful.

The following season the author advised the children to build more houses for the wren, and make the hole so small that the English sparrow could not enter; in the fall statistics were taken and showed a large increase in the number of wrens nesting and a slight decrease in the number of bluebirds.

Of 43 stationary houses, the bluebirds reared young in 5, the house wren in 21, and the English sparrow in 7. Of 12 moving houses, the bluebirds reared young in 3, the wrens in 3, and the English sparrow in 1.

During the third season, in 56 stationary houses, 56 pairs of birds began to nest (13 of bluebirds, 20 of wrens, 23 of sparrows); 34 reared young (7 bluebirds, 15 wrens, 12 sparrows). In 7 moving houses, 6 pairs began to nest (2 of wrens, 4 of sparrows); 3 reared young (2 wrens, 1 sparrow).

The author’s personal experience and that of others of whose observations he has been able to obtain records indicate that the moving bird-house is not a very successful device for outwitting the sparrow; these experiences show, how-ever, that our native birds will use such houses ; and after careful consideration of all the evidence at hand, the author believes that they may help a little toward the desired end, as the sparrows seem to prefer a stationary to a moving house. But there is the probability, however, that the sparrows, though a little cautious at first, would soon become as accustomed to the latter as to the former.

Removing the Eggs. — The author has constructed his houses so that the top could be easily lifted, and he has tried removing both nest and eggs ; but this plan has not proved successful, as the sparrows would begin building again the same day. Several observers have reported that if the nest is left undisturbed but the eggs alone re-moved, the sparrows become discouraged after a while and desert the box. The following is taken from Weed and Dearborn’s ” Birds in Their Relation to Man ”

Mrs. Mary Treat has recorded an ingenious experiment in discouraging the English sparrow on her premises. ” A few years ago,” she writes, ” they were here in great numbers, driving blue-birds and wrens and martins from their boxes. At last I had boxes made on purpose for the plagues, with a hinged cover, and allowed each occupant to lay the requisite number of eggs, usually six, and commence to incubate, when I would destroy the eggs without disturbing the nest. At first the little simpletons, after making great ado, would in a few days thereafter again lay eggs in the same boxes. Sometimes over thirty eggs were laid in one box. But even the English sparrow finally learns prudence. Each year they appeared in diminished numbers, and last year only one pair attempted to preempt a box and they left after the first setting of eggs were destroyed, and the bluebirds and wrens had peace.”

The above was written about six years ago, and so the author wrote Mrs. Treat, inquiring whether her experience since that time had been equally successful, to which she replied : —

” Yes, I find removing eggs of the English sparrow a perfect success. None of the pests are allowed to hatch on my premises and it is very seldom they attempt it. They seem to have learned their lesson well.”

Professor Forbush also writes that he considers it more effective to remove the eggs only rather than the whole nest.

This is the most promising suggestion of those that do not require the killing of the sparrow, that has come to the author’s attention. The sparrows begin nesting so early that many of them might be discouraged before the native birds were ready to begin.

This method of repeatedly destroying the eggs for a few years offers an opportunity of reducing the number of sparrows without resorting to killing them, where a systematic effort is made throughout a whole locality, or possibly just in large parks.

Keep Holes covered. — The advantage which the sparrows obtain over our native birds by being with us all the year round and by beginning to nest so early, may be entirely neutralized either by taking down the houses in the fall and not putting them up till the birds return in the spring, or by covering up the holes after the birds are through with the nest, and keeping the cover on till the nesting-time of the bird which we wish to induce to nest there. Or, as previously suggested, we may let the sparrows nest early and try to discourage them before the other birds are ready.

Small Holes. — There is considerable satisfaction in being able to record one device which is almost entirely successful in keeping out the sparrows, and that is, making the hole so small that the sparrows cannot enter, but large enough for the wrens and chickadees. An inch hole is large enough for the wren, and keeps out the spar-rows ; an inch and an eighth will do for the chickadee, and will usually keep out the sparrow, although the author finds observations recorded in which the sparrow entered even this size ; but this is probably exceptional. Even with the wren-houses there may occasionally be a little trouble. In one case the sparrow was seen to enlarge the hole till it was large enough for it to enter. In a few cases the sparrow is reported as staying around the house and troubling the wrens as they enter or leave. In the majority of cases, however, these small openings seem to have been effective in keeping out the sparrow. To what extent, however, wrens may even then become discouraged through the presence and persecution of the sparrows, it is difficult to say.

As a means of keeping the English sparrow out of the martin-houses it has been suggested that the entrance be placed underneath. In one case in which this was tried by making holes underneath the jet of an old house, it worked well the first year, being used by the martins, but not by the sparrows; it was not so successful the second year, and now the sparrows have taken all the holes. However, this plan might be tried else-where, not only with the martins, but also with the bluebird and tree swallow houses as well. It seems very probable that the swallows might be able to use such a house.

Killing the Sparrows. —The devices so far explained have sought to keep out the sparrows without injuring them ; but there is one other plan left, namely, to trap or shoot them. After trying quite a variety of devices personally, and after reading the results of others’ experiences, the author is forced somewhat reluctantly to the conclusion that this is the only successful way to deal with this pest,— reluctantly, because it can-not be recommended to children, who are among our most enthusiastic, as they are our most numerous bird-protectors.

Shooting the Sparrows.—The kind of firearm generally recommended is a small rifle, in which may be used the ordinary or fine shot-cartridge, although a shotgun may prove a more effective implement for one who is not a good marksman with the rifle. One correspondent suggests the use of an air-rifle, because it makes so little noise and thus lessens the possibility of frightening away desirable birds. If the sparrows become wary, the shooting may be done from the house through an open window, using smokeless powder. In this manner, too, very little noise is heard outside, and the other birds are not disturbed.

A very effective way to break up the nesting of the sparrows is to shoot only the females. This shooting should be started in the winter, so that on the arrival of the nesting-season, the males shall very greatly outnumber the females. This preponderance of males will render the successful mating of any pairs improbable, the success of this method depending upon the extent to which this preponderance in number of one sex over the other is maintained.

In this connection the question has been raised whether shooting would not drive away other birds. But all the records which the author has been able to obtain, together with his own experience, indicate that this fear is entirely ground-less. The native birds seem almost to understand and appreciate the help that is given them in fighting their enemy. Nor do other birds which nest in trees and bushes around the yard, such as chipping sparrows, robins, song sparrows, yellow warblers, etc., seem to be frightened by the shooting.

Trapping the Sparrows. — In cities, where the sparrows are most troublesome, there is usually an ordinance against the use of firearms, without special permission from the authorities. Another method of killing the sparrows, without the use of firearms, is to trap them. This method, together with the use of poisoned food, can be used to the best advantage, perhaps, in the winter, regarding which more will be said in the chapter on feeding winter birds; and if the flocks that frequent our yards during the winter are disposed of, there will be so many less to make trouble in the nesting-season. But the author would suggest the following plan for trapping them in the spring. He has not yet tried it, nor does he know whether it has ever been attempted, but he believes it is worthy of a trial. The plan is to make the nesting-houses bird-traps. Arrangements may be made whereby the weight of the bird as it entered would release a catch which would trap the sparrow inside. This could be arranged by having a false bottom suspended about an inch above the true bottom, in such a way that the weight of the bird on this would cause a cover to fall, closing the entrance.

Another arrangement, which may be more easily made, is to attach a swinging cover to the outside of the house beside the hole, with a long string fastened to the cover by means of which it may be pulled down to close the hole and trap the sparrow. This may be done either at night or at any other time whenever the sparrow is found inside. At first the birds may be cautious of this addition to the box, but they will soon become accustomed to it and enter the box as usual.

The house should be so arranged that it can easily be taken down and immersed in water, to drown the sparrows. And, indeed, it is well to put up all bird-houses so that they may be easily re-moved. For this purpose the following method is satisfactory : A strip of wood a little longer than the house is attached to its back. At each extremity of this strip is made a narrow slit about two inches long and a half-inch wide. Two large staples are driven part-way into the support on which the house is to be placed, at such distance apart as to fit into the slits. Wooden plugs are then whittled out to fit into the staples, thus holding the box firmly in place and also allowing it to be quickly and easily removed.

In a Farmers’ Bulletin recently issued by the Department of Agriculture is given the suggestion that the sparrows may be caught at night by means of a long-handled net with a deep bag and a hoop of the right shape to fit over the front of the house. By rapping on the box the occupant may be driven into the net.