January 1996

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Letters to Suzanna

Our Birds


Barbara H. Bell

Letters to Suzanna is a series of fictional letters based closely on historical facts that tell of the day-to-day experiences of a family establishing a homestead in the region near the south end of Seneca Lake in the early nineteenth century. Click here for more letters.

Dear Suzanna,

I have already written to you about some of the birds and animals that lived around our homestead. Some of the animals Papa trapped for fur, to trade, were otters, beavers and martens. Once he saw a moose in the woods but the longer we lived here, the more scarce they became. One trapper, who used to stop by on his way to the warehouse in Catharinestown, told us there were still lots of moose in the Adirondack Mountains but that he saw fewer all the time in the Finger Lakes hills.

There were wolves and sometimes they grabbed a chicken which was running loose to forage for its food. We heard that wolves took a lamb once from a farm in the upper hills. By the time I was grown up, we hardly ever saw or heard about any more wolves. The foxes remained though. There were two kinds, the red fox being more common, and Papa tried to trap them, too. A time or two he saw a silver fox. One was missing a foot. Papa told us that it had probably been caught in a trap and chewed off its own foot to get free. (Ugh!) But it ran plenty fast just the same. Papa never caught one of these. He usually shot a deer in early winter. He hung pieces of its meat high in the livestock lean-to where it froze and was well-preserved. Later, after he built the barn, he made a small room in the loft and cut a little window in it. Then he hung venison or pork there with the window open to keep it cold. The rest of the barn was quite snug and often too warm to keep meat.

There is a funny story about that meat saver. Its window was so small that even little Will could not have crawled through it, but once when Mama went for a roast, she found bits and pieces had been torn from it. It could not have been a dog or cat. There was no way for them to gain access to the room.

Papa checked the window sill and examined the floor carefully. Then he told us that an owl must have come in the window to get at the meat.

Mama wove a covering from her reeds and Papa nailed it over the window. Air could still flow in but no owl would ever get in again.

Now for a bit of information about our birds. I have already mentioned turkeys. Once Johnny found a clutch of turkey eggs and he stole one. He brought it home and Mama scolded him, even though he had kept it warm next to his skin inside his blouse. By the time he could have returned it to the nest, it would have grown cold so Mama put the egg under one of her setting hens. And it hatched there!

That baby turk thought it was a chicken. He followed the hen around as she taught her own hatchlings to find food. I wondered what she thought about this odd-looking "chick" that grew so much bigger than her others, but she treated them all alike.

Johnny made a sort of pet from that young turkey. It got so it followed him all over and even tried to enter the cabin. Mama would not allow that! She said she worked hard enough cleaning up after a human family. She was not about to tidy floors after a fowl.

Sometimes Papa went down to Seneca Lake or to the big pond up the hill and shot a duck or goose for us. He saved the biggest goose feathers to make quills. We did not write much with ink but these were fine to make into nibs as needed or to slit to use for a pen after inserting a point or nib. He had enough to share with some of his friends who did not know how to shape and sharpen them as expertly as papa did.

There were lots of song birds. Let's see how many I can remember. Robins and sparrows, golden orioles who hung swinging nests in the popple trees, redwing blackbirds at the cattail beds along the creeks and field marshes, and tiny wrens. Johnny made a box with a little hole in it and attached it to our barn. Wrens made nests in that and raised a couple of families there every year after that. We had beautiful dark blue swallows live in the barn. They were so clever to make mud nests that stuck to the rafters!

Down near the lake, there were martins. It took me sometime to be able to tell them apart from swallows.

I have already mentioned owls. When farmers spread manure, seagulls came up from the lake to feed. We often saw hawks and sometimes great big eagles with white heads. Papa told us they were bald eagles but not really bald. White feathers on the heads made them look that way. Papa said they had nests in trees on the high stone cliffs along the east side of Seneca Lake.

He told us, too, about the long-legged birds with long bills which he had seen in the marsh at the south end of the lake. He called them storks but admitted they had some other name that he did not know. They stood as tall as Johnny, he said. He had also observed birds with bodies about the size of robins but with long legs and beaks. These birds waded around the marsh to find food. Because of their long legs and beaks, they never got their feathers wet. In the same area, there lived a blue bird that perched high in a tree and watched for fish in the water. Suddenly he would dive into the water and come up with a meal in his beak.

Up in the open fields west of our woods, we sometimes saw meadowlarks and watched them soar as high as the eagle to circle in the skies. There, the bluebirds lived in holes in partly toppled trees and sang sweetly. There was a yellow bird about the size of a sparrow. It had a jaunty black cap and black stripes on each wing. We called them sunshine birds.

There were doves of many colors and not all looked exactly alike. One buffy type seemed almost tame and would let us get quite close before flying off. It had the softest coo imaginable. I once found one on a nest in a Fir tree. It was a big woven nest but almost flat. There were two eggs in it. I cannot imagine why those eggs did not roll away when the tree swayed in the breezes. I never did get back to see what hatched.

Papa told us that on the blue clay hill south of Catharinestown there were lots of holes near the top of the embankment and that brown swallows made these holes for their nests. Once, he put his hand in one to learn more about the nest but he failed to find any. The opening went way back and it had a bend in it so he was unable to reach all the way.

There were plenty of blue jays around our place. They looked a little like the blue fisher bird, Papa said. They were such a beautiful color! They acted as scouts in the woods, too, and always tattled loudly when someone was approaching.

We often saw different kinds of woodpeckers and flickers and quails. Oh! I just recalled another we saw in the open fields—the bobolink. We had wee perky chickadees that sometimes ate chicken feed which we scattered on the ground. In winter, especially, we welcomed these friendly birds, and it was most often in winter that we saw the brown creepers upside down on tree trunks and the neat-looking junco. I must not forget the cat bird. It really did have a "meow" sound when it was not trying to mimic the songs of others among its feathered friends. Sometimes, I would just sit down on the ground, when one perched within sound, and listen and try to guess what bird it was pretending to be.

There was some bird that sang especially pretty songs, back in the woods, but he always seemed to far away to see and I never knew what it looked like. Once, Papa saw swans on Seneca Lake. They were snowy white with pitch-black beaks.

I am sure there were others that don't come to mind right now, but I want to tell you about a nest of robins that was low in a big bush at the south edge of the cabin clearing. It was built where we could look right in it and keep track of the progress of egg laying and then the lives of the babies.

The parent birds were making the nest almost before the last snow melted. There were four blue eggs in it and it seemed to take forever for them to hatch. About the end of May, two of the birds hatched on the same day. When chores were finished the next day so I could go to the nest, there was the third chick. It was two days before the last one broke through the beautiful shell it had been growing in.

We watched the parents scratch and hunt and hop around the yard to get food for those babies. They never seemed to stop. The babies never seemed to get full. At first they looked scrawny and bare. They had beaks and eyes that seemed too big and only a few prickly things that passed for feathers but looked more like porcupine quills. (We knew about porcupines from stories Telenemut told.)

Once their feathers began to grow, however, they multiplied quite fast. Their bodies grew to be a more appropriate size for their heads and eyes and the beaks came to look fitting, not oversized.

In about a week, they hopped all over the nest, stepping on each other and wobbling over onto their own noggins, sometimes. They were homely but dear and fun to watch. I remember it was a Monday, because I was hanging clothes on other bushes, when the parent robins began squawking so I glanced toward the nest.

There was one of the babies perched on the very edge. I thought it was about to fledge.

I could not stop helping Mama to keep constant watch but I checked it out every chance I had. Apparently, it was scared and grew tired for, by noon, it had settled back down in the nest, hollering for food.

The next day, I was lucky enough to be watching when the first little robin flew to the ground. It worried me that he had almost no tail and his breast was all speckled black and white, not a redbreast color at all. Mama assured me that that was how fledgling robins always looked.

The parents hopped around him and followed him every time he took a step after hesitating to think it over. Then, all of a sudden, there was another young one on the ground. Those left in the nest poked their heads over the edge and cheeped at the top of their little lungs. I do not know if they were hungry or lonely. They were not getting fed because the parents were too busy with the two on the ground.

After a while, both the new fliers ran a few steps and flapped their wings and lifted off the ground a few inches, dropping rather hard when the short experimental flight ended. They were clumsy! As our suppertime neared, the first two birds out of nest were out of sight although we could sometimes still hear them. A third baby had left his home and the parents were urging it to safer cover.

When I went to the outhouse, early the next morning, I took time to look in the nest. My approach scared away the mother bird and there was that last baby. I went indoors to let the mother return to duty. By the time I could go look again, that baby was out of sight, too.

It was the same year that Mama showed us a fat butterfly cocoon dangling from a bush. We kept close watch of it and we were there when not one but two orange and black butterflies emerged from opposite sides. They looked bedraggled at first but soon their wings began to stretch and dry. They would flex them in wider arcs all the time, resting a few seconds, now and then. We watched them fly away. We often saw that same species of butterflies around the milkweed blossoms in the meadow but that was the only time I ever watched any hatch.

I did not mention, when telling about Papa's hunting and trapping, rabbits. There were plenty of them and big grey squirrels, too. They were so common that they almost slipped my mind.

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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