A Shore Lark and Two Redpolls
A friend of mine said to me, "Why don't you go to the game club on Saturday afternoon. They will have a great trapshoot with live birds."
I didn't know what a trapshoot was, but the words "live birds" interested me very much, and I went to the club the next Saturday afternoon. I found a small crowd of men there, each with a shot-gun. A wagon stood near, and in it there were a lot of cages containing small birds. Each cage had a door which opened out flat when the man, the bird-catcher who owned the birds, pulled the string attached to each door.
I went to the cages full of small birds. The prisoners were nearly all white snowbirds, with a few larks and redpolls. The birds tried to escape, pushing their heads and legs through the wires of the cage. A small boy with a stick pushed' one back. The bird-catcher cried, "Here, don't you do that!" I asked, "Why?" The answer shocked me. "You wound them if you do that, and they can't fly well from the cage."
Then came the trapshoot, — quite a new experience for me.
"All of you with shot-guns go to the firing-line," ordered the bird-catcher.
Then he set some traps on the ground and put a bird in each trap. When the first man in the line gave the word to pull, the bird-catcher pulled the string which opened the trap, and the frightened bird sprang up to escape. "Bang!" it fell on the snow, a broken, bloody little body. "Bang!" — and another bird from another trap lay dead. I saw about fifty birds killed in this way and their bodies thrown into a basket.
"For what?" I asked. The answer was: "Oh, these go to the hospital, they make soup with them for the patients. That's our best protection. Otherwise the law would put an end to all our trapping and shooting."
I felt horrified. I asked the bird-catcher what he received for the birds. He said one dollar a dozen for the snowbirds, sixty cents a dozen for the shore larks and redpolls. I had fifteen cents in my pocket, and said, "Will you sell me three live birds for that?"
"Of course. What kinds?"
"One shore lark and two redpolls."
He put them into a cage, and I went home with my prisoners.
I knew from experience that a wild bird in a wire cage always beats with its body against the wires, — the wires are so thin that it seems easy to escape. But such beating always kills the bird. However, wild birds in a cage with wooden bars do not beat against the bars, though they try again and again to escape. So I quickly made a large cage with wooden bars. The cage was one foot high, but in the middle I made it another foot high, so that there was more space for the birds to fly up in.
The shore lark ran up and down the floor of the cage all day. The redpolls flew about and perched on a little horizontal bar which I made higher up in the cage. I fed them and studied their choice of food. I made a mixture for them which is called nightingale's food, and this together with canary seeds they ate and liked very much. It was a great joy for me to watch them.
The redpolls became tame quickly, and they soon learned to take food from my fingers. The shore lark remained wild.
Then I thought I could tame them more quickly if I spent more time with them. So I took the cage into my bed-room, and was very much pleased with my experiment. The redpolls soon learned to perch on my hand. Later I went a step further and let them fly freely about the room. They flew about, greatly excited, and at last one of them perched on my shoulder. I did not move. Then the other came, and soon I could feed them on my shoulder. They were the most lovable birds I ever knew. They learned to come when I called them, and flew about in my room all day.
Not so the shore lark. He ran up and down the floor of the cage all day, and his long "cheep, cheep" sounded very sad. He never perched on the bar in the upper part of the cage.
Spring was near now. The redpolls' feathers shone brighter, but the lark ran still more wildly up and down, with his sad "cheep, cheep." I decided to give him the same freedom that the happy redpolls had. I opened the door of the cage and stepped aside.
He peeped out slowly, and was afraid to go out. But gradually he felt that here was freedom. He sprang forward, gave one loud "cheep-cheep-a-tooral-cheep," and sprang upward again and again with ever-increasing force, blindly, wildly,— crashed into the ceiling and fell dead at my feet.
I sat with the little broken body in my hands, and tears came to my eyes. I didn't want to kill him. I only wanted to have him with me. And as I sat, the two redpolls perched on my shoulder and whispered some words that I did not understand. But they had a message, and I went at once to fulfil their desire. I opened my window and gently put them outside. Feeling that they were free again, they flew with soft whispers away and away, up and up, until they disappeared in the distance toward the north that led to their home, — and left me in my lonely room with a dead shore lark in my hand.