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Wild Life in the West Highlands

No winter passes without some period,—longer or shorter,—of storm or biting frost; and these tell with all the more severity on the feeble and more delicate of our birds from their unexpected suddenness. On such a wintry morning it is touching to see these little creatures showing in attitude and demeanour how the rigour of the weather is affecting them. The song-thrush is the very first to feel the influence of the cold blast, the iron ground impervious to its bill, and its prey safely ensconced deep below the frozen surface; even the hardy robin looks like a ball of fluff as he sits on a spray watching with bead-like eyes for some charitable dole. All nature seems tamed and subdued, the more shy and retiring of our birds throwing off their natural timidity and approaching our doors and windows under the stress of cold and hunger,

Such appeals find doubtless ready response from many sympathisers, but it is to be feared that, with all goodwill and intentions, the willing helpers often fail to do as much as they wish in the way of relief to the little suppliants,-more from ignorance than from want of kindly feeling. A little thought and a very little trouble and care will go far in enhancing the value of such outdoor relief, and will bring a never-failing reward of interest and amusement. To scatter 'crumbs for the birds' is a common form of such benevolence, and is good as far as it goes, - but it does not go very far. Crumbs are no doubt better than nothing ; but neither in substance nor in quantity, as usually doled out, will they avail much among a crowd of hungry birds of various species and natures.

It is not to be supposed that this matter of caring for our birds is one that concerns only those living in the country. Even those who dwell in our larger towns will, with few exceptions, find opportunities of the sort ; for apart from the house sparrow, there are other birds, such as the starling, to be found in all but the most densely populated localities. As one moves further from these centres, open spaces, back yards and gardens and the like become more plentiful and so also will the bird life be found increasing until we reach the suburbs and out skirts, where quite a number of species can be noted as regular residents or visitors.

The first question to be considered is as to the food to be provided; something that will be both satisfying and nutritious and, as far as possible, generally suitable to the different species. Let the first item, then, of our free breakfast table consist of table scraps, of every sort; refuse bread softened and broken up, all morsels of meat, and especially of fat, being carefully preserved, chopped up small and added to it; then, to get bulk, a good proportion of `thirds' meal should be rubbed with melted dripping into a crumbling mass, and the whole thoroughly mixed together with a good handful or two of hemp-seed added.

Where and how to serve the meal must depend on the locality. The town-dweller may have to rest contented with the window-sill, but where there is a yard, garden or lawn, a rough table can easily be arranged with a board raised on four posts driven into the ground, or a shelf fixed against a wall, as circumstances may suggest. But in every case such structure must be amply secured from marauding cats with wire netting and barbed wire.

Another and excellent plan consists of an inverted bottle supported by wire loops projecting from a wooden upright, with the mouth of the bottle reaching to about a quarter-inch above a little wooden board or plate at right angles to the upright, to the foot of which the plate is securely nailed. This apparatus is hung by means of a hole at the upper end of the upright batten on a nail in a tree-stem or wall. To use it, it is taken down from the nail, the bottle removed and filled with hemp-seed. The bottle is then returned through the loops, the upright being meantime inverted. When all is ready, the whole is quickly turned round and re-hung on its nail. The bottle being thus once more turned mouth downwards, a certain portion of hemp-seed will have fallen in a little heap on the plate and as this is devoured by the birds a further supply is always automatically descending, the main amount being meanwhile kept dry in any weather. It is, in fact, on just the same principle as some poultry fountains and feeding dishes. This method naturally benefits only the hard-billed or seed-eating birds.

Yet again another plan, and one that is most interesting and amusing, is to to suspend food of a suitable nature by a cord from a tree-branch or some such object. A lump of tough fat, such as a piece of bacon-rind, is perhaps best and most appreciated; but bones of any sort, if appearances are not considered - will answer well. Such morsels are the especial delight of the tits, the great tit, blue tit, and coal tit, who will quickly find them out and afford endless amusement by their quaint ways, hanging head downwards or sometimes grasping the string with their tiny claws and letting themselves slide down to the food. The chaffinches are not nearly so clever as a rule, although one sometimes sees an exception; but usually they flutter opposite it, taking a hasty peck with more or less success; the blackbirds are still more clumsy, although sometimes managing to secure a morsel while fluttering past.

The three methods mentioned above may all be used together, when there is space and opportunity, and the pleasure and interest is greatly enhanced by keeping the different arrangements near to and within sight of the windows of the living-rooms. The mixed food should not be made very wet, or in frosty weather it will soon be frozen solid ; it should be put out while still warm, although not hot. Unless there is a constant supply of running water near, it is well to place some shallow vessel of water close at hand; a flower-pot saucer will answer admirably. This must be often refilled in case of frost. The birds very soon learn to recognise any signal such as a bell, whistle or the clattering of a spoon on the fooddish, and will be seen hastening in flocks from quite a distance as soon as the first sound is heard.

In a suitable locality it will probably be a surprise to the novice to find what a number of different birds will be attracted. In the case of the writer, in a West Highland parish, no less than twenty-one different species have at one time or other come to be fed in the immediate vicinity of the house ; some of these, as, for instance, the brambling and the redwing, are only to be looked for in the stress of a hard winter. Now and then some rarity will put in an appearance, as when a marsh tit stayed for several days, and was doubly interesting in that it constituted a first record of the species for the county. All through the winter, however, some eight to ten different species may be seen daily, and often in considerable numbers; as many as sixty chaffinches have been counted at one time within a space of a few yards square. In a more highly cultivated district, the number of varieties would doubtless be greater.

To encourage birds to remain with us, the principal thing one can do, besides affording them protection and quiet, is to provide for them nesting facilities. A certain number of birds, such as the different tits, for instance, build in holes in trees, or in similar situations ; and their wants are easily supplied by hanging up suitable nesting-boxes. They are not at all disposed, however, to accept each and every box that may be offered to them, having their own views on the subject. The box must be of the proper size and form, so as not to require too much nesting material, and should have the proper aspect and be protected from wind and drifting rain.

This is now, however, made easy for us by the enterprise of the thorough-going Germans, who have long ago appreciated at its proper value the part that birds play in forestry and agriculture. The Board of Agriculture of Prussia has experimented largely with such nesting-boxes. At one station we read of 2,000 boxes being hung up, at another 2,100, while in the Grand Duchy of Hesse some 9,300 were used, and by the second year all occupied. These statements are taken from a little book entitled How to Attract and Protect Wild Birds, which is cordially recommended to all interested in the subject. In it will be found fully related the experiences of Baron von Berlepsch of Seebach, in Thuringia, who has studied the question for years, and carried out experiments on a grand scale with great success. In this little volume will be found full descriptions, with drawings and photographs of the boxes that have been found to be really successful.

Their use in Germany being on so great a scale, regular factories have been established for their manufacture on a commercial basis, and these boxes are now to be obtained in London at very moderate prices. They are hollowed to the proper depth and shape out of little logs of wood with the natural bark left on, fitted with a strong oak cover screwed on to the top, and bolted with iron bolts to a hardwood batten which has holes reinforced with iron plates to take the special nails supplied for hanging them with. They are made in different sizes, according to the birds for whose use they are intended. The most useful size for ordinary use in this country is the 'A'; and all of these boxes are supplied by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 23 Queen Anne's Gate, London, S.W., for the sum of 1s. 6d, to 2s., according to the size. The boxes themselves are so strongly made that they can be safely sent by rail without any packing. Care should be taken in hanging up the boxes to follow exactly the directions given in the paper which may be obtained from the secretary of the Society, and it may be further noted that these boxes are made with two different-sized entrance holes, the smaller one only admitting the smaller tits (the blue and the coal tits), and not the great tit or the house sparrow, who are apt to monopolise them and drive away the others; thus it may be well to try both of these.

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