Our Backdoor Neighbors

By Frank C. Pellett



page 25

The Naturalist was the first to observe their arrival.  It was a cold, bright day in early March when Mr. and Mrs. Red-tail arrived.  Patches of snow covered the ground and food was scarce.  Wearied and hungry from their long journey, they made their first meal from a hen which had died and been carried to the open field because the ground was frozen too hard to permit the digging of a hole in which to bury it.  The Naturalist, always on the watch, was the first to observe their arrival.  He was observing them as they dined on the dead hen, when Tommy Jones, who lived across the road, happened to catch sight of them also.

 There was no unnecessary sentiment in Tommy’s make-up, and the dinner was quickly interrupted by his arrival with a gun.  Fortunately, Mr. Red-tail saw him coming and departed with his spouse before Tommy could get near enough to injure them.  Tommy, who regarded the Naturalist with contempt, was glad of the opportunity to prove a crime against Mr. Red-tail and his wife.  The Naturalist, however, knew that the hen had lain in the field a month before the arrival of the birds, and was little impressed with Tommy’s tirade against the “chicken hawks,” as Mr. and Mrs. Red-tail are called by the farmers in the neighborhood in which they lived.

 Tommy was very handy with his gun, and many a luckless hawk, crow, or owl fell before it.  The Naturalist protested to no purpose that no crimes had been proved against them.  Tommy was the kind to hang suspected criminals on suspicion.

Father Red-tail watched silently from the topmost branch of a dead tree. There is little woodland in this particular part of Iowa, and big birds like the Red-tails find it difficult, indeed, to rear their families unmolested.  The Naturalist lives in a bit of woods which he guards jealously, and all friends in fur or feathers find it a veritable city of refuge.  However, many a tragedy has resulted when creatures which are regarded with suspicion have strayed beyond the protected bounds, and occasionally the wrathful owners of missing chickens penetrate this area to avenge the missing chickens on the first suspicious character to come within their reach.  The Naturalist is, thus, sometimes unable to protect his friends, even at home.

 Mr. and Mrs. Red-tail looked the ground over and decided that they would begin house-building in a tall tree near the Naturalist’s house.  The Naturalist was much pleased, but anxious, for Tommy had passed the word around that a pair of chicken hawks were in the neighborhood.  Within a mile of the tree which the Red-tails had selected there are fourteen houses.  At each of these fourteen homes chickens are raised, and, accordingly, the inhabitants thereof are very watchful lest a hawk should rear a family in the neighborhood and thus endanger the lives of the chickens.

 Mr. and Mrs. Red-tail lived a precarious life during the following weeks.  The area in which they might nest was small, and thirteen guns were ready loaded and war already declared.  Whenever a small boy would see them soaring high overhead, he would scamper to the house to give the alarm that chicken hawks are coming.  Dad or big brother would take a look to see whether there was any chance to get within gunshot.  Mr. and Mrs. Red-tail kept far to the open fields, and thus avoided the inevitable consequences of a near investigation of a poultry yard.


The young birds kept their mouths open constantly, even when being photographed. The Naturalist alone knew about the nest, although thirteen small boys would have given their biggest marble to find it.  A very tall basswood tree in the very middle of the little wood was the tree selected.  The nest was very bulky, nearly three feet across, and composed of coarse sticks.  As it was built early in March, before the trees had donned their summer clothes, the Naturalist trembled every time he saw a neighbor passing that way.  It was so big that it could be seen from a long distance.  Few people have, as yet, learned to look up, and not down, and the nest escaped detection.  As days passed and the trees put forth their leaves, even the Naturalist sometimes had to look a little while to find it, and he no longer feared for the safety of the big birds.

 The Naturalist did not wish to cause the birds any unnecessary alarm and he refrained from an examination of the nest until Mrs. Red-tail had begun to incubate the eggs.  He felt that there was no longer any danger that they would voluntarily desert after this time.  The nest was fifty feet from the ground, and the tree was straight and smooth and had few branches.  The Naturalist did not find it an easy climb, as he must needs stop to rest and catch his breath at every branch which would support his weight.  When Mrs. Red-tail saw him coming, she slipped quietly away and hastily disappeared.  Soon she had joined her mate, and together they circled high overhead, with great evident anxiety as to the purpose of the Naturalist’s visit.

 When at last the nest was reached, it was found to occupy the highest possible position, and there was but a poor support for the tired visitor.  It was with difficulty that he was able to lift his head above the big nest and examine the contents.  The structure was almost flat, with only a slight saucer-shaped depression.  The lining was composed of but a few strips of bark, and three dirty, bluish-white eggs gave promise of the future.

 Try as he would, there was absolutely no place where a camera might be placed to get a satisfactory photo of the nest and eggs.  No other trees were near enough to serve the purpose, and there was no place in the nest tree which would furnish support and give proper view.  The Naturalist must then content himself to wait until the young birds appeared in order to secure a photographic record of the family life, and even this was unsatisfactory because the birds must be removed from the nest.

 When Mrs. Red-tail was at home, she settled so close on her eggs that she could with difficulty be seen from the ground, and curious small boys passing by could find no evidence that the next was occupied.  The distance from the ground was so great and the difficulties of the climb were such that the few that chanced to see it were content to decide that it was a last year’s nest and unused.  While Mother Red-tail brooded over the eggs, Father Red-tail spent hours sailing high in the upper air or watched silently from the topmost branch of a dead tree that furnished a favorable lookout over the surrounding country.

 Finally the shells opened, and three downy little birds replaced the eggs in the nest.  They were very weak at first, and as downy as little ducks, although much whiter in color.  Mrs. Red-tail still spent most of her time on the nest for several days, while the young birds were very small.  The demands for food were slight during those first days, and a mouse or two which the mother would tear to bits furnished them with a hearty meal.  They grew very fast, however, and soon it kept both Father and Mother Red-tail very busy to supply food for the growing family.

 The Naturalist now became very watchful and spent much time hidden in the woods where he could watch the nest and see the parent birds when they fed the young.  He still felt some anxiety lest one or both of the parent birds should fall victims to some of the thirteen guns that were kept loaded behind the doors of thirteen houses, nearby, in anticipation of an opportunity to catch Father and Mother Red-tail unawares.  He also wished to see for himself whether the Red-tail family were guilty of the crimes so freely charged to them and which had led to the loading of the thirteen guns and the declaration of war at the thirteen nearby farmhouses.

 Father and Mother Red-tail were very discreet and kept at a safe distance from the artillery that only waited a favorable moment to be trained upon them.  They wandered far afield, or could be seen soaring higher and higher until they became mere specks in the sky or disappeared altogether.  Sometimes they would be gone for a long time, while at other times they would return within half an hour with food for the young.  At first when Mother Red-tail brought the food, she would alight on the side of the nest and consume much time in tearing it to bits and feeding the youngsters.  After a little as they grew stronger, she permitted them to carve the meat for themselves, which they did by holding it in their talons and tearing it with their beaks.

 Growing birds have voracious appetites, and by the Middle of May they were consuming much food.  On the eighteenth of that month the Naturalist decided that it was time to get some kind of a photograph, so the tree youngsters were let down from their high home in a basket.  All the time both parents wheeled about far overhead and screamed in a most distressed manner.  The young birds also protested to the best of their ability.  They kept their mouths open constantly, even when being photographed, and struck with their talons whenever a hand came near.  As there was no better place, all three were placed in a row on an old log with a dead pocket gopher, which had just been brought for their dinner.  After the picture had been taken they were hauled up again in the basket and replaced in the nest.

 On this red-letter day, when they posed for their first picture, they had three pocket gophers, a large Franklin’s spermophile, or prairie gray squirrel, and two field mice served up in the best hawk style.  This menu was fairly typical of their daily fare, although it was varied with rats and striped ground squirrels occasionally.

 Not only were there thirteen guns ready loaded for the time when Father or Mother Red-tail should visit one of the thirteen barnyards in search of chicken for dinner, but the Naturalist also had a camera loaded for the purpose of getting a likeness of these same birds.  Many were the hours spent in patient watching, in order to learn more about the habits of the birds and to get their pictures.

The camera took Mother Red-tail by surprise. However, it was not one of the thirteen guns, but the camera in the hands of the Naturalist which finally took Mother Red-tail by surprise.  She was none the worse for the experience, and the Naturalist considers her picture as one of his most prized possessions.  Both birds were so exceedingly shy that it was difficult, indeed, to get within gunshot, to say nothing of camera shot of them.  It was a pleasing sight to see the two birds flying upward in wide circles on a warm summer afternoon.  As they would wheel in the air, the rich reddish brown color of the upper side of the tail feathers could be plainly seen.  This marking, together with the narrow white tip and faint black band, is very conspicuous with the birds, and from it they get their name.

 They would mount high, and then higher, until it fairly made the man and the boy who were watching dizzy to contemplate the height to which they had attained.  When they had finally disappeared from sight the Naturalist would turn to the boy with some remark about the big birds and to regret that with the thirteen guns constantly loaded and the hundreds of other guns all over the State, the last big birds could soon be expected to disappear from the Iowa sky.

He would alight in close proximity to some passer-by.One youngster lacked the worldly wisdom of his fellows.

 As the time drew near when the young birds would leave the nest, he felt some anxiety as to their fate when first they should try their wings, but he was unprepared for what happened.  Since the Naturalist had spent more than eight weeks in observing the birds, and during all that time they had not departed from the paths of rectitude, he had come to believe that the crimes charged to the Red-tails were based on circumstantial evidence and that the verdict of an unprejudiced jury would be unquestionably “Not guilty!”

 It so happened that on Memorial Day Tommy and a neighbor, having nothing else to do, were walking through the woods, and chanced to see the big nest in the top of the basswood tree.  The young birds were now almost fully fledged and could be plainly seen on their nest.  The distance to the nest was so great that neither was equal to the test of climbing so high, but with a long pole they pushed it down after they had reached a safe position on one of the higher branches.  With a heavy fall the nest and all three of the young birds came tumbling down.  Although the birds could not fly, they broke the fall sufficiently with their wings to be unhurt.

 The arrival of the visitors had been so timed as to reach the nest just after Mother Red-tail had brought their dinner.  Of late the appetites of the three hearty youngsters had taxed the resources of their industrious parents to the limit, and to-day, instead of the usual pocket gophers and mice, a stray chicken had been brought to the nest.  It was still warm and bleeding when the nest was thrown down.

 At last both the birds and their champion were caught.  Was not here evidence enough to convict both the Naturalist and the hawks?  It was at best a sorry explanation that he was able to make, but he did succeed in getting possession of the young birds and thus saving their necks.  He took them home and again posed them for pictures, and the next day returned them to the woods.

 The youngsters made the best of the situation and hid themselves among the leaves of the smaller trees.  Their shrill cry of “Here, here, here, here,” with a constantly rising inflection, served to call the watchful parents who brought them food.  They changed their location, moving from tree to tree frequently, but the Naturalist still kept watch as before.  Now, as before, the parent birds still continued to bring gophers and mice, and occasionally a rat.  One occasion a second stray chicken was brought in, but this time there was no one to observe the deflection but the Naturalist.  However, the mischief was done.  A dozen naturalists could not convince Tommy that the birds had not fed from his chicken yard all summer.

The youngsters made the best of the situation. It was but a short time until they could fly, but one youngster lacked the worldly wisdom of his fellows, and would frequently alight in close proximity to some passer-by.  Fortunately, the timely arrival of the Naturalist saved him from an untimely end, until he too finally learned to mount high and still higher, until he became but a point in the blue of the summer sky.  The Naturalist now saw them only on infrequent occasions, although he still watched the big birds soaring above his head whenever opportunity offered.  When he heard their shrill cry of “Free, free” he was reminded of the days when Father Red-tail soared high above the next, anxiously watching for the appearance of enemies, while Mother Red-tail fed the youngsters.

 When late in the summer he had watched their last flight and they had departed for warmer climes, he sighed with regret, “Will they return I wonder?”

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