Written by Clara Dillingham Pierson.
In one of the chimneys of the big house several families of Chimney Swifts had built their homes. They had come north in April and flown straight to this particular place. It was the family home of this branch of the Swifts, and every year since great-grandfather Swift discovered it, some of his children and grandchildren had come back there to build. They were quite airy, and thought a great deal about appearances. “Swifts are sure to be judged by the chimney in which they live,” they said, “and there is no use in choosing a poor one when there are good ones to be found.”
Nobody would have dared remind these Chimney Swifts that their great-great-great-great-grandparents lived in hollow trees, if indeed any of their friends knew it. They themselves never spoke of the Swifts who still do so, and since they had always lived in a land of chimneys, they did not dream of the times when there were none to be found.
You can just imagine what a happy, busy place this chimney was in the springtime, when last year’s nests were being torn down and new ones were being built. The older Swifts were there and those who were to keep house for the first time. Then, of course, the younger ones had married and brought new wives there, and they had to be introduced and shown all over the chimney.
Some wanted to build nearer the top than others, and the older ones were always advising the younger ones. It was so hard for a Swift mother to remember that her married son was old enough to decide things for himself; and many such mothers fluttered around the sons’ nests, telling them how to place each twig, and giving the new wives advice as to how to bring up the babies who would soon come to live with them.
This story is about a young couple who built the lowest nest of all. They were dressed alike in sleek, sooty, brown feathers, which were of a lighter shade on their throats. Their necks and heads were very broad, their bills short but able to open very wide; their wings were longer than their tails, and the quills of their tail feathers stuck out stiff and bare far beyond the soft, feathery part. The Swifts are all very proud of these bare quills. “There are not many birds,” they say, “who can show their quills in that fashion.”
These quills are very useful, too, for after a Swift has broken off a tiny twig for its nest, they have to cling to the side of the chimney and fix it into place, and they could not do this without supporting themselves with these tail quills. It is hard work building nests, and you can see that it would be. They have to cling with both feet, support themselves with their tails, put each tiny twig in place with their bills, and glue it there with sticky saliva from their mouths or else with tree-gum.
The young husband who was building his first home low down in the chimney was a sturdy and rather wilful fellow, who was very sure what he wanted, and just as sure that he was going to get it. When he said, “I shall do this,” or, “I am going to have that,” other people had learned to keep still. They sometimes had a smiling look around the bill, but they said nothing. His wife was a sweet and sensible Swift who never made a fuss about anything, or bragged of what she meant to do. Still, other Swifts who watched them said that she had her way quite as often as he had his.
It was really she who had chosen to build well down in the chimney. Her husband had preferred to be near the top, and she had agreed to that, but spoke of what would happen if one of their children should fall out of the nest.
“There is no need for one falling out,” said Mr. Swift. “Tell them to lie still and not push around. Then they will not fall out.”
Mrs. Swift fixed one of the feathers on the underside of her left wing, and then said: “And you do not think it would disturb you to have our neighbors passing all the time.”
“Yes, I do,” he replied. “I have thought so from the first, and I am thinking that it might be good to build lower for that reason. Then we could be passing the others instead.”
He flew down and pecked at the bricks in a few places to make sure that he could fasten a nest securely. Then he came back to his wife. “I have decided to build the lowest nest of all,” he said, “but you understand it is not on account of the children. There is no sense in their moving around in the nest.”
“I understand,” said Mrs. Swift, and he flew away for twigs while she stayed behind to visit with her mother-in-law.
The mother-in-law’s eyes twinkled. “I believe my son said that his children were not to move around in the nest,” she said with a laugh. “I wonder how he is going to stop them from doing so.”
“Tell them, I suppose,” answered young Mrs. Swift, smilingly. “Did he push around at all when he was a baby?”
“He?” replied the older Swift. “He was the most restless child I ever hatched. He will know more about bringing up children after he has raised a brood or two. Don’t worry, my dear. It will come out all right.” She flew off and the young wife went for twigs also, and thought how happy she ought to be in having such a mother-in-law.
When the lowest nest was built and the four long pure white eggs were laid in it, Mr. and Mrs. Swift were a very proud young couple. The nest was so thin that one could see the eggs through it quite plainly, but it was exceedingly round and firm. It was not a soft nest, and it had no real lining, although Mrs. Swift had laid in one especially perfect grass blade “to give it style.”
That grass blade may be seen to this day by any one who cares to look at the nest as it lies in a cabinet in the house. It was the only nest in the chimney which had anything but twigs in it, and some people wondered at Mrs. Swift’s taste. One stout elderly mother Swift said “she supposed it was all right, but that she had never done such a thing and her children had turned out alright.” However, young Mrs. Swift smiled in her pretty way and did not talk back.
When they were planning for the four children whom they expected, Mrs. Swift spoke of how patient they would have to be with them, but Mr. Swift said: “They must be brought up to mind! If I tell a child once to do a thing, that is enough. You will see how I bring them up.” Then he ruffled up his feathers, puffed out his throat, and looked very important.
They did most of their visiting in the beautiful night-time, for it is a custom among their people to fly and hunt and visit in the dark, and rest by day. Their busiest time is always just before the sun comes up, and so it happened that the Little Boy who slept in the room below did not often hear the rumbling noise in the chimney as they flew in and out. When they were awake he slept quietly in his snug little bed, and as he was awakening, and stretching, and getting his dimples ready for the day, the Swifts were going to sleep after a busy night.
When the baby Swifts broke their shells and were seen for the first time by their loving father and mother, Mr. Swift was surprised to find how small they were. Mrs. Swift murmured sweet words to them and worked as hard as her husband to find them food. There were now so many mouths to be fed that they flew by day as well as by night, and often the Little Boy in the room below thought he heard distant thunder when it was only the Swifts coming down the chimney with food for their babies. All sorts of tiny winged creatures were brought to them to eat, for Swifts catch all their food as they fly, and that means that they can feed upon only such creatures as also fly.
When they were stretching up to reach the food, Mrs. Swift would say to the children: “Now learn to move carefully, for if you should get over the edge of the nest you will tumble down.”
When he was feeding them Mr. Swift would say: “You may open your bills, but not one of you must move beyond that twig. Do you understand?”
Three of them obeyed without asking questions, but the oldest brother was always trying to see just how far he could go without tumbling, and he would ask his father.
“You don’t care if I put one wing out, do you?” he would ask.
“Not one wing!” his father would answer.
“Why?” the son would ask. “I wouldn’t tumble just because I put one wing out.”
“It’s not listening,” his father would say, “to see how far you can go without tumbling. I did not tell you only to keep from falling out. I told you to keep inside that twig.”
Then the son would pout his bill and act very sulking, getting close to the twig which he had been told not to pass. When he thought his father was not looking, he would even wriggle a little beyond it. Mrs. Swift was worried, but what could she do? She noticed that her husband did not talk so much as he used to about making a child mind the very first time he had spoken.
One night when the Swifts had fed their children faithfully, this son was unusually naughty. It may be that he had eaten more than his share or that he had picked for the biggest insect every time that lunch was brought. It may be, too, that he was naughty simply because he wanted to be. His father had just told him to be more careful, and he made a face (yes, he did) and flopped aside to show what he could do without falling.
Then he felt a tiny twig on the edge of the nest break beneath him, and he went tumbling, bumping, and scraping down into the fireplace below. He could not fly up, for his wings were not strong enough to carry him up such a narrow space, and his parents could not get him. He heard his brother and sisters crying and his mother saying that she had always expected that to happen.
“Horrible old twig!” he said. “Don’t see why it had to break! Should think they might build their nest stronger. I don’t care! I was sick of being told not to wriggle, anyway!”
Then he fluttered and sprawled through a crack beside the screen of the grate until he was out in the room. The Little Boy lay asleep in the bed, and that frightened the young Swift. When they tried to scare each other the bird children had always pretended that a Boy was after them. He crawled behind a picture which leaned against the wall, and stayed there and thought about his dear, dear home up in the chimney.
The Little Boy stirred and awakened and called out: “Mother! Mother! There is somefing making a scratching noise in my room. I fink it is a Bear.”
The young Swift sat very still while the Lady came in and hunted for the Bear. She never came near his hiding-place, and laughed at the Little Boy for thinking of Bears. She told him that the only Bears around their town were two-legged ones, and when he asked her what that meant she laughed again.
He peeped out from behind the picture and saw the Little Boy dress himself. He heard him say: “I can’t poss’bly get vese shoes on, but I’ll try and try and try.” He thought how much nicer it was to be a Swift and have all his clothes grow on, and to go barefoot all the year.
He heard the Lady say: “Why, you precious Boy! You did get your shoes on, after all.” Then he saw them go off to breakfast, racing to see who would win.
After they were gone, he fluttered out to the window, and there the Lady found him, and the Little Boy danced around and wanted to touch him, but didn’t quite dare. The Lady said: “I think this must have been your Bear,” and the Little Boy said: “My teeny-weeny little bitty Bear wiv feavers on.” He heard the Little Boy ask, too, why the bird had so many pins sticking out of his tail, and this made him angry. He did not understand what pins were, but he felt that anybody ought to know about tail-quills.
He didn’t know much about Boys, for this was the first one he had ever seen, and he wondered what those shiny white things were in his mouth. He had never seen teeth and he could not understand. He wondered how the Boy got along without a bill. This Little Boy did not seem so very terrible. He even acted a bit afraid of the Swift.
Next the young Swift felt himself lifted gently in the Lady’s hand and laid in a box with soft white stuff in it and two small holes cut in the cover. He was carried from room to room in the house and shown to the other people. Once he heard a strange voice say, “Meouw!” and then the Little Boy stamped his foot and said: “Go way, Teddy Silvertip. You can’t have my little bird, you hungry Cat.”
After this the young Swift was more scared than before, and would have given every feather he had to be safely back in the nest in the chimney. He was hungry, too, and he wanted to see his father and his dear mother. He beat his wings against the sides of the box and cried for his mother. “Oh,” he said, “if I were only back in the nest I wouldn’t move. I wouldn’t move a bit.” Then the Cat meowed again and he kept still from fright.
At last he was taken into the open air and placed in the top of a short evergreen, where the Cat could not reach him. Here he clung, weak and lonely and scared, blinking his half-blinded eyes in a light brighter than he had yet seen. All the rest of that day he stayed there, while his father and mother and their other children were sleeping in the home nest. He expected never to see them again, but he did want to tell them how sorry he was.
After the sun had set and the moon was shining, he saw his father darting to and fro above him. “Father!” he cried. “Father, I am so sorry that I moved past the twig. I will listen more carefully next time.”
His father heard and flew down to tuck a fat and juicy May Beetle into his mouth. “You poor child!” he said. “Eat that and don’t try to talk. You will not do such things when you are older. I will get you some more food.”
When he returned Mrs. Swift was with him, and they petted and fed the young Swift all night, never scolding him at all, because, as they said, he had been punished quite enough and was sorry. And that was true. His grandmother came also with a bit of food. She told him that they would feed him every night and that he should hide in the branches each day until his feathers were grown.
“In three days more,” she said, “you will be ready to fly, and you look more like your father all the time. In only three days more,” she said.”
You can imagine how anxious the young Swift was during those three days, and how small he tried to be when Silvertip was around. “Surely,” he thought, “the sun and moon were never before so slow in marking off the time.”
When at last he was ready for flight, Silvertip was under the snowball bush nearby. The young Swift sprang into the air. “Good-by, my Cat friend,” he said. “You look hungry, but you have lost your best chance at me. I will be a better listener now and tell all the others to watch out for you.”