Frank H. Shoemaker

Letter to Mother, Aug. 4, 1901

My Own Dear Mother

It is an unqualified pleasure to write a letter for your day. I wish most heartily
that I might be with you on that happy occasion, for I could tell you so many things
that I can not write, but that is not practicable [sic], so I must have recourse to
the poor alternative of written woods. You must recognize the limitation of that means,
and realize the sincerity of the words when I tell you that I love you dearly, and
wish you a happy birthday and a happy year. I hope the cool weather of the autumn,
which will be here before we realize it, will be restful and strenghtening to you,
for I know your health is not at all good, and the enervating days or the past six
weeks must have been hard to bear.

I shall make the subject of this letter in the main an account of our pets, for my
short, hurried letters have not given you an adequate idea of their interesting ways
and their surprising personalities – for let any one say what he will of the similarity
of creatures of a species, it has been a matter of the greatest wonderment to us that
they could have so distinct ways of doing things. “Birds of a feather flock together,”
beyond question: but few people know that no two birds of the flock have quite the
same way of acting and living. I am almost convinced that they are as diverse as so
many people, and I am thoroughly convinced that they are far more interesting subjects
for study.

Our bird-room now contains the following birds:

  • One wood thrush
  • Three baltimore orioles
  • One Japanese robin
  • Two rose-breasted grosbeaks
  • Two black-capped chickadees
  • One catbird
  • One house wren
  • One 13-striped gopher
  • One Rocky Mountain chipmunk

Outside the bird-room we have

  • One little brown bat
  • Two lizards

This makes a total of sixteen pets. I shall give you a few words about each, commencing
at the head of the list.

Our wood thrush, Mack, we took from the nest a year ago the past spring, so he is now quite a mature
bird. He has quite a disposition to lord it over the other birds, but contents himself
with a mere show of authority, being not at all cruel. He was formerly very tame and
sociable, but these things he has put from him as nestlingish, and the only visits
we now get from him are those elicited by means of grub. – The wood thrush which we bought from the bird dealer (the bird referred to in my letters as Texas)
was never quite natural during the nineteen months we had him, and it was no great
surprise to find him dead one evening in May. It is a rare thing to get a bird in
normal condition from a bird store. They are subject to as many diseases as human
beings, and as a usual thing have contracted two or three during the life of the bird-hell.

Our three orioles are Olus, Origold, and an unnamed youngster which we got recently. Olus is the male
of the pair which we took from the nest on the fifth of July, 1899, so we have had
him for over two years. He is one of our most intersting birds, partly on account
of our desire to observe his plummage changes, but chiefly on account of his friendliness
and his unique habits. He likes to alight upon our heads, shoulders, or arms; seldom
upon our hands. He is literally of a prying disposition: that is his way of finding
out about things, and he is a master of the science of leverage. He inserts his sharp
bill into or under the subject to be investigated, opens the madibles, and generally
finds out all about it. I now understand the cause of the split skins on the grapes,
and considering the pleasure the orioles must get from them, and the bees afterward,
I do not feel like complaining when a bunch is riddled. This, of course, refers only
to grapes which I raise myself, and as I never raise any I feel as dismal as anyone
when I get a bunch covered with split skins, reminding one of so many darkey’s grins
minus the teeth. [!!!!!] Olus is very fond of prying all the food dishes off the birds’
dinner table; they are regulation size sauce dishes, and when this spirit is upon
him he generally makes a clean sweep. When he has reason to believe that one of us
has a worm in his hand he alights upon it and commences his prying tactics; if we
do not give it up in a reasonable time a few vigorous blows from his sharp bill, generally
delivered upon a sensitive place, such as the base of a finger-nail, will ordinarily
bring us to time. – Origold, the female, is a bird-store victim, quite similar to
Olus in actions, likes, and dislikes, has the sweetest disposition of any bird in
the room; but she is no longer with us, though she was when I wrote the list. She
has always had a disease of the feet which our best attention could only temporarily
benefit, so we decided to free her, in the hope that the out-of-doors life and a trip
South every year would cure her. It was a sorry decision, for she was perfectly contented
and we thought much of her, but it was for her good. So we took her to the back porch
and let her go. She stood for a moment on Elizabeth’s hand, then hopped to the railing
of the porch, where she sat in a rather undecided frame of mind and looked up at us.
We concluded instead to take her to the wooded lot near by, so Elizabeth picked her
up without trouble and we went over to the woods. She left Elizabeth’s hand for the
branch of an elm, and within a half minute picked up four worms, which she ate with
great relish. She was greatly interested in the foliage and in the great amount of
room at her disposal; no doubt she was taken when young, and this was her first taste
of real out-of-doors. We left her after a moment, and went sorrowfully home. Ten minutes
later she was found perching upon the kitchen window outside, but she flew away when
we opened it, and that is the last we know of Origold, our precious pet. She was doubtless
called back to the house by the notes of the birds, which she could hear through the
open window and would recognize; for she had never seen the house from the outside,
so would not recognize it as the home she had known. It took all the common sense
we could evolve or borrow to construe this incident as other that a direct appeal
to be taken in out of the great, strange world. A day or two would make her familiar
with the new order of things, and then she would be happier than we could ever make
her. There is good reason to believe that her feet will be cured. No one can pick
her up, and there can be nothing about the average house to attract her to the windows,
so we are fairly contented; but it is not long enough ago that we can yet think of
it without feeling away down in the out throats that that we do not enjoy. – The little
oriole was picked up on the gound without visible owners and brought to use six weeks
ago. She is very pretty and will take Origold’s place in Olus’ affections, though
not in ours; she must make one for herself.

The Japanese robin is branded as a bird-store bird by the fact that he is blind, or nearly blind, in
one eye. His bill characterizes him as an insect-eating bird, but he lived for an
unknown length of time in the bird-hell on a seed diet. That was what was given to
him to eat, therefore he learned to eat enough to keep him alive. He is about the
size of an English sparrow, but of a much different build. He is quick as a flash;
impulsive and jerky in his movements; lands stiff-legged, jarring the whole tree.
He is known as Mikado. One of the worst features of freeing Origold was the friendship
wich existed between her and Mikado. The little fellow would snuggle as close to her
as he could possibly get, and she would preen his feathers a half hour at a time,
while he sat with bill pointing upward and eyes closed, in blissful enjoyment. He
has since her departure taken a shine to Olus, but he is more staid and self-centered,
and I fear will prove a poor substitute.

Our two rose-breasted grosbeaks, Dogan and Duffer, must be considered jointly, for it has been over a year since
we could tell without careful investigation whether either one was which. We have
had them over a year, finding much to interest us in their plumage changes and habits.
When we have company we like to catch one and give him to the visitor to hold. Within
four seconds it is the visitor who is being held; the little varmints take a fold
of skin between their mandibles, and hung on and chew; and perhaps you think they
can not chew without teeth; It lasts until the bird gets tired or until the visitor
jerks his hand away, in which latter case he had an abrasion of the skin to remind
him of the pleasant evening for about a week. We do this because it is cheaper and
more lasting than the ordinary souvenir, and of course we wish our friends to think
of us often. And then, the novelty is worth while; I do not know of another place
in Nebraska where one can get bitten by a grosbeak. The birds show much discrimination,
having come by long practice to know which part of the skin is most tender; they ordinarily
go for the fold at the bass of the thumb, and create a lasting impression. There were
bull-fights in South Omaha every day for about two weeks this fall, but we found the
sport above described far less expensive, to us, and of greater educational value
to our friends. The grosbeaks think everything of each other, but look upon us as
mere convenience in the matter of food supply.

Our two black-capped chickadees are the busiest birds in the room. I must tell you where we got them; they are both
young of this year. One is from a nest which was unhappily placed in a tree only
three blocks from home. I have never got the story quite straight, but a cat and
a series of victims expresses the whole thing in a few words, our little one being
the sole survivor of a nest of five. Only a few days after getting this one, I was
walking home along the railroad tracks near Bellevue one evening, and found two young
chickadees, one having been killed by a train. There was no place near which could
have been their home, and no old birds about, so I was forced to the horrible conclusions
that some specimen of the “noblest work of God” has started to take the birds with
him and deserted them out of sheer deviltry. I took the little one with me. The
two we named Topsy and Turvey, for reasons which would be plain if you knew them personally.
To be consistent, we named the one first received Turvey. They are indefatigable
workers and perfectly contented. Every nook, corner, branch, tack-head, crack, or
crevice must be thoroughly explored many times a day. They are great friends, though
in their younger days had many a rough-and-tumble, doing almost all of the fighting
with their feet. One of them, Turvey, was so exceedingly ill-tempered that he would
fight his own image in a glass.

The catbird, unnamed, unless it be Katherine or Kitty, was also a waif, and with the passing
of days and weeks has become the most inquisitive bird in the room. I catch a netful
of insects for the birds every day or so, taking a regulation butterfly net and scooping
around in the grass for a few minutes. In this way I get from twenty to fifty or
even more insects-grasshoppers, leafhoppers, small worms, stink-bugs (a great delicacy),
grand-daddy longleds (ditto), small beetles, and such creatures. With this I enter
the bird-room, to the great pleasure of the birds. Well, you have an idea of what
sort of an object that great white net, three feet deep, must be. The first few times
I thought the birds would go crazy; but they soon learned to associate the horrible
apparition with a pleasing supply of vermin, and it lost its terror. But do you think
that catbird proposed to have his peace of mind set at nought by that harmless white
thing that scared the more ignorant birds? Not he. It was plain that the white thing
was too visibly terrible, so must be harmless, while the other end of the stick-a
mere, simple pine sliver five feet long—was so harmless in appearance that it must
be really awful. I have known people to have a similar method of reasoning. To this
day the catbird is so excited over the gruesome appearance of that stick that he will
pay no attention to the grasshoppers and spiders that crawl around him. He hops about
it and views it from every side, scolding in an undertone. If I move it an inch he
jumps into the air a foot or two and comes down stiff-legged, with wings dropping
and feathers on end—apparently scared half to death. He reminds me of a democrat
looking for a good campaign issue.

Our house wren is one of a pair, which was brought to us this summer. We got them
safely past what seemed the critical point, their youth, when from some absolutely
unaccountable cause one of the pair went blind and we had to take the little life.
They were the most sociable things in the world; always together, and perfectly contented
to cuddle down and talk to themselves and each other. It is a pathetic thing that
from the day the little one died, the other had not uttered a sound, though he is
apparently happy, and is very friendly with us, coming to us with no fear and picking
grasshoppers and flies from our fingers in the most contented way. He is the most
excitable of our birds; when I enter the room with a netful of bugs he is so excited
over the prospect of butchering something and eating it that he actually trembles
from head to foot, so he can hardly walk. He is a little darling, and we think everything
of him. We regard him as one of our most valuable creatures, for it is rarely that
a young wren is successfully raised. I failed to state that we rescued the wren from
certain death, for the miserable little scamps who stole him could have done nothing,
even with the best of intentions, which were absent.

Our gopher is a caution. You know his early history; we raised him on milk. You
also know that on the 25th of September of last year he went to bed, and that he stayed
in bed until the 24th of February-one hundred and fifty-five days without a drink
of water, and only such food as he had stored-or stoled. This supply, however, was
no doubt ample, for he was one of the worst thieves I ever met. He managed to stay
awake until the first of June, when he again went in and pulled the hole in after
him, and we saw no more of him until the day before yesterday (your dear pardon, my
mother; it is now the eighth of September-another day to be remembered; I was so pressed
with work that I had to lay aside your letter until now). June 1st-September 7th;
ninety-nine days. A little better than the other record, but he looks sleepy, though
he is enormously fat. So his present record is that out of the last three hundred
and forty-nine days he has slept two hundred and fifty-four. He bit me like a house
afire today, the first time he has ever thought of such a thing. I admit he may have
been disturbed, for I had him around the stomach and was trying to roll him up in
a wad and balance in the hollow of my hand.

The Rocky Mountain chipmunk, so called because he is a chipmunk and came from the
Rocky Mountains, is one of the prettiest and most thoroughly graceful animals I have
ever seen. If I have not sent you a picture of him I will do so soon. He passed
through five hands before he came to us. We give him the freedom of the bird-room,
and he makes the utmost use of it. He is quick as a flash, and goes where he pleases,
climbing the trees as rapidly as a squirrel. He is very friendly, and comes to us
freely when we enter the room, climbing up our clothes to see whether we have a grasshopper
for him in our fingers. Elizabeth is now in the mountains, and writes that she has
good hope of getting two or three more to bring home. I had great fear the gopher
would not take well to the chipmunk, which is one-fourth his size; but I saw them
yesterday rubbing noses like old friends. As you know, “one little brown bat” is
now two. They are of the same species, and are great company for each other. The
first few nights they swore like pirates, and Pixie jumped onto the new one in real
earnest. But this soon wore off, and they are now good friends. Their appetites
are prodigious. You know we have had Pixie over fifteen months. One most interesting
thing we have learned from him. We had supposed that a tear in the membrane of wing
or tall could never mend, there seems so little blood or nerve in the thin membrane.
Pixie ripped a little hole in his tail membrane one night, we do not know how. It
was a source of great grief of us. The next time his regular exuviations came about
the hole disappeared, and the mend is a work of art. The exuviations of which I speak
is analogous to the shedding of the skin by snakes, the exfoliation of the turtles,
and the molt of birds; it is the renewing of the membrane of wings and tail, in this
case, and is accomplished almost insensibly, the particles of dead skin coming away
in tiny flakes from both surfaces of the membrane. We were ignorant of this before
we saw it for ourselves. There is much to be learned about bats. Of course the hairy
portions of the creature are subject to an entirely different kind of a change-that
of ordinary shedding.

I have not much to say about the lizards. They are very interesting, and we like
them but I do not feel that they will interest you, for they are very like snoix,
which you love not at all. Our colony has been increased by the acquisition of another,
so we now have three. When I came home yesterday noon I found one of them-the largest-in
the process of shedding his coat, so I went at once and got the camera, and took
a picture of him with the rags of his former grandeur about him.

We have acquired one bird since I made the list on page 2-a cardinal grosbeak which
was found by a neighbor boy in a empty house, where it had been imprisoned or deserted.
It was almost at the far end of its journey, but we pulled it through. It seems impossible
that one could be so cruel or so criminally careless.

So now you have a brief history of our pets. I have long intended to give such an
account, but as you are fully aware, my time is almost filled, and when I plan a letter
of this size it takes quite an effort to get it done. Not that the writing is much
of a matter, but the compilation, simple as it may seem, requires more time that I
would be willing to admit. I could write a paper of double the length on any one
of the subjects taken up in less time. But if this letter with all its crudities
will give you an idea of our interesting things I shall be pleased.

I had planned to send prints of the various creatures with this letter, but I have
not got them ready nor can I possibly spare the time now. So I must leave that for
another time.

This is simply a natural history letter, so I have nothing to say about the things
of which I might speak. This must excuse every omission.

We are all well, and word from Elizabeth indicates that she is benefited by her vacation,
which as only well commenced, as she will remain in Idaho Springs through September.
A letter addressed simply Idaho Springs, Colorado, will reach her, and I hope you
will write promptly. I ought to say, perhaps, that her trip was not brought about
by any special cause, as her general health was fair, though she has never gotten
the stiffness of the rheumatism out of her joints or hands. We practically put up
the job on her, and she had no idea of going to the mountains ten days before she

With love to all, and particularly my dear mother, I remain.

Your boy

For your peace of mind: My hay fever is almost gone.