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THE CARE OF PETS

Source: Outdoor Sports and Games
Category: WOODCRAFT





Cats--Boxes for song birds--How to attract the birds--Tame crows--The
pigeon fancier--Ornamental land and water fowl--Rabbits, guinea pigs,
rats and mice--How to build coops--General rules for pets--The dog


In this chapter on pets, I regret exceedingly that I cannot say much
in favour of the family cat. Like nearly all children, I was brought
up to love kittens and to admire their playful, cunning ways. When a
kitten becomes a cat my love for it ceases. Cats will do so many mean,
dishonourable things, and will catch so many song birds and so few
rats and mice that it simply has become a question whether we shall
like the song birds or the cat. So many people do like cats that it is
unfair perhaps to condemn the whole race for the misdeeds of a few. If
a cat is carefully watched or if we put a bell on its neck, these
precautions will to a certain extent keep the cat from catching birds,
but most people have something better to do than to act as guardian
for a cat. The fact is that a cat is a stupid animal seldom showing
any real affection or loyalty for its owner and possessing but little
intelligence. It is very difficult to teach a cat even the simplest
tricks. We never know when a cat will turn on its best friend. They
have the "tiger" instinct of treachery. A cat which one minute is
contentedly purring on our lap may sink its claws into us the next.

The only way to force a cat to catch mice is to keep it half starved.
Then instead of catching mice, it will probably go after birds if
there are any in the neighbourhood. I have shut a cat up in a room
with a mouse and it is doubtful whether the cat or the mouse were the
more frightened. The cat does more damage to the song birds of this
country than any other enemy they have. If kept at home and well fed,
cats sometimes become so fat and stupid that they will not molest
birds but this is due to laziness and not to any good qualities in the
cat. In normal condition they are natural hunters.

The habits of a cat are unclean, its unearthly cries at night are
extremely disagreeable and altogether it is a nuisance. A famous
naturalist, Shaler, once said "A cat is the only animal that has been
tolerated, esteemed and at times worshipped without having a single
distinctly valuable quality."

A few years ago a quail had a nest under a rock opposite my house.
Quail raise their young like poultry rather than like robins or wrens
or the other song birds. As soon as the tiny quail chicks are hatched,
the mother takes them around like a hen with a brood of chickens. This
mother quail was my especial care and study. She became so tame that I
could feed her. Finally she hatched out ten tiny brown balls of
feathers. Our cat had been watching her, too, but not from the same
motives and one day the cat came home with the mother quail in her
mouth. She ran under the porch just out of reach and calmly ate it.
The little brood were too small to look out for themselves so of
course they all died or fell an easy victim to other cats. The mother
was probably an easy prey because in guarding the young, a quail will
pretend to have a broken wing and struggle along to attract attention
to her and away from her little ones, who scurry to high grass for
safety. I have never been very friendly to cats since I witnessed this
episode.

It has been estimated that the average domestic cat kills an average
of one song bird a day during the season when the birds are with us.
In certain sections a cat has been known to destroy six nests of
orioles, thrushes and bobolinks in a single day. The worst offenders
are cats that live around barns and old houses in a half wild
condition. Many people who say they "haven't the heart to kill a cat"
will take it away from home and drop it along the road. A thoughtless
act like this may mean the death of a hundred birds in that
neighbourhood. It takes less heart to kill the cat than to kill the
birds. So much for the cat.

[Illustration: A bird house]

Birds make splendid pets, but in keeping them in captivity, we must be
sure that we are not violating the game laws of the state we live in.
Nearly everywhere it is unlawful to keep in cages any native song
birds or those that destroy harmful insects--the so-called
"insectivorous birds." This includes thrushes, wrens, robins,
bluebirds, orioles or, in fact, practically all birds but crows,
blackbirds and kingfishers. It does not cover canaries, parrots, or
any birds that are not native. It is an excellent law and every boy or
girl should act as a special policeman to see that his friends and
companions do not molest either birds or their nests. It is cruel to
cage a wild bird anyway for a cage is nothing but a prison. There is
no law against taming the birds or making friends of them and after
all this is the most satisfactory way.

If we build houses for the birds to nest in, provide feed for them and
in other ways do what we can to attract them, they will soon learn
that we are their friends. We must study their habits and always avoid
frightening them. Next to a cat, the worst enemies of our song birds
are the English sparrows. A sparrow is always fair game for the boy
with a slingshot or rifle. In many places these sparrows have driven
practically all the other birds out of the neighbourhood, have robbed
their nests and in other ways have shown themselves to be a public
nuisance. Until 1869 there were no sparrows in this country and now
they are more numerous than any other variety of birds, and sooner or
later, the Government will have to take steps to exterminate them or
we shall have no song birds at all.

The usual size of a bird house is six inches square and about eight
inches high. It should always be made of old weather-beaten boards in
order not to frighten away its prospective tenants by looking like a
trap of some kind. The chances are that the sparrows will be the
first birds to claim a house unless we keep a close watch and drive
them away.

One way to keep them out is to make the entrance doorway too small for
them to enter. A hole an inch in diameter will admit a wren or
chickadee and bar out a sparrow, but it will also keep out most of the
other birds. The usual doorway should be two inches in diameter. It is
surprising how soon after we build our bird house we find a tiny pair
making their plans to occupy it and to take up housekeeping. Sometimes
this will happen the same day the bird house is set up. Always provide
some nesting material near at hand; linen or cotton thread,
ravellings, tow, hair and excelsior are all good. Of course we must
not attempt to build the nest. No one is skillful enough for that.

Nearly all of our native birds are migratory, that is they go south
for the winter. The date that we may look for them to return is almost
the same year after year. Some few birds--bluebirds, robins, cedar
birds and song sparrows will stay all winter if it is mild but as a
rule we must not expect the arrival of the feathered songsters until
March. The phoebe bird is about the first one we shall see.

In April look for the brown thrasher, catbird, wren, barn, eave and
tree swallows, martins, king birds and chipping sparrows. In May the
principal birds of our neighbourhood will return--thrushes, vireos,
tanagers, grosbeaks, bobolinks, orioles. The game birds--quail,
partridge, meadowlarks and pheasants do not migrate as a rule. At
least they do not disappear for a time and then return. When they
leave a neighbourhood, they rarely come back to it.

All the song birds begin nesting in May. Consequently we should have
our bird houses "ready for occupancy" May 1st. It will take about
twelve days for most birds to hatch their eggs. Some varieties will
hatch three broods in a season, but two is the usual rule.

We shall require a great deal of patience to tame the wild birds. Some
bird lovers have succeeded in teaching birds to feed from their hands.
A wild bird that is once thoroughly frightened can probably never be
tamed again.

A crow is a very interesting pet. Crows are especially tamable and may
be allowed full liberty around the dooryard. We must get a young one
from the nest just before it is ready to fly. Crows are great thieves
and are attracted by bright objects. If you have a tame crow, and if
any member of your household misses jewellery or thimbles you had
better look in the crows' nest before you think that burglars have
been around.

The chief difference between tamed wild animals, such as squirrels,
birds, owls, foxes, crows and so on, and the domesticated animals and
birds, dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, pigeons and chickens, lies in
the possibility with the latter of modifying nature and breeding for
certain special markings, colours or size. All breeds of chickens from
the little bantams to the enormous Brahmas have been bred from a wild
species of chicken found in India and called the jungle fowl.

All the great poultry shows held throughout the country annually are
for the purpose of exhibiting the most perfectly marked specimens of
the breeders' skill. This is decided by judges who award prizes. The
competition is sometimes very keen. In barred Plymouth Rock chickens,
for example, there are sometimes a hundred birds entered to compete
for a single prize. The breeders are called fanciers. The principal
breeders of certain animals such as rabbits, pigeons or poultry, form
an association or club and agree to an imaginary type of the animal
called the ideal or "Standard of Perfection."

For example, the breeders of white fantail pigeons agree that perfect
birds shall be of certain shape and size, with the head resting on the
back just at the base of the tail; the tail should be spread out like
a fan and contain at least twenty-eight feathers. These feathers
should be laced on the ends. The model fantail should have a nervous
jerky motion and never be at rest. Each of these points is given a
certain value on a scale of marking and in judging the birds they are
marked just as you may be in your lessons at school. The fancier tries
to breed a bird that comes the nearest to this model. The prizes are
sometimes of great value.

There is an enormous list of breeds in nearly all varieties of animals
and poultry. In pigeons alone there are carriers, pouters, tumblers,
baldheads, beards, dragoons, barbs, jacobins, Antwerps, turbits, owls,
orientals, damoscenes, capuchins, fantails, trumpeters, swifts,
Lahores, Burmese, Scandaroons, magpies, nuns, Archangels, runts and so
on.

These birds are very different in appearance, the pouter, for example,
has the power of inflating his crop until it puffs out in front as
large as a baseball. Jacobins or as they are commonly called,
"ruffle-necks," have an immense ruffle of feathers like a feather boa.
Dragoons have a huge wart on the bill as large as an almond. The
tumblers are so named from their habit of turning backward
somersaults during flight.

Almost every one who starts keeping domestic pets either soon tires of
the sport or becomes a fancier. The care of common pigeons is a very
simple matter. The principal thing is a good loft or cote for them in
the top of a barn or house. They will practically take care of
themselves and after a few years greatly increase in numbers.

A model pigeon house for breeding fancy pigeons requires separate
mating boxes, nests and other appliances. It would be impossible to
make much of a success with fancy pigeons if they are allowed their
liberty to fly about and mate at will.

The best nest boxes for pigeons are rough earthenware pans, eight
inches across, which may be bought cheaply at a bird store. The floor
of the cote should be covered with sawdust or gravel to the depth of
half an inch. Pigeons that are confined should be fed regularly on a
mixture of small grains and cracked corn. They should also be given
cracked oyster shells, grit and charcoal occasionally. A pigeon loft
should be rat proof and clean.

It is very doubtful whether there is any money in raising pigeons or
squabs for market. Fanciers never sell their output for market
purposes unless it is to get rid of surplus or undesirable stock. A
breeder who is successful in winning prizes with birds of his "strain"
as it is called will find a ready market with other breeders for all
the birds he cares to sell. Prize winning birds sometimes bring a
hundred dollars a pair. It is by no means easy to breed prizewinners
and the chances are that the beginner will be a buyer of stock rather
than a seller.

Homing pigeons or as they are commonly called, carriers, are not bred
for special markings like fancy pigeons but because of their power and
speed in flight. A carrier has the "homing" instinct more fully
developed than any other animal. In some homing pigeon races, the
birds have made speed records of over a mile a minute for many hours
and have flown over a thousand miles. If a well-bred homing pigeon
fails to return to his home loft it is almost a certainty that he is
either forcibly detained or that he has been killed by hunters or
hawks. Never try to capture a pigeon that may stop for a rest at your
loft. He may be in a race and his owner may be waiting for his return
five hundred miles away when every minute counts in winning a prize.

Another large class of birds that make fine pets although they are not
strictly in the class of birds bred by the fancier are the ornamental
land and water fowl. The chief objection to these birds as pets is the
expense of buying them. The list of birds in this class is very large.
In swans the leading varieties are mute, American whistling, black
Australian, white Berwick and black-necked swans. The largest class
are the pheasants. They are exceedingly beautiful, especially the
golden, silver, Lady Amherst, Elliott, Reeves, green Japanese,
Swinhoe, English ring neck, Melanotis, and Torquatis pheasants. The
common wild geese are Egyptian, Canadian, white-fronted, Sebastopol,
snow, brant, bar-headed, spin-winged and many others. In ducks, there
are mallards, black, wood, mandarin, blue and green winged teal,
widgeon, redhead, pin-tail, bluebill, gadwell, call and many others.
Beside pheasants, ducks and geese there are also the various storks,
cranes, pea-fowl and herons in the "ornamental fowl" list.

These are all wild fowl. The commoner varieties will cost from six to
fifteen dollars a pair and the rare ones several hundred. To keep the
semi-wild birds from flying away they are usually pinioned, a process
of taking off the end joint of one wing. The colours of some of the
ornamental fowl are more beautiful than any birds in nature. Pheasants
especially are easily cared for and make interesting pets. They can
be tamed and if kept outdoors they will seldom be subject to disease.
Most of these birds are as easily cared for as chickens.

[Illustration: A home-made rabbit house]

Rabbits make fine pets for boys and girls. They are clean in their
habits, hardy and gentle. The common kinds are white rabbits with pink
eyes or albinos, and brown rabbits or Belgian hares. With rabbits also
there is a "fancy." The Fur Fanciers' Association recognizes the
following distinct breeds: Belgians, Flemish giants, Dutch marked,
English, Himalayan, silvers, tans, Polish, lops, and Angoras.

A rabbit hutch or coop is easily built from old packing boxes. One
third of the coop should be darkened and made into a nest, with an
entrance door outside and the rest simply covered with a wire front,
also with a door for cleaning and feeding. The hutch should stand on
legs above ground as rabbits do not thrive well in dampness. They
will, however, live out all winter in a dry place. A box four feet
long and two feet wide will hold a pair of rabbits nicely. Rabbits
will become very tame and may often be allowed full liberty about the
place if there are no dogs to molest them.

The drawing shows a standard type of rabbit hutch. A boy who is handy
with tools can easily build one. We can always dispose of the increase
in our rabbit family to friends or to dealers.

Guinea pigs or cavies are similar to rabbits in their requirements.
The chief difference is that guinea pigs cannot stand excessive cold
and will not do well if kept outside in severe winter weather. Rabbits
and cavies will eat almost anything and eat constantly. The usual feed
is hay, clover, wheat, corn, carrots, turnips, cabbage, lettuce,
celery, potato parings, or any green food or grains. Cavies are
especially fond of bread and milk.

The three classes of cavies are Peruvians or Angoras, with long silky
hair; Abyssinians, with coarse hair in tufts or rosettes, and the
common guinea pig or smooth, cavy. A pair of cavies will cost about
two dollars. A dry airy cellar is a good place to keep them as they
are cleanly in their habits. Neither cavies nor rabbits are especially
intelligent but they do learn to know their master or at least the one
who feeds them. Pet rats and mice are in the same class as rabbits but
they should always have a coop that they will not gnaw out of. There
is even a mouse club. It is in Europe and has over a thousand members.

An interesting example of skill in breeding is seen in Dutch belted
varieties of cattle, in hogs, rabbits, cavies and mice. In all of
these animals the same markings have been bred by careful crossing and
selection. In all lines of "fancy" it is important to stick to a few
varieties. We shall never make much of a success if we have half a
dozen kinds of chickens, pigeons or rabbits. By far the most important
"fancy" is with chickens, but this subject will be considered in the
chapter on the care of poultry.

Among other pets are tame squirrels, turtles, snakes, lizards and
toads. A tame gray squirrel makes a splendid pet. After a while we can
give our squirrel full liberty and find him back in his nest at night.
I once had a tame owl but I found that because of his habit of flying
and feeding at night he was a very stupid pet. Besides that his
powerful beak and sharp claws or talons were dangerous. I also once
had a pair of flying squirrels but they also only appear at night and
were consequently uninteresting in the daytime. We must always study
the natural habits of our pets and try to give them coops and food as
much like nature as possible. My flying squirrels were given soft feed
in place of the usual hard-shelled nuts. Consequently their teeth grew
so long that they were a positive deformity. We finally liberated them
but before they could get to a place of safety one of them was caught
and killed by a chicken. The poor little creature was so fat from
overfeeding and lack of exercise that he had all but lost the power of
using his legs.

Coops for pets may be as elaborate as our pocketbook will allow. The
important things to remember are to construct a coop so that it may be
cleaned easily, and to provide plenty of ventilation. It must also be
dry. Fresh air is as important for animals as for people. The larger
we can make a coop, the better it will be. Be careful not to overfeed
pets. Regular and frequent meals of just what they will eat up clean
is better than an occasional big meal. Rabbits require very little
water. Usually they will obtain enough moisture from the green food
they eat. It is a mistake, however, to think that water will kill
rabbits. Change the straw in the nest boxes frequently. When they make
fur nests do not disturb them.

For squirrels and other small animals, the coop may be made entirely
of wire except the baseboard, which should be a piece of seasoned
wood. Be sure that there are no sharp wire points or projecting nails
in a coop to injure the animals.

The whole secret of taming wild creatures is patience. We must try to
show them that we are their friends. The most direct way to an
animal's heart is through his stomach, which is another way of saying
that the owner should personally feed his own pets if he wishes them
to know him.

There is really no reason why a country boy or girl should have any
caged pets at all. In the city it is different. Perhaps the best pet
for the unnatural conditions of city life is a canary. The real spirit
to develop a love for the little creatures that inhabit our woods and
fields is to feel that they are our friends rather than that they are
prisoners. By all means cultivate the acquaintance of your "small
country neighbours."





Next: THE DOG

Previous: WATER LIFE



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