There is a runt in all broods. Johnny was the littlest snowbird born in his parent’s brood. His larger brothers and sisters shoved Johnny aside when food was brought to the nest. He grew slowly at first; then, he quit growing altogether and began to weaken.
One day his mother told him that there was a cruel, harsh world beyond the warmth and security of the nest. “Not every snowbird is meant to succeed in the world beyond the nest.” With great sadness, she continued, “You are one of the innocents, who is destined to die young.”
"This seems cruel," she sighed. "Maybe it is for the best. The largest and strongest snowbirds produce the most successful offspring, which means that our species will survive and prosper."
Saddened and resigned, the littlest snowbird snuggled down in the deepest hollow of the nest to wait for an early death. But even as he waited, something began to stir in the deepest recesses of his tiny bosom. “I do not want to die. I wanted to go forth into the world, even if it is a cruel, harsh and dangerous world.” Peeping loudly, Johnny pushed his way into the center of the noisy throng waiting for food.
Johnny made the choice to live.
Johnny succeeded—just often enough—in getting his share of food. He managed to stay alive until, one-by-one, his brothers and sisters left the nest. Although his mother and father were reluctant to do so, once Johnny’s brothers and sisters fledged, his spirited peeping caused them to continue delivering food to him. Alone in the nest, he got more than enough food.
At last, Johnny was able to leave the nest. Right away he found out that his mother was right. It was a cruel, harsh world. Dangers lurked everywhere. First he was nearly caught by a cat. Then he barely avoided getting eaten by a hawk that regularly fed on the slowest, weakest birds. He found that it was difficult to compete for food.
His parents, his brothers and sisters, and many other snowbirds got their food from a large feeder near the home nest. The food was good, but there was only room for two or three birds at a time. The largest, strongest and most aggressive birds drove the weaker birds away. And, the competition also was fierce for the food that dropped from the feeder to the ground. Johnny was almost always the last to eat. He barely got enough to stay alive. Once again, his strength began to ebb.
In desperation, he left the feeder and began to look for other food. He flew farther and farther away. He flew so far, finally, that he could barely hear the cheerful, noisy and aggressive sounds of the birds at the feeder. Almost exhausted, he found some grasses that had gone to seed and ate his fill. He learned that being completely full was a wonderful feeling.
After he had eaten, Johnny found a sheltered bower near the grasses. Fluffing his feathers, he buried his head beneath one wing and settled down for a long nap. While he slept, he dreamed of the feeder where he had left his nest-mates and the many other birds. As if watching from above, he realized that his brothers and sisters and the other birds in
the flock were so spoiled by the easy dining at the feeder they had forgotten how to find natural food.
As soon as Johnny awoke from his dream, he went looking for more of the delicious grass seeds. Eating his fill, he began to explore. He flew this way and that way. Everywhere he went, he found more natural food.
Day after day, Johnny, who started out as the littlest snowbird, gained in size, strength and stamina. He found many new sources and kinds of food. He learned the best places to hide from the cat, the hawk, and other dangers. He was learning how to be more than just a survivor. Building on his early determination to live, he was able to survive each test that the cruel, harsh, dangerous world brought his way.
All through the first winter, Johnny, now large and strong, stayed warm and safe. He ate well. Back at the feeder, the other birds continued to rely on the readily available food. The fact that from time-to-time one of them became a meal for the cat or the hawk seemed normal to them. “Oh, well,” they reasoned. “That is just part of life and death.”
In early spring, the elderly woman who fed the birds was hospitalized. The food stopped appearing in the feeder. Just as the last food in the feeder was eaten, a bitter snowstorm struck. The snowbirds were without food and they were without proper shelter, since they chose to roost near the feeder rather than in the denser undergrowth away from the feeder.
Johnny was feeding at one of his favorite places when he heard a plaintive cry. He flew toward the sound. There, he found one of his sisters perched on a branch. She was cold and hungry and near death. He encouraged her to fly to his bower and brought her food. With great difficulty, because of her weakened state, she said that the food at the feeder was all gone and the terrible storm caught all of the birds at the feeder unprepared for its fury.
Johnny found his mother and led her back to the bower where his sister waited. Johnny fetched her some food. Then, leaving his sister in charge of feeding their mother, he made trip after trip to the area near the feeder, gathering more and more of the cold and hungry birds. The birds that were the first to recover helped the weaker ones by bringing them food. Johnny’s bower was nearly full of birds by the time darkness came.
By huddling together in the warm and secure bower, all of the snowbirds survived the bitter cold of the night. The morning dawned cold but sunny. All of the birds flew out and feasted on Johnny's choicest food supplies. Johnny, the littlest snowbird of the previous nesting season, saved his family and most of the other birds.
One fine day, Johnny came across an old fence. Bushes had grown up around it, making it almost invisible from above. This gave him an idea. The hawk, which left when the birds deserted the empty feeder, was back. As soon as Johnny saw the hawk, he flew out in plain sight and chirped loudly, right in front of the hawk. Almost at once, the hawk swooped down to kill the defenseless little snowbird. The hawk was so close that Johnny could feel the draft of the hawk's powerful wings. At the last moment, Johnny flew through the mesh of the fence. The mesh was just barely large enough to allow the little snowbird through, but the hawk slammed against the mesh with a heavy thud. Johnny flew to a safe perch and watched the hawk.
The hawk remained where it crashed for nearly an hour. At last it flew into a nearby evergreen tree where it rested. Later in the day, the hawk flew away and was never seen again.
The success that Johnny had with the hawk gave him another idea. The elderly lady was back from the hospital and filling the feeder on a regular basis. He studied the way the cat stalked those birds that were again using the feeder.
The cat's hunting methods gave Johnny an idea.
Johnny had all of the birds in the area divide into two groups. One small group gathered on the ground below the feeder, where the cat could easily see and hear them. The second group, in greater numbers, hid in the shrubs, as close to the birds on the ground as they could without being seen or heard by the cat.
The cat snuck up on the flock on the ground. Just as it was about to pounce on one of the birds, the hidden birds flew down on the cat. The birds flew at the cat all at once and from every direction. The tiny birds clawed and pecked at the cat. The startled cat let out a frightened yowl and fled. It, too, never came back.
Among the birds living in the bower was a female named Janet. She accepted Johnny’s mating displays. Soon Johnny and Janet began to build a nest. Not long after they finished the nest, Janet laid several eggs. Sometimes Johnny brought her food while she was on the nest, and sometimes he sat on the nest while Janet got food.
As the eggs hatched, Johnny and Janet worked hard to bring enough food to satisfy the always-hungry babies. In the brood there was a runt, but Johnny and Janet knew just what to do.