Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt



The Goldfinch, which is cousin to the Linnet, is wonderfully clever and docile, as I shall show you presently. In the first place, however, let me say a word or two about bird cleverness in general, which I copy from Jules Michelet's interesting work, " The Bird." Speaking of the great, cruel, and rapacious family of the Raptores, or Birds of Prey, he expresses satisfaction in the idea that this race of destroyers is decreasing, and that there may come a time when they no longer exist on the earth. He has no admiration for them, though they may be the swiftest of the swift, and the strongest of the strong, because they put forth none of the higher qualities of courage, address, or patient endurance in taking their prey, which are all weak and powerless in comparison with themselves; their poor unoffending victims. "All these cruel tyrants of the air," he says, "like the serpents, have flattened skulls, which show the want of intellect and intelligence. These birds of prey, with their small brains, offer a striking contrast to the amiable and intelligent species which we find amongst the smaller birds. The head of the former is only a beak, that of the latter is a face." Afterwards, to prove this more strongly, he gives a table to show the proportion of brain to the size of the body in these different species of birds. Thus the chaffinch, the sparrow, and the goldfinch, have more than six times as much brain as the eagle in proportion to the size of the body. We may look, therefore, for no less than six times his intelligence and docile ability. Whilst in the case of the little tomtit it is thirteen times as much.

But now for the goldfinch, of which our cut -- which is both faithful and beautiful -- shows us a pair, evidently contemplating with much satisfaction the nest which they have just finished on one of the topmost boughs of a blossomy apple-tree. This nest is a wonderful little fabric, built of moss, dry grass, and slender roots, lined with hair, wool, and thistle-down; but the true wonder of the nest is the exact manner in which the outside is made to imitate the bough upon which it is placed. All its little ruggednesses and lichen growths are represented,, whilst the colouring is so exactly that of the old apple-tree that it is almost impossible to know it from the branch itself Wonderful ingenuity of instinct, which human skill would find It almost impossible to imitate!

The bird lays mostly five eggs, which are of a bluish-grey, spotted with greyish-purple or brown, and sometimes with a dark streak or two.

The goldfinch is one of the most beautiful of our English birds, with its scarlet forehead, and quaint little black velvet-like cap brought down over its white cheeks; its back is cinnamon brown, and its breast white; its wings are beautifully varied in black and white, as are also its tail feathers. In the midland counties it is known as "The Proud Tailor," probably because its attire looks so bright and fresh, and it has a lively air as if conscious of being well dressed.

Like its relation, the linnet, it congregates in flocks as soon as its young can take wing, when they may be seen wheeling round in the pleasant late summer and autumn fields, full of life, and in the enjoyment of the plenty that surrounds them, in the ripened thistle-down, and all such winged seeds as are then floating in the air.

How often have I said it is worth while to go out into the woods and fields, and, bringing yourself into a state of quietness, watch the little birds in their life's employment, building their nests, feeding their young, or pursuing their innocent diversions! So now, on this pleasant, still autumn afternoon, if you will go into the old pasture fields where the thistles have not been stubbed up for generations, or on the margin of the old lane where ragwort, and groundsel, and burdock flourish abundantly, "let us," as the author of "British Birds" says, "stand still to observe a flock of goldfinches. They flutter over, the plants, cling to the stalks, bend in various attitudes, disperse the down, already dry and winged, like themselves, for flight, pick them out one by one and swallow them. Then comes a stray cow followed by a herd boy. At once the birds cease their labour, pause for a moment, and fly off in succession. You observe how lightly and buoyantly they cleave the air, each fluttering its little wings, descending in a curved line, mounting again, and speeding along. Anon they alight in a little thicket of dried weeds, and, in settling, display to the delighted eye the beautiful tints of their plumage, as with fluttering wings and expanded tail, they hover for a moment to select a landing place amid the prickly points of the stout thistles whose heads are now bursting with downy-winged seeds."

The song of the goldfinch, which begins about the end of March, is very sweet, unassuming, and low -- similar to that of the linnet, but singularly varied and pleasant.

Now, however, we must give a few instances of this bird's teachable sagacity, which, indeed, are so numerous that it is difficult to make a selection.

Mr. Syme, in his "British Song Birds," says, "The goldfinch is easily tamed and taught, and its capacity for learning the notes of other birds is well known. A few years ago the Sieur Roman exhibited a number of trained birds: they were goldfinches, linnets, and canaries. One appeared dead, and was held up by the tail or claw without exhibiting any signs of life; a second stood on its head with its claws in the air; a third imitated a Dutch milkmaid going to market with pails on its shoulders; a fourth mimicked a Venetian girl looking out at a window; a fifth appeared as a soldier, and mounted guard as a sentinel; whilst a sixth acted as a cannonier, with a cap on its head, a firelock on its shoulder, and a match in its claw, and discharged a small cannon. The same bird also acted as if it had been wounded. It was wheeled in a barrow as if to convey it to the hospital, after which it flew away before the whole company. The seventh turned a kind of windmill; and the last bird stood in the midst of some fireworks which were discharged all round it, and this without showing the least sign of fear."

Others, as I have said, may be taught, to draw up their food and water, as from a well, in little buckets. All this is very wonderful, and shows great docility in the bird; but I cannot greatly admire it, from the secret fear that cruelty or harshness may have been used to teach them these arts so contrary to their nature. At all events it proves what teachable and clever little creatures they are, how readily they may be made to understand the will of their master, and how obediently and faithfully they act according to it.

Man, however, should always stand as a human Providence to the animal world. In him the creatures should ever find their friend and protector; and were it so we should then see many an astonishing faculty displayed; and birds would then, instead of being the most timid of animals, gladden and beautify our daily life by their sweet songs, their affectionate regard, and their amusing and imitative little arts.

The early Italian and German painters introduce a goldfinch into their beautiful sacred pictures -- generally on the ground -- hopping at the feet of some martyred saint or love-commissioned angel, perhaps from an old legend of the bird's sympathy with the suffering Saviour, or from an intuitive sense that the divine spirit of Christianity extends to bird and beast as well as to man.