Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt



We have here a charming picture of one of the finest and noblest of our song-birds -- the thrush, throstle, or mavis. The trees are yet leafless, but the bird is in the act of building, whilst her mate, on the tree-top, pours forth his exquisite melody. The almost completed nest, like a richly ornamented bowl, is before us.

This bird belongs to a grandly musical family, being own cousin to the missel-thrush and the blackbird, each one having a kindred song, but all, at the same time, distinctly characteristic.

The colouring of the thrush is soft and very pleasing; the upper parts of a yellowish-brown; the chin, white; the under part of the body, grayish white; the throat, breast, and sides of the neck, yellowish, thickly spotted with dark brown.

The thrush remains with us the whole year, and may occasionally be heard singing even in the winter, though April, May, and June are the months when he is in fullest song. They pair in March, and by the end of that month, or early in April, begin to build. They have several broods in the year. The nest, which, as we see, is commodious, is placed at no great height from the ground, in a thick bush or hedge, and sometimes, also, in a rough bank, amongst bushes and undergrowth. They are particularly fond of spruce-fir plantations, building on one of the low, spreading branches, close to the stem. Though the structure is so solid and substantial, yet it is built very rapidly; indeed, the thrush seems to be wide awake in all its movements 5 he is no loiterer, and does his work well. As a proof of his expedition I will mention that a pair of these birds began to build a second, perhaps, indeed, it might be a third nest, on a Thursday, June 15; on Friday afternoon the nest was finished, and on Saturday morning the first egg was laid, though the interior plastering was not then dry. On the 21st the hen began to sit, and on the 17th of July the young birds were hatched.

The frame-work, so to speak, of the nest is composed of twigs, roots, grasses, and moss, the two latter being brought to the outside. Inside it is lined with a thin plastering of mud, cow-dung, and rotten wood, which is laid on quite smoothly, almost like the glaze on earthenware; nor is there an internal covering between this and the eggs. The circular form of the nest is as perfect as a bowl shaped upon a lathe, and often contracts inwards at the top. The eggs, which are generally five in number, are of a bright blue-green, spotted over with brownish-black, these spots being more numerous at the larger end.

The food of the thrush is mostly of an animal character, as worms, slugs, and snails; and, by seasides, small molluscs, as whelks and periwinkles. On all such as are enclosed in shells he exercises his ingenuity in a remarkable way. We ourselves lived at one time in an old house standing in an old garden where were many ancient trees and out-buildings, in the old ivied roots and walls of which congregated great quantities of shell-snails. One portion of this garden, which enclosed an old,  disused dairy, was a great resort of thrushes, where they had, so to speak, their stones of sacrifice, around which lay heaps of the broken shells of snails, their victims. I have repeatedly watched them at work: hither they brought their snails, and, taking their stand by the stone with the snail in their beak, struck it repeatedly against the stone, till, the shell being smashed, they picked it out as easily as the oyster is taken from its opened shell. This may seem easy work with the slendershelled snail, but the labour is considerably greater with hard shell-fish. On this subject the intelligent author of " British Birds " says, that many years ago, when in the Isle of Harris, he frequently heard a sharp sound as of one small stone being struck upon another, the cause of which he, for a considerable time, sought for in vain. At length, one day, being in search of birds when the tide was out, he heard the well-known click, and saw a bird standing between two flat stones, moving its head and body alternately up and down, each downward motion being accompanied by the sound which had hitherto been so mysterious. Running up to the spot, he found a thrush, which, flying off, left a whelk, newly-broken, lying amongst fragments of shells lying around the stone.

Thrushes are remarkably clean and neat with regard to their nests, suffering no litter or impurity to lie about, and in this way are a great example to many untidy people. Their domestic character, too, is excellent, the he-bird now and then taking the place of the hen on the eggs, and, when not doing so, feeding her as she sits. When the young are hatched, the parents may be seen, by those who will watch them silently and patiently, frequently stretching out the wings of the young as if to  exercise them, and pruning and trimming their feathers. To put their love of cleanliness to the proof, a gentleman, a great friend of all birds, had some sticky mud rubbed upon the backs of two of the young ones whilst the parents were absent. On their return, either by their own keen sense of propriety, or, perhaps, the complaint of the young ones, they saw what had happened, and were not only greatly disconcerted, but very angry, and instantly set to work to clean the little unfortunates, which, strange to say, they managed to do by making use of dry earth, which they brought to the nest for that purpose. Human intellect could not have suggested a better mode.

This same gentleman determined to spend a whole day in discovering how the thrushes spent it. Hiding himself, therefore, in a little hut of fir boughs, he began his observations in the early morning of the 8th of June. At half-past two o'clock, the birds began to feed their brood, and in two hours had fed them thirty- six times. It was now half-past five, the little birds were all wide awake, and one of them, whilst pruning its feathers, lost its balance and fell out of the nest to the ground. On this the old ones set up the most doleful lamentations, and the gentleman, coming out of his retreat, put the little one back into the nest. This kind action, however, wholly disconcerted the parents, nor did they again venture to feed their young till an artifice of the gentleman led them to suppose that he was gone from their neighbourhood. No other event happened to them through the day, and by half-past nine o'clock at night, when all went to rest, the young ones had been fed two hundred and six times.

Thrushes, however, become occasionally so extremely tame that the female will remain upon her eggs and feed her young, without any symptom of alarm, in the close neighbourhood of man. Of this I will give an instance from Bishop Stanley's "History of Birds " --

"A short time ago, in Scotland, some carpenters working in a shed adjacent to the house observed a thrush flying in and out, which induced them to direct their attention to the cause, when, to their surprise, they found a nest commenced amongst the teeth of a harrow, which, with other farming tools and implements, was placed upon the joists of the shed, just over their heads. The carpenters had arrived soon after six o'clock, and at seven, when they found the nest, it was in a great state of forwardness, and had evidently been the morning's work of a pair of these indefatigable birds. Their activity throughout the day was incessant; and, when the workmen came the next morning, they found the female seated in her half-finished mansion, and, when she flew off for a short time, it was found that she had laid an egg. When all was finished, the he-bird took his share of the labour, and, in thirteen days, the young birds were out of their shells, the refuse of which the old ones carried away from the spot. All this seems to have been carefully observed by the workmen; and it is much to their credit that they were so quiet and friendly as to win the confidence of the birds."

The song of the thrush is remarkable for its rich, mellow intonation, and for the great variety of its notes.

Unfortunately for the thrush, its exquisite power as a songster makes it by no means an unusual prisoner. You are often startled by hearing, from the doleful upper window of some dreary court or alley of London, or some other large town, an outpouring of joyous, full-souled melody from an imprisoned thrush, which, perfect as it is, saddens you, as being so wholly out of place. Yet who can say how the song of that bird may speak to the soul of many a town-imprisoned passer-by? Wordsworth thus touchingly describes an incident of this kind: --

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,

Hangs a thrush that sings loud; it has sung for three years:

Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard.

In the silence of morning, the song of the bird.


Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,

Down which she so often has tripped with her pail.

And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove's.

The one only dwelling on earth which she loves.


'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? she sees

A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;

Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide.

And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.


She looks, and her heart is in heaven: but they fade --

The mist and the river, the hill, sun, and shade:

The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise.

And the colours have all passed away from her eyes.