Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt



The Blackbird is familiar to us all. It is a thoroughly English bird, and, with its cousin the thrush, is not only one of the pleasantest features in our English spring and summer landscape, but both figure in our old poetry and ballads, as the " merle and the mavis," " the blackbird and the throstle-cock;" for those old poets loved the country, and could not speak of the greenwood without the bird.

When shaws are sheen and fields are fair,

     And leaves both large and long,

'Tis merry walk'ng in the green forest

     To hear the wild birds' song;


The wood merle sings, and will not cease,

     Sitting upon a spray;

The merle and the mavis shout their fill,

     From morn till the set of day.

The blackbird takes its name from a very intelligible cause -- its perfectly black plumage, which, however, is agreeably relieved by the bright orange of its bill, the orange circles round its eyes, and its yellow feet; though this is peculiar only to the male, nor does he assume this distinguishing colour till his second year. The female is of a dusky-brown colour.

Sometimes the singular variety of a white blackbird occurs, which seems to astonish even.its fellow birds; the same phenomenon also occurs amongst sparrows; a fatal distinction to the poor birds, who are in consequence very soon shot.

This bird is one of our finest singers. His notes are solemn and flowing, unlike those of the thrush, which are short, quick, and extremely varied. The one bird is more lyrical, the other sings in a grand epic strain. A friend of ours, deeply versed in bird-lore, maintains that the blackbird is oratorical, and sings as if delivering an eloquent rhythmical oration.

This bird begins to sing early in the year, and continues his song during the whole time that the hen is sitting. Like his relatives, the thrush and the missel thrush, he takes his post on the highest branch of a tree, near his nest, so that his song is heard far and wide; and in fact, through the whole pleasant spring you hear the voices of these three feathered kings of English song constantly filling the woods and fields with their melody. The blackbird sings deliciously in rain, even during a thunderstorm, with the lightning flashing round him. Indeed, both he and the thrush seem to take great delight in summer showers.

The blackbird has a peculiar call, to give notice to his brood of the approach of danger; probably, however, it belongs both to male and female. Again, there is a third note, very peculiar also, heard only in the dusk of evening, and which seems pleasingly in harmony with the approaching shadows of night. By this note they call each other to roost, in the same way as partridges call each other to assemble at night, however far they may be asunder.

The nest of the blackbird is situated variously; most frequently in the thicker parts of hedges; sometimes in the hollow of a stump or amongst the curled and twisted roots of old trees, which, projecting from the banks of woods or woodland lanes, wreathed with their trails of ivy, afford the most picturesque little hollows for the purpose. Again, it may be found under the roof of out-houses or cart-sheds, laid on the wall-plate; and very frequently in copses, in the stumps of pollard trees, partly concealed by their branches; and is often begun before the leaves are on the trees. The nest is composed of dry bents, and lined with fine dry grass. The hen generally lays five eggs, which are of a dusky bluish-green, thickly covered with black spots; altogether very much resembling those of crows, rooks, magpies, and that class of birds.

Universal favourite as the blackbird deservedly is, yet, in common with the thrush, all gardeners are their enemies from the great liking they have for his fruit, especially currants, raspberries, and cherries. There is, however, something very amusing, though, at the same time, annoying, in the sly way by which they approach these fruits, quite aware that they are on a mischievous errand. They steal along, flying low and silently, and, if observed, will hide themselves in the nearest growth of garden plants, scarlet runners, or Jerusalem artichokes, where they remain as still as mice, till they think the human enemy has moved off. If, however, instead of letting them skulk quietly in their hiding-place, he drives them away, they fly off with a curious note, very like a little chuckling laugh of defiance, as if they would say, " Ha! ha! we shall soon be back again!" which they very soon are.

But we must not begrudge them their share, though they neither have dug the ground nor sowed the seed, for very dull and joyless indeed would be the garden and the gardener's toil, and the whole country in short, if there were no birds -- no blackbirds and thrushes -- to gladden our hearts, and make the gardens, as well as the woods and fields, joyous with their melody. Like all good singers, these birds expect, and deserve, good payment.

The blackbird, though naturally unsocial and keeping much to itself, is very bold in defence of its young, should they be in danger, or attacked by any of the numerous bird-enemies, which abound everywhere, especially to those which are in immediate association with man. The Rev. J. G. Wood tells us, for instance, that on one occasion a prowling cat was forced to make an ignominious retreat before the united onset of a pair of blackbirds, on whose young she was about to make an attack.

Let me now, in conclusion, give a day with a family of blackbirds, which I somewhat curtail from Macgillivray.

"On Saturday morning, June 10th, I went into a little hut made of green branches, at half-past two in the morning, to see how the blackbirds spend the day at home. They lived close by, in a hole in an old wall, which one or other of them had occupied for a number of years.

"At a quarter-past three they began to feed their young, which were four in number. She was the most industrious in doing so; and when he was not feeding, he was singing most deliciously. Towards seven o'clock the father-bird induced one of the young ones to fly out after him. But this was a little mistake, and, the bird falling, I was obliged to help it into its nest again, which made a little family commotion. They were exceedingly tidy about their nest, and when a little rubbish fell out they instantly carried it away. At ten o'clock the feeding began again vigorously, and continued till two, both parent-birds supplying their young almost equally.

"The hut in which I sat was very closely covered; but a little wren having alighted on the ground in pursuit of a fly, and seeing one of my legs moving, set up a cry of alarm, on which, in the course of a few seconds, all the birds in the neighbourhood collected to know what was the matter. The blackbird hopped round the hut again and again, making every effort to peep in, even alighting on the top within a few inches of my head, but not being able to make any discovery, the tumult subsided. It was probably considered a false alarm, and the blackbirds went on feeding their young till almost four o'clock: and now came the great event of the day.

"At about half-past three the mother brought a large worm, four inches in length probably, which she gave to one of the young ones, and flew away. Shortly afterwards returning,, she had the horror of perceiving that the worm, instead of being swallowed was sticking in its throat; on this she uttered a perfect moan of distress, which immediately brought the he-bird, who also saw at a glance what a terrible catastrophe was to be feared. Both parents made several efforts to push the worm down the throat, but to no purpose, when, strange to say, the father discovered the cause of the accident. The outer end of the worm had got entangled in the feathers of the breast, and, being held fast, could not be swallowed. He carefully disengaged it, and, holding it up with his teak, the poor little thing, with a great effort, managed to get it down, but was by this time so exhausted that it lay with its eyes shut and without moving for the next three hours. The male-bird in the meantime took his stand upon a tree, a few yards from the nest, and poured forth some of his most enchanting notes -- a song of rejoicing no doubt for the narrow escape from death of one of his family.

"From four till seven o'clock both birds again fed their young, after which the male bird left these family duties to his mate, and gave himself up to incessant singing. At twenty minutes to nine their labours ceased, they having then fed their young one hundred and thirteen times during the day.

"I observed that before feeding their young they always alighted upon a tree and looked round them for a few seconds. Sometimes they brought in a quantity of worms and fed their brood alternately; at other times they brought one which they gave to only one of them.

"The young birds often trimmed their feathers, and stretched out their wings; they also appeared to sleep now and then.

"With the note of alarm which the feathered tribes set up on the discovery of their enemies all the different species of the little birds seem to be intimately acquainted; for no sooner did a beast or bird of prey make its appearance, than they seemed to be anxiously concerned about the safety of their families. They would hop from tree to tree uttering their doleful lamentations. At one time the blackbirds were in an unusual state of excitement and terror, and were attended by crowds of their woodland friends. A man and boy, who were working in my garden, having heard the noise, ran to see what was the cause of it, and on looking into some branches which were lying on the ground, observed a large weasel stealing slyly along in pursuit of its prey. It was, however, driven effectually from the place without doing any harm. It is astonishing how soon the young know this intimation of danger; for I observed that no sooner did the old ones utter the alarm-cry, than they cowered in their nest, and appeared to be in a state of great uneasiness."