Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt



The Dipper, or Water-ousel, of which Mr. Weir has given us a charming and faithful portrait, is very like a wren in form and action, with its round body and lively little tail. Its mode of flight, however, so nearly resembles the king-fisher that, in some places, the country people mistake it for the female of that bird. But it is neither wren nor kingfisher, nor yet related to either of them. It is the nice little water-ousel, with ways of its own, and a cheerful life of its own, and the power of giving pleasure to all lovers of the free country which is enriched with an infinite variety of happy, innocent creatures.

The upper part of the head and neck, and the whole back and wings of this bird, are of a rusty-brown; but, as each individual feather is edged with gray, there is no deadness of colouring. The throat and breast are snowy white, which, contrasting so strongly with the rest of the body, makes it seem to flash about like a point of light through the dark shadows of the scenes it loves to haunt.

I said above that this bird gave pleasure to all lovers of nature. So it does, for it is only met with in scenes which are especially beloved by poets and painters. Like them, it delights in mountain regions, where rocky streams rush along with an unceasing murmur, leaping over huge stones, slumbering in deep, shadowy pools, or lying low between rocky walls, in the moist crevices and on the edges of which the wild rose flings out its pale green branches, gemmed with flowers, or the hardy polypody nods, like a feathery plume. On these streams, with their foamy waters and graceful vegetation, you may look for the cheerful little water-ousel. He is perfectly in character with the scenes.

And now, supposing that you are happily located for a few weeks in summer, either in Scotland or Wales, let me repeat my constant advice as regards the study and truest enjoyment of country life and things. Go out for several hours; do not be in a hurry; take your book, or your sketching, or whatever your favourite occupation may be, if it be only a quiet one, and seat yourself by some rock)^ stream amongst the mountains; choose the pleasantest place you know, where the sun can reach you, if you need his warmth, and if you do not, where you can yet witness the beautiful effects of light and shade. There seat yourself quite at your ease, silent and still as though you were a piece of rock itself, half screened by that lovely wild rose bush, or tangle of bramble, and before long you will most likely see this merry, lively little dipper come with his quick, jerking flight, now alighting on this stone, now on that, peeping here, and peeping there, as quick as light, and snapping up, now a water-beetle, now a tiny fish, and now diving down into the stream for a worm that he espies below, or walking into the shallows, and there flapping his wings, more for the sheer delight of doing so than for anything else. Now he is off and away, and, in a moment or two, he is on yonder gray mass of stone, which rises up in that dark chasm of waters like a rock in a stormy sea, with the rush and roar of the water full above him. Yet there he is quite at home, flirting his little tail like a jenny wren, and hopping- about on his rocky point, as if he could not for the life of him be still for a moment. Now listen! That is his song, and a merry little song it is, just such a one as you would fancy coming out of his jocund little heart; and, see now, he begins his antics. He must be a queer little soul! If we could be little dippers like him, and understand what his song and all his grimaces are about, we should not so often find the time tedious for want of something to do.

We may be sure he is happy, and that he has, in the round of his small experience, all that his heart desires. He has this lonely mountain stream to hunt in, these leaping, chattering, laughing waters to bear him company, all these fantastically heaped-up stones, brought hither by furious winter torrents of long ago -- that dashing, ever roaring, ever foaming waterfall, in the spray of which the summer sunshine weaves rainbows. All these wild roses and honeysuckles, all this maiden hair, and this broad polypody, which grows golden in autumn, make up his little kingdom, in the very heart of which, under a ledge of rock, and within sound, almost within the spray of the waterfall, is built the curious little nest, very like that of a wren, in which sits the hen-bird, the little wife of the dipper, brooding with most unwearied love on four or five white eggs, lightly touched with red.

This nest is extremely soft and elastic, sometimes of large size, the reason for which one cannot understand. It is generally near to the water, and, being kept damp by its situation, is always so fresh, looking so like the mass of its immediate surroundings as scarcely to be discoverable by the quickest eye. When the young are hatched they soon go abroad with the parents, and then, instead of the one solitary bird, you may see them in little parties of from five to seven going on in the same sort of way, only all the merrier because there are more of them.