Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt



Philomela, or the Nightingale, is the head of the somewhat large bird-family of Warblers, and is the most renowned of all feathered songsters, though some judges think the gardenousel exceeds it in mellowness, and the thrush in compass of voice, but that, in every other respect, it excels them all. For my part, however, I think no singing-bird is equal to it; and listening to it when in full song, in the stillness of a summer's night, am ready to say with good old Izaak Walton: --

"The nightingale, another of my airy creatures, breathes such sweet music out of her little instrumental throat, that it might make mankind to think that miracles had not ceased. He that at midnight, when the weary labourer sleeps securely, should hear, as I have very often heard, the clear airs, the sweet descants, the natural rising and falling, the doubling and redoubling of her voice, might well be lifted above earth and say, ' Lord, what music hast Thou provided for the saints in heaven, when Thou affordest bad men such music on earth!' "

In colour, the upper parts of the nightingale are of a rich brown; the tail of a reddish tint; the throat and underparts of the body, greyish-white; the neck and breast, grey; the bill and legs, light brown. Its size is about that of the garden warblers, which it resembles in form -- being, in fact, one of that family. Thus, the most admired of all singers -- the subject of poets' songs and eulogies, the bird that people walk far and wide to listen to, of which they talk for weeks before it comes, noting down the day of its arrival as if it were the Queen or the Queen's son -- is yet nothing but a little insignificant brown bird, not to be named with the parrot for plumage, nor with our little goldfinch, who always looks as if he had his Sunday suit on. But this is a good lesson for us. The little brown nightingale, with his little brown wife in the thickety copse, with their simple unpretending nest, not built up aloft on the tree branch, but humbly at the tree's root, or even on the very ground itself, may teach us that the world's external show or costliness is not true greatness. The world's best bird-singer might have been as big as an eagle, attired in colours of blue and scarlet and orange like the grandest macaw. But the great Creator willed that it should not be so -- his strength, and his furiousness, and his cruel capacity were sufficient for the eagle, and his shining vestments for the macaw; whilst the bird to which was given the divinest gift of song must be humble and unobtrusive, small of size, with no surpassing beauty of plumage, and loving best to hide itself in the thick seclusion of the copse in which broods the little mother-bird, the very counterpart of himself, upon her olive-coloured eggs.

Mr. Harrison Weir has given us a sweet little picture of the nightingale at home. Somewhere, not far off, runs the highroad, or it may be a pleasant woodland lane leading from one village to another, and probably known as," Nightingale-lane," and traversed night after night by rich and poor, learned and unlearned, to listen to the bird. In our own neighbourhood we have a " Nightingale-lane," with its thickety copses on either hand, its young oaks and Spanish chestnuts shooting upwards, and tangles of wild roses and thick masses of brambles throwing their long sprays over old, mossy, and ivied stumps of trees, cut or blown down in the last generation -- little pools and water courses here and there, with their many-coloured mosses and springing rushes -- a very paradise for birds. This is in Surrey, and Surrey nightingales, it is said, are the finest that sing. With this comes the saddest part of the story. Bird-catchers follow the nightingale, and, once in his hands, farewell to the pleasant copse with the young oaks and Spanish chestnuts, the wild rose tangles, the little bosky hollow at the old tree root, in one of which the little nest is built and the little wife broods on her eggs!

Generally, however, the unhappy bird, if he be caught, is taken soon after his arrival in this country; for nightingales are migratory, and arrive with us about the middle of April. The male bird comes about a fortnight before the female, and begins to sing in his loneliness a song of salutation -- a sweet song, which expresses, with a tender yearning, his desire for her companionship. Birds taken at this time, before the mate has arrived, and whilst he is only singing to call and welcome her, are said still to sing on through the summer in the hope, long-deferred, that she may yet come. He will not give her up though he is no longer in the freedom of the wood, so he sings and sings, and if he live over the winter, he will sing the same song the following spring, for the want is again in his heart. He cannot believe but that she will still come. The cruel bird-catchers, therefore, try all their arts to take him in this early stage of his visit to us. Should he be taken later, when he is mated, and, as we see him in our picture, with all the wealth of his little life around him, he cannot sing long. How should he -- in a narrow cage and dingy street of London or some other great town -- perhaps with his eyes put out -- for his cruel captor fancies he sings best if blind? He may sing, perhaps, for a while, thinking that he can wake himself out of this dreadful dream- of captivity, darkness, and solitude. But it dream; the terrible reality at length comes upon him, and before the summer is over he dies of a broken heart.

It is a curious fact that the nightingale confines itself, without apparent reason, to certain countries and to certain parts of England. For instance, though it visits Sweden, and even the temperate parts of Russia, it is not met with in Scotland, North Wales, nor Ireland, neither is it found in any of our northern counties excepting Yorkshire, and there only in the neighbourhood of Doncaster. Neither is it known in the south-western counties, as Cornwall and Devonshire. It is supposed to migrate during the winter into Egypt and Syria. It has been seen amongst the willows of Jordan and the olive trees of Judea, but we have not, to our knowledge, any direct mention of it in the Scriptures, though Solomon no doubt had it in his thoughts, in his sweet description of the spring -- " Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." A recent traveller in Syria tells me that she heard nightingales singing at four o'clock one morning in April of last year in the lofty regions of the Lebanon.

There have been various attempts to introduce the nightingale into such parts of this country as it has not yet frequented; for instance, a gentleman of Gower, a sea-side district of Glamorganshire, the climate of which is remarkably mild, procured a number of young birds from Norfolk and Surrey, hoping that they would find themselves so much at home in the beautiful woods there as to return the following year. But none came. Again, as regards Scotland, Sir John Sinclair purchased a large number of nightingales' eggs, at a shilling each, and employed several men to place them carefully in robins' nests to be hatched. So far all succeeded well. The foster-mothers reared the nightingales, which, when full fledged, flew about as if quite at home. But when September came, the usual month for the migration of the nightingale, the mysterious impulse awoke in the hearts of the young strangers, and, obeying it, they suddenly disappeared and never after returned.

Mr. Harrison Weir has given us a very accurate drawing of the nightingale's nest, which is slight and somewhat fragile in construction, made of withered leaves -- mostly of oak -- and lined with dry grass. The author of " British Birds " describes one in his possession as composed of slips of the inner bark of willow, mixed with the leaves of the lime and the elm, lined with fibrous roots, grass, and a few hairs; but whatever the materials used may be, the effect produced is exactly the same.

In concluding our little chapter on this bird, I would mention that in the Turkish cemetries, which, from the old custom of planting a cypress at the head and foot of every grave, have now become cypress woods, nightingales abound, it having been also an old custom of love to keep these birds on every grave.