Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt



The Skylark, that beautiful singer, which carries its joy up to the very gates of heaven, as it were, has inspired more poets to sing about it than any other bird living.

Wordsworth says, as in an ecstasy of delight: --

Up with me! up with me into the clouds!

     For thy song, lark, is strong;

Up with me! up with me into the clouds!

     Singing, singing.

     With clouds and sky about me ringing,

Lift me, guide me till I find

That spot that seems so to my mind.

Shelley, in an ode which expresses the bird's ecstasy of song, also thus addresses it, in a strain of sadness peculiar to himself: --

     Hail to thee, blithe spirit!

          Bird, thou never wert --

     That from heaven, or near it,

          Pourest thy full heart 

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art!

     Higher, still, and higher

          From the earth thou springest.

     Like a cloud of fire;

         The deep blue thou wingest,

And singing still doth soar, and soaring ever singest!

     Better then all measures

          Of delightful sound,

     Better than all treasures

          That in books are found,

Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground.

     Teach me half the gladness

          That thy brain must know.

     Such harmonious madness

           From my lips should flow;

The world should listen then, as I am listening now.

James Hogg, the Ettrick shepherd, who had listened to the bird with delight on the Scottish hills, thus sings of it: --

          Bird of the wilderness.

          Blithesome and cumberless,

Sweet is thy matin o'er moorland and lea!

          Emblem of happiness.

          Blest is thy dwelling-place --

Oh, to abide in the desert with thee!

          Wild is thy lay, and loud;

          Far in the downy cloud

Love gives it energy, love gave it birth.

          Where on thy dewy wing,

          Where art thou journeying?

Thy lay is in heaven, thy love is on earth.

          O'er fell and fountain sheen.

          O'er moor and mountain green,

O'er the red streamer that heralds the day;

          Over the cloudlet dim,

          Over the rainbow's rim.

Musical cherub, soar, singing away!

          Then when the gloaming comes.

          Low in the heather blooms.

Sweet will thy welcome and bed of love be!

          Emblem of happiness.

          Blest is thy dwelling-place --

          Oh, to abide in the desert with thee!


But we must not forget the earthly life of the bird in all these sweet songs about him.

The plumage of the skylark is brown, in various shades; the fore-part of the neck, reddish-white, spotted with brown; the breast and under part of the body, yellowish-white. Its feet are peculiar, being furnished with an extraordinarily long hind claw, the purpose of which has puzzled many naturalists. But whatever nature intended it for, the bird has been known to make use of it for a purpose which cannot fail to interest us and call forth our admiration. This shall be presently explained. The nest is built on the ground, either between two clods of earth, in the deep foot-print of cattle, or some other small hollow suitable for the purpose, and is composed of dry grass, hair, and leaves; the hair is mostly used for the lining. Here the mother- bird lays four or five eggs of pale sepia colour, with spots and markings of darker hue. She has generally two broods in the year, and commences sitting in May. The helark begins to sing early in the spring. Bewick says, " He rises from the neighbourhood of the nest almost perpendicularly in the air, by successive springs, and hovers at a vast height. His descent, on the contrary, is in an oblique direction, unless he is threatened by birds of prey, or attracted by his mate, and on these occasions he drops like a stone."

With regard to his ascent, I must, however, add that it is in a spiral direction, and that what Bewick represents as springs are his sudden spiral flights after pausing to sing. Another peculiarity must be mentioned: all his bones are hollow, and he can inflate them with air from his lungs, so that he becomes, as it were, a little balloon, which accounts for the buoyancy with which he ascends, and the length of time he can support himself in the air: often for an hour at a time. Still more extraordinary is the wonderful power and reach of his voice, for while, probably, the seven hundred or a thousand voices of the grand chorus of an oratorio would fail to fill the vast spaces of the atmosphere, it can be done by this glorious little songster, which, mounting upwards, makes itself heard, without effort, when it can be seen no longer.

The attachment of the parents to their young is very great, and has been seen to exhibit itself in a remarkable manner.

The nest being placed on the open-ground -- often pasture, or in a field of mowing grass -- it is very liable to be disturbed; many, therefore, are the instances of the bird's tender solicitude either for the young or for its eggs, one of which I will give from Mr. Jesse. "In case of alarm," he says, "either by cattle grazing near the nest, or by the approach of the mower, the parent birds remove their eggs, by means of their long claws, to a place of greater security, and this I have observed to be affected in a very short space of time." He says that when one of his mowers first told him of this fact he could scarcely believe it, but that he afterwards saw it himself, and that he regarded it only as another proof of the affection which these birds show their offspring. Instances are also on record of larks removing their young by carrying them on their backs; in one case the young were thus removed from a place of danger into a field of standing corn. But however successful the poor birds may be in removing their eggs, they are not always so with regard to their young, as Mr. Yarrell relates. An instance came under his notice, in which the little fledgling proved too heavy for the parent to carry, and, being dropped from an height of about thirty feet, was killed in the fall.

Of all captive birds, none grieves me more than the skylark. Its impulse is to soar, which is impossible in the narrow spaces of a cage; and in this unhappy condition, when seized by the impulse of song, he flings himself upwards, and is dashed down again by its cruel barriers.. For this reason the top of the lark's cage is always bedded with green baize to prevent his injuring himself In the freedom of nature he is the joyous minstrel of liberty and love, carrying upwards, and sending down from above, his buoyant song, which seems to fall down through the golden sunshine like a flood of sparkling melody.

I am not aware of the height to which the lark soars, but it must be very great, as he becomes diminished to a mere speck, almost invisible in the blaze of light. Yet, high as he may soar, he never loses the consciousness of the little mate and the nestlings below: but their first cry of danger or anxiety, though the cry may be scarce audible to the human ear, thrills up aloft to the singer, and he comes down with a direct arrow-like flight, whilst otherwise his descent is more leisurely, and said by some to be in the direct spiral line of his ascent.

Larks, unfortunately for themselves, are considered very fine eating. Immense numbers of them are killed for the table, not only on the continent, but in England. People cry shame on the Roman epicure, Lucullus, dining on a stew of nightingales' tongue, nearly two thousand years ago, and no more can I reconcile to myself the daily feasting on these lovely little songsters, which may be delicate eating, but are no less God's gifts to gladden and beautify the earth.