Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt



Linnets are a branch of a larger family of finches, all very familiar to us. They are cousins, also, to the dear, impudent sparrows, and the pretty siskin or aberdevines.

The linnets are all compactly and stoutly built, with short necks and good sized heads, with short, strong, pointed bills, made for the ready picking up of seed and grain, on which they live. Most of them have two broods in the season, and they build a bulky, deep, and compact nest, just in accordance with their character and figure; but, though all linnet-nests have a general resemblance of form, they vary more or less in the material used.

Linnets change their plumage once a year, and have a much more spruce and brilliant appearance when they have their new summer suits on. They are numerous in all parts of the country, and, excepting in the season when they have young, congregate in flocks, and in winter are attracted to the neighbourhood of man, finding much of their food in farm-yards, and amongst stacks.

The linnet of our picture is the greater red-pole -- one of four brothers of the linnet family -- and is the largest of the four; the others are the twit or mountain-linnet, the mealylin-net, and the lesser red-pole -- the smallest of the four -- all very much alike, and easily mistaken for each other. The name red-pole is given from the bright crimson spot on their heads -- pole or poll being the old Saxon word for head. The back of our linnet's head and the sides of his neck are of dingy ash-colour, his back of a warm brown tint, his wings black, his throat of a dull white, spotted with brown, his breast a brilliant red, and the under part of his body a dingy white.

The linnet, amongst singing birds, is what a song writer is amongst poets. He is not a grand singer, like the blackbird or the thrush, the missel-thrush or the wood-lark, all of which seem to have an epic story in their songs, nor, of course, like the skylark, singing up to the gates of heaven, or the nightingale, that chief psalmist of all bird singers. But, though much humbler than any of these, he is a sweet and pleasant melodist; a singer of charming little songs, full of the delight of summer, the freshness of open heaths, with their fragrant gorse, or of the Scottish brae, with its " bonnie broom," also in golden blossom. His are unpretending little songs of intense enjoyment, simple thanksgivings for the pleasures of life, for the little brown hen-bird, who has not a bit of scarlet in her plumage, and who sits in her snug nest on her fine little white eggs, with their circle of freckles and brown spots at the thicker end, always alike, a sweet, patient mother, waiting for the time when the young ones will come into life from that delicate shell-covering, blind at first, though slightly clothed in greyishbrown -- five little linnets gaping for food.

The linnet mostly builds its nest in low bushes, the furze being its favourite resort; it is constructed outside of dry grass, roots, and moss, and lined with hair and wool. We have it here in our picture; for our friend, Mr. Harrison Weir, always faithful in his transcripts of nature, has an eye, also, for beauty.

Round the nest, as you see, blossoms the yellow furze, and round it too rises a chevaux de frise of furze spines, green and tender to look at, but sharp as needles. Yes, hereon this furzy common, and on hundreds of others all over this happy land, and on hill sides, with the snowy hawthorn and the pink-blossomed crab-tree above them, and, below, the mossy banks gemmed with pale-yellow primroses, are thousands of linnet nests and father-linnets, singing for very joy of life and spring, and for the summer which is before them. And as they sing, the man ploughing in the fields hard-by, and the little lad leading the horses, hear the song, and though he may say nothing about it, the man thinks, and wonders that the birds sing just as sweetly now as when he was young; and the lad thinks how pleasant it is, forgetting the while that he is tired, and, whistling something like a linnet-tune, impresses it on his memory, to be recalled with a tender sentiment years hence when he is a man, toiling perhaps in Australia or Canada; or, it may be, to speak to him like a guardian angel in some time of trial or temptation, and bring him back to the innocence of boyhood and to his God.

Our picture shows us the fledgeling brood of the linnet, and the parent-bird feeding them. The attachment of this bird to its young is very great. Bishop Huntley, in his " History of Birds," gives us the following anecdote in proof of it:- -- 

"A linnet's nest, containing four young ones, was found by some children, and carried home with the intention of rearing and taming them. The old ones, attracted by their chirping, fluttered round the children till they reached home, when the nest was carried up stairs and placed in the nursery-window. The old birds soon approached the nest and fed the young. This being observed, the nest was afterwards placed on a table in the middle of the room, the window being left open, when the parents came in and fed their young as before. Still farther to try their attachment, the nest was then placed in a cage, but still the old birds returned with food, and towards evening actually perched on the cage, regardless of the noise made by several children. So it went on for several days, when, unfortunately, the cage, having been set outside the window, was exposed to a violent shower of rain, and the little brood was drowned in the nest. The poor parent-birds continued hovering round the house, and looking wistfully in at the window for several days, and then disappeared altogether."