Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt



During our winter, swallows inhabit warm tropical countries, migrating- northwards with the first approaches of summer. They are usually seen with us from the 13th to the 20th of April, and are useful from the first day of their arrival, by clearing the air of insects, which they take on the wing; indeed, they may be said to live almost wholly on the wing, and, except when collecting mud for their nests, are seldom seen to alight, and, in drinking, dip down to the water as they skim over it on rapid wing.

We have three kinds of swallows in England: the chimney-swallow, the house-martin, and the 'sand-martin, of which I shall have something to say in due course. The chimney swallow and house-martin are especially worthy of the affectionate regard of man; for they love his society, build around his dwelling, destroy nothing that he values, have no appetite for his fruits; they live harmoniously amongst themselves, and have no other disposition than that of cheerfulness, unwearying industry' and perseverance, and the most devoted parental affection.

Mr. Weir has given us a lively picture of swallow-life -- four nests grouped together on a house-side: more there probably are; but there are as many as we can. manage with; indeed we will presently confine our attention to one single nest, and, by so doing, I flatter myself that I shall win your admiration for these birds, and that you will agree with me in thinking that if we all, men and women, boys and girls, had only their persevering spirit, and their courage under adversity, there would not be so much unsuccess, either at school or in life, as is now, too often, the case.

Some people are very fond of having martins about their houses, under their eaves, and even in the corners of their windows. The Earl of Traquair was one of these; he was, indeed, a great lover of all kinds of birds, and all were protected on his premises. In the autumn of 1839, there were no less than one hundred and three martins' nests on Traquair House -- which is a very fine old place -- besides several which had been deserted, injured, or taken possession of by sparrows, which is a very unwarrantable liberty taken by these birds.

From six to twenty days are required to build a martin's nest. If all goes on well it may be finished in the shorter time.

Let us now see how the birds set about building. Here are several nests in our picture; and turning to the pages of Macgillivray's "British Birds," I shall find exactly the information we need. I will, therefore, extract freely from this interesting writer, that my young readers may be as grateful to him as I am myself.

Again turning to our picture, we find four nests. "A party of eight martins arrived here on the 1st of May. As this was quite a new location, they spent the whole day in examining the eaves of the house, the corners of the windows, and the outbuildings. By the following morning the question was settled, and they had, as you see, fixed upon a high wall with a slate coping, and an eastern aspect, and at once commenced making a general foundation for their nests. Suitable materials are procured from the banks of an adjoining pond, or a puddle in the lane. Let us go down and see them. Here they come, sailing placidly over the tree- tops; now they descend so as almost to sweep the surface of the pond; some of them alight at once, others skim round, as if borne away by a brisk wind. Those that have alighted walk about with short steps, looking round for materials. Some seem not to find the mud suitable, but seize on a piece of straw, or grass, which, tempering in the mud, they then fly off with. Returning now to the building, we see one using its tail planted against the wall, or against the nest, if sufficiently advanced, as a support, deposit the material it has brought by giving its head a wriggling motion, so that the mud slides gently into the crevices of yesterday's work; then he retouches the whole. See, one has now arrived with his supply before the other has finished: he is impatient to disburden himself, and wants to drive off the worker, who rather snappishly retorts, and he, poor fellow, goes off for a while with the mud sticking to his bill. Now she has finished; there is room for him, and he goes back again and works hard in his turn. They never alight o the nest without twittering. At noon, if the weather be hot, they betake themselves to the fields, or, after a dip in the pond, sun themselves on the house-top for half an hour or so. Then they will hawk about for food, and after awhile one of them may, perhaps, return and give another touch or two to the work, or seat herself in the nest to consolidate the materials. But if cold, wet, or windy, they keep away. "What they do with themselves I know not; but as soon as it clears up, they are at work again. At the beginning of their building, they seem to have no objection to leave it for a whole day; but as it advances, they become more interested or anxious, and one or both will sit in it all night, even though the weather be bad."

So much for the building of these four nests of our picture; and now I will bespeak your attention to a little narrative of the joys and sorrows of the domestic life of a pair of martins, which, we will suppose, belong also to our group.

"The building began on the 1st of May, at daybreak. But the weather was very much against them, being cold and stormy, and it was the i8th of the month before it was finished.

"Seeing their labours thus brought to a close, one could not help wishing, considering how much it had cost, that the nest might last them for many years. But on the 23rd of June, during a heavy fall of thunder rain, almost the entire nest was washed to the ground, together with the young birds which it contained. A short time before the catastrophe, the old birds were observed hovering about, and expressing great uneasiness. Almost immediately after it happened they left the place, but returned the following day, and spent it in flying about and examining the angle of the wall.

"Next morning they commenced repairing the nest. In three days they had made great progress; but again rain fell, and their work was stayed. On the 30th, they advanced rapidly, and both remained sitting on the nest all night. The next day it was finished; and now they began to rejoice: they twittered all the evening till it was dark, now and then pruning each other's heads, as, seated side by side, they prepared to spend the dark hours in the nest. Eggs were soon laid again, but, sad to say, on the morning of the i8th of July, again, during a great storm of wind and rain, the upper wall fell, carrying with it one of the eggs. The old birds again fluttered about, uttering the most plaintive cries, and early the next morning began to repair the damage, though it rained heavily all day. Part of the lining hanging over the side was incorporated with the new layers of mud. The urgency of the case was such, that they were obliged to work during the bad weather. Throughout the day one bird sat on the nest, whilst the other laboured assiduously. Kindly was he welcomed by his mate, who sometimes, during his absence, nibbled and retouched the materials which he had just deposited. In a few days it was finished, the weather became settled, the young were hatched, and all went well with them.

"Sometimes when the nests are destroyed, the birds, instead of attempting to repair the damage, forsake the neighbourhood, as if wholly disheartened. Nothing can be more distressing to them than to lose their young. In the storm of which I have just spoken, another martin's nest was washed down with unfledged young in it. These were placed on some cotton wool in a basket, covered with a sheet of brown paper, in an open window, facing the wall. During that day and the following, the parents took no notice of them, and their kind human protector fed them with house-flies. That. evening he tried an experiment. He gently placed the young ones in a nest of that same window, where were other young. It was then about eight o'clock in the evening; the rain was falling heavily, and no sound was heard save the cheep, cheep., of the young birds, and the dashing of the storm against the window-glass. A minute elapsed,  when forth rushed the parents shrieking their alarm notes, and, again and again wheeled up to the nest, until at last they drifted away in the storm. He watched them till they disappeared about half-past-nine. During all this time they only twice summoned courage to look into the nest. Next morning I was rejoiced to see them attending assiduously to the young ones."

And now, turning again to our group of four nests on the walls, supposing it be the month of July, every one of them with its fledgeling brood sitting with gaping mouths, ever ready for food, you may, perhaps, like to know how many meals are carried up to them in the course of the day. If, then, the parents began to feed them at about five in the morning, and left a little before eight at night, they would feed them, at the lowest calculation, about a thousand times.

With all this feeding and care-taking, the young ones, as the summer goes on, are full-fledged, and have grown so plump and large that the nest is quite too small for them; therefore, they must turn out into the world, and begin life for themselves.

It is now a fine, brisk, August morning, and at about eight o'clock, you can see, if you look up at the nests, how the old birds come dashing up to them quite in an excited way,, making short curves in the air, and repeating a note which says, as plain as a bird can speak,

          This is the day

          You must away!

What are wings made for, if not to fly?

          Cheep, cheep,

          Now for a leap! --

Father and mother and neighbours are by!

This flying away from the nest is a great event in' swallow-life, as you may well believe. Let us therefore now direct our attention to one nest in particular, in which are only two young ones -- a very small family; but what happens here is occurring all round us.

One of these little ones balances itself at the entrance, looking timidly into the void, and, having considered the risk for awhile, allows its fellow to take its place.

During all this time, the parents keep driving about, within a few feet of the entrance, and endeavour, by many winning gestures, to induce their charge to follow them. The second bird also, after sitting for some time, as if distrustful of its powers, retires, and the first again appears. Opening and shutting his wings, and often half inclined again to retire, he, at length, summons up all his resolution, springs from the nest, and, with his self-taught pinions, cleaves the air. He and his parents, who are in ecstasies, return to the nest, and the second young one presently musters courage and joins them. And now begins a day of real enjoyment; they sport chiefly about the tree-tops till seven in the evening, when all re-enter the nest.

In several instances I have seen the neighbours add their inducements to those of the parents, when the young were too timid to leave their home. If the happy day prove fine, they seldom return to the nest till sunset; if otherwise, they will come back two or three times. On one occasion, when the young were ready to fly, but unwilling to take the first leap, the parents had recourse to a little stratagem, both ingenious and natural. The he-bird held out a fly at about four inches from the entrance to the nest. In attempting to take hold of it, they again and again nearly lost their balance. On another occasion, the mother bird, trying this plan to no purpose, seemed to lose patience, and seizing one of them by the lower mandible, with the claw of her right foot, whilst it was gaping for food, tried to pull it out of the nest, to which, however, it clung like a squirrel. But the young, every one of them, fly in time, and a right joyous holiday they all have together.

So the summer comes to an end; and towards the middle of September, the great family cares being over, and the young having attained to an age capable of undertaking the fatigues of migration, that mysterious impulse, strong as life itself, and probably affecting them like some sickness -- the necessity to exchange one country and climate for another -- comes upon them. Under this influence, they congregate together in immense numbers, every neighbourhood seeming to have its place of assembly -- the roofs of lofty buildings, or the leafless boughs of old trees: here they meet, not only to discuss the great undertaking, but to have a right merry time together -- a time of luxurious idleness, lively chatterings, singing in chorus their everlasting and musical cheep, cheep, eating and drinking, and making ready for the journey before them.

At length the moment of departure is come, and at a given signal the whole party rises. Twittering and singing, and bidding a long farewell to the scenes of their summer life, they fly off in a body, perhaps, if coming from Scotland, or the north of England, to rest yet a few weeks in the warmer southern counties; after which, a general departure takes place to the sunny lands of Africa.

Though gifted with wings wonderfully constructed for prolonged flight, and though having passed every day of so many successive months almost wholly on the wing, the swallow frequently suffers great fatigue and exhaustion in its long migration. Sometimes, probably driven out of its course by adverse winds, it is known to alight by hundreds on the rigging of vessels, when worn out by hunger and fatigue it is too often shot or cruelly treated. Nevertheless the swallow, protected by Him who cares for the sparrow, generally braves the hardships of migration, and the following spring, guided by the same mysterious instinct, finds his way across continents and seas to his old home, where, identified by some little mark which has been put upon him -- a silken thread as a garter, or a light silver ring -- he is recognised as the old familiar friend, and appears to be no less happy to be once more with them than are they to welcome him. Sometimes swallows coming back as ordinary strangers, prove their identity, even though the scene of their last year's home may have been pulled down, together with the human habitation. In this case, he has been known to fly about in a distracted way, lamenting the change that had taken place, and seeming as if nothing would comfort him.

Though the fact of swallows coming back to their old haunts does not need proving, yet I will close my chapter with an incident which occurred in our own family. During a summer storm, a martin's nest, with young, was washed from the eaves of my husband's paternal home. His mother, a great friend to all birds, placed the nest with the young, which happily were uninjured, in a window, which, being generally open, allowed the parent-birds access to their young. They very soon began to feed them, making no attempt to build any other nest; so that the young were successfully reared, and took their flight full-fledged from the window-sill.

The next spring, when the time for the arrival of the swallows came, great was the surprise and pleasure of their kind hostess, to see, one day, a number of swallows twittering about the window, as if impatient for entrance. On its being opened, in they flew, and, twittering joyfully and circling round the room, as if recognising the old hospitable asylum of the former year, flew out and soon settled themselves under the eaves with the greatest satisfaction. There could be no doubt but that these were the birds that had been reared there.