Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt



The Chiff-chaff, chill-chall, lesser pettichaps, or oven-builder, is one of the great bird family of warblers, and the smallest of them in size; indeed, it is not much larger than the little willow-wren. Like all its family it is a bird of passage, and makes its appearance here, in favourable seasons, as early as this 12th of March -- earlier than the warblers in general -- and also remains later, having been known to remain here to the middle of October.

It is a remarkably cheerful little bird, and is warmly welcomed by all lovers of the country as beings one of the first visitants of spring, sending its pleasant little voice, with an incessant "chiff-chaff," "chery-charry," through the yet leafless trees.

Its plumage is dark olive-green; the breast, and under part of the body, white, with a slight tinge of yellow; the tail, brown, edged with pale green; legs, yellowish -brown.

The nest is not unlike that of a wren, built in a low bush, and, sometimes, even on the ground. The one so beautifully and faithfully depicted by Mr. Harrison Weir, seems to be amongst the tallest grasses and picturesque growths of some delicious woodland lane. It is a lovely little structure; a hollow ball wonderfully put together, of dry leaves and stems of grass, and a circular hole for entrance at the side; lined with soft feathers -- a little downy bed of comfort. The motherbird, as we now see her, sits here in delicious ease on five or six white eggs, beautifully, spotted with rich red-brown.

This dainty little bird, which seems made alone for pleasure, is very useful to man, and should be made kindly welcome everywhere, living entirely on caterpillars and other troublesome and destructive creatures. The Rev. J. G. Wood says that it saves many a good oak from destruction by devouring, on its first arrival, the caterpillars of the well-known green oakmoth, which roll up the leaves in so curious a manner, and come tumbling out of their green houses at the slightest alarm.

He says, also, that a little chiff-chaff, which had been caught and tamed, was accustomed to dash to the ceiling of the room in which it was kept, and to snatch thence the flies which settled on the white surface.

My husband, writing of this bird, says: --

"Gilbert White gave, I believe, the name of chiff-chaff to this little bird from its note. In the midland counties it is called the chill-chall from the same cause; and, indeed, this name is, to my ear, more accordant with its continuous ditty. Its cheery little voice is one of the pleasantest recognitions of returning spring. It is sure to be heard, just as in former years, in the copse, the dell, the belt of trees bordering a wayside; we catch its simple note with pleasure, for it brings with it many a memory of happy scenes and days gone by. We see the little creature hopping along the boughs of the yet only budding oak, and know that it is as usefully employed for man as agreeably for itself It tells us, in effect, that sunny days, flowers, and sweet airs, and the music of a thousand other birds, are coming. We revert to the time when, tracing the wood-side or the bosky dingle in boyhood, we caught sight of its rounded nest amongst the screening twigs of the low bush, and the bleached bents of last year's grapes. We remember the pleasure with which we examined its little circular entrance, and discovered, in its downy interior, its store of delicate eggs, or the living mass of feathery inmates, with their heads ranged side by side and one behind another, with their twinkling eyes and yellow-edged mouths. Many a time, as we have heard the ever blithe note of chill-chall, as it stuck to its unambitious part of the obscure woodland glade, we have wished that we could maintain the same buoyant humour, the same thorough acceptance of the order of Providence for us. As Luther, in a moment of despondency, when enemies were rife around him, and calumny and wrong pursued him, heard the glad song of a bird that came and sang on a bough before his window, we have thanked God for the lesson of the never-drooping chill-chall. The great world around never damps its joy with a sense of its own insignificance; the active and often showy life of man, the active and varied existence of even birds, which sweep through the air in gay companies, never disturb its pleasure in its little accustomed nook. It seems to express, in its two or three simple notes, all the sentiment of indestructible content, like the old woman's bird in the German story by Ludwig Tieck --

Alone in wood so gay,

'Tis good to stay,

Morrow like to-day

For ever and aye;

Oh, I do love to stay

Alone in wood so gay!

"This little bird appears to feel all that strength of heart, and to put it into its little ditty, which seems to me to say --

"Here I continue ' cheery cheery, and still shall, and still shall!'"