Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt




We have here the Golden-crested Wren -- the Regulus cristatus of naturalists -- the tiniest of our British birds, "the pleasing fairy-bird," as Bewick calls it, one of the large family of warblers, and a near relation to Jenny Wren. It is a very charming little bird, with a sweet melodious song of its own, and so many curious little ways that it is well worth everybody's notice and everybody's love.

It is very active and lively, always in motion, fluttering from branch to branch, and running up and down the trunks and limbs of trees, in search of insects on which it lives. It may as often be seen on the under as on the upper side of a branch, with its back downwards, like a fly on a ceiling, and so running along, all alert, as merry and busy as possible. In size it is about three inches,, that is with all its feathers on, but its little body alone is not above an inch long; yet in this' little body, and in this little brain, lives an amazing amount of character, as I shall show you, as well as a great deal of amusing conceit and pertness which you would hardly believe unless you were told.

The colour of the bird is a sort of yellowish olive-green, the under part of pale, reddish white, tinged with green on the sides; the quill feathers of the wing are dusky, edged with pale green, as are also the tail feathers. Thus attired by nature, that is, by the great Creator who cares for all His creatures, this little bird, creeping and fluttering about the branches and bole of the leafy summer tree, can scarcely be distinguished from the tree itself: hence it is that the bird is so unfamiliar to most people. The he-bird, however, has a little distinguishing glory of his own -- a crest of golden-coloured feathers, bordered on each side- with black, like a sort of eye-brow to his bright hazel eyes. This crest, which gives him his distinguished name, can be erected at pleasure, when he is full of life and enjoyment, or when he chooses to lord it over birds ten times as big as himself

It is worth anybody's while, who has a love for the innocent denizens of nature, and no desire to do them harm, to go into a wood on a summer's day on purpose to watch the doings of this lively little bird amongst the tree branches. Fir-woods are the best for this purpose, as this bird has an especial liking for these trees, and ten to one, if you will only be patient and quite still, you may soon see him at work busily looking after his dinner, running along the branches, up one and down another, then like a little arrow off to the next tree, scudding along its branches, then back again, up and down, round and round the bole, going like a little fire, so rapid are his movements; now running up aloft, now hanging head downward, now off again in another direction. What a wonderful activity there is in that little body! He must devour hundreds of insects, as well as their eggs, which he thus seeks for under the scaly roughnesses of the bark, and finding, devours.

Pretty as he is, his nest, of which Mr. Harrison Weir has given a most accurate drawing, is quite worthy of him. It is always the same, swung like a little hammock from a branch, and always hidden, it may be by leaves or a bunch of fir-cones. The cordage by which it is suspended is of his own weaving, and is made of the same materials as the nest, which are moss and slender thread-like roots. In form it is oval, as you see, with a hole for entrance at the side, and is lined with the softest down and fibrous roots. It is a lovely little structure, like a soft ball of moss, within which the mother-bird lays from six to a dozen tiny eggs, scarcely bigger than peas, the delicate shell of which will hardly bear handling. The colour of the egg is white, sprinkled over with the smallest of dull-coloured spots.

Mr. Jesse describes one of these lovely nests which was taken from the slender branches of a fir-tree where it had been suspended, as usual, by means of delicate cordage, secured to the branch by being twisted round and round, and then fastened to the edge or rim of the nest, so that one maybe sure that the making and securing of these tiny ropes must be the first work of the clever little artizan. The nest thus suspended sways lightly to and fro with the movement of the bird. We cannot see in our cut the slender ropes that suspend it; they are concealed under the thick foliage; but we can easily see what a dainty little structure it is.

Delicate and lovely as is this bird, and pleasing and harmless as is his life, he yet possesses some curious traits of character, as I said. For instance, though so small, with a body only an inch long, he has, apparently, a wonderful conceit of himself, and loves to be lord and master of creatures that will not dispute with him, as not worth their while, or perhaps because there really is some inherent mastership in him by which he contrives, under certain circumstances, to rule over them. In proof of this, I will tell you what the Rev. J. G. Wood relates from the experience of a lady, a friend of his. One severe winter, when she had housed and fed a number of birds, amongst which were a jackdaw, a magpie, two skylarks, a goldfinch, and a robin, in a warm aviary, feeding them regularly and abundantly, other birds came, of course to partake of the plentiful feast, and among them two golden-crested wrens. These little things made themselves not only quite at home, but lorded it over the other birds in the most extraordinary way possible. For instance, if the jackdaw had possessed himself of a nice morsel which he was holding down with his foot to eat comfortably, and the golden-crested wren had also set his mind on it, he hopped on the jackdaw's head and pecked in his eye, on the side where his foot held the delicacy. On this the poor jackdaws instantly lifted his foot Lo his head where he thought something was amiss, and the mischievous little fellow snatched up the treasure and was off. At first the jackdaw would pursue him in great wrath, but he soon learned that it was no use, for the creature would only jump upon his back where he could not reach him, and so was safe from punishment. " Before the winter was over," continues the lady, "the little gold-crests were masters of all the birds, and even roosted at night on their backs; finding, no doubt, that in this way they could keep their little feet much warmer than on a perch."

Conceited and dominant, however, as these little birds may be, they are yet either extremely timid, or their nervous system is so delicately constituted, that a sudden fright kills them.

Thus if, when they are all alert and busy on the tree-branch, seeking for insects and fearing no evil, the branch be suddenly struck with a stick, the poor bird falls dead to the ground. The shock has killed it. It has received no apparent injury -- not a feather is ruffled -- but its joyous, innocent life is gone for ever. This fact is asserted by Gilbert White, and was proved by my husband, who brought me home the bird which had thus died.