Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt




This elegant little bird belongs to the Motacilla, or Wagtail family. There are three brothers of them in this country -- the pied, the grey, and the yellow. The pied is the most familiar, and our friend Mr. Harrison Weir has given us a lovely picture of it at home in a cleft of the rock, with fleshy-leaved lichens above, and green springing fronds of the great fern, which will presently overshadow it. Around are the solemn mountains, and the never silent water is foaming and rushing below.

This bird has many names besides his Latin one of Motacilla. In Surrey he is called washer, or dish-washer, by the common people, from his peculiar motions in walking, which are thought to resemble those of a washer-woman at her tub. The colours of the pied wagtail are simply black and white, but so boldly and clearly marked as to produce a very pleasing and elegant effect.

We have, every year, several wagtails in our garden, to which they add a very cheerful feature, walking about, nodding their heads and tails as if perfectly at home, afraid neither of dog nor cat, much less of any human being about the place. A little running brook as one boundary of the garden is, no doubt, one of the attractions; but here they are seen less frequently than on the smoothly-mown lawn, where they pick up tiny insects, gliding along with a smooth motion, accompanied by the quick movement of head and tail.

It is bitterly cold wintry weather as I write this, and they now visit the kitchen door, where, no doubt, little delicacies of various kinds attract them. They are more fearless and familiar than either sparrows, robins, or blackbirds; yet all of these are our daily pensioners, having their breakfast of crumbs as regularly before the parlour window as we have our own meal. Yet they fly away at the slightest sound, and the appearance of the cat disperses them altogether. They have, evidently, the old ancestral fear of man, stamped, as powerfully as life itself, upon their being. They are suspicious, and always in a flutter: nothing equals the calm self-possession of the wagtail, excepting it be the state of mind into which the robin gets when the gardener is turning up the fresh soil, just on purpose, as he supposes, to find worms for him.

And now let me give you a wagtail picture, drawn by a faithful hand.1 It is the end of July, the young wagtails are abroad with their parents, like human families, a month or two later, gone out or abroad to take their holiday. " Often," he says, " one may see them wading in shallow places, in quest of insects and worms, carefully holding up their tails to prevent them being draggled. If you watch the motions of an individual just coming up to join the party, you see it alight abruptly, twittering its shrill notes, and, perching on a small stone, incessantly vibrate its body, and jerk out its tail." This of course is the polite way in which a stranger wagtail introduces itself amongst its friends. There they are; now walking out into the water, and looking round for food. Now they are on the shore again, running rapidly along, picking up, now and then, a dainty morsel, and every moment spreading out the ever-vibrating tail. Now they are in the adjoining meadow, each one in pursuit of a fly, which it has no sooner caught, than it spies another. The lazy geese, which have nibbled the grass bare, allow the wagtail to pass in their midst without molestation. When the cows are grazing in the midst of a swarm of gnats and other insects, as Gilbert White says, as they tread amongst the bush herbage they rouse up multitudes of insects which settle on their legs, their stomachs, and even their noses, and the wagtails are welcomed by the coa^s as benefactors. Watch them, for they are worth the trouble; see, one comes forward and catches a small fly, bends to one side to seize another, darts to the right after a third, and springs some feet in the air before it secures a fourth, and all this time others are running about after other flies, passing close to the cows' noses or amongst their feet. With all this running to and fro, and hither and thither, they every now and then run in each other' sway; but they do not quarrel, aware, no doubt, that there is room enough for them in the world, nay, even in the meadow, though it now seems to be full of wagtails, all busily occupied, some walking, others running, a few flying off and many arriving. You may walk in amongst them; they are not very shy, for they will allow you to come within a few yards of them. They may always be met with on the shore when the tide is out, as well as in the meadow; you will meet with them by the river-side, or by the mill-dam. Occasionally you may see them perched on a roof, a wall, or a large stone, but very rarely on a tree or bush.

They pair about the middle of April, and build by the side of rivers in crevices of rock -- as in our picture, on a heap of stones, in faggot or wood stacks, or in a hole in a wall, but always near water and carefully hidden from sight.. The nest is made of dry grass, moss, and small roots, thickly lined with wool and hair. The eggs are five or six in number, of a greyish white, spotted all over with grey and brown. As a proof of the confiding nature of this bird, I must mention that occasionally it builds in most unimaginable places, directly under the human eye -- as, for instance, " a pair of them last summer," says Mr. Jesse, " built their nest in a hollow under a sleeper of the Brighton Railway, near the terminus at that place. Trains at all times of the day were passing close to the nest, but in this situation the young were hatched and reared." Mr. Macgillivray also mentions that a pair of these birds built their nest in an old wall near a quarry, within a few yards of four men who worked most part of the day in getting the stone, which they occasionally blasted. The hen-bird laid four eggs, and reared her brood, she and her mate becoming so familiar with the. quarry-men as to fly in and out without showing the least sign of fear; but if a stranger approached they would immediately fly off, nor return till they saw him clear off from the place. Another nest was built beneath a wooden platform at a coal-pit, where the noisy business of unloading the hutches brought up from the pit, was continually going forward. But soon the wagtails were quite at home, becoming familiar with the colliers and other people connected with the work, and flew in and out of their nest without showing the slightest sign of fear. Again, another pair built close to the wheel of a lathe in a workshop at a brass manufactory at Taunton amid the incessant din of the braziers; yet here the young were hatched, and the mother-bird became perfectly familiar with the faces of the workmen; but if a stranger entered, or any one belonging to the factory, though not to what might be called her shop, she quitted her nest instantly, nor would return till they were gone. The male, however, had much less confidence, and would not come into the room, but brought the usual supplies of food to a certain spot on the roof whence she fetched it. All these anecdotes prove how interesting would be the relationship between the animal creation and man, if man ceased to be their tyrant or destroyer.

As regards this particular bird, it is not only elegant In its appearance, but amiable and attractive in all its ways. " They are," says Bewick, " very attentive to their young, and continue to feed and train them for three or four weeks after they can fly; they defend them with great courage when in danger, or endeavour to draw aside the enemy by various little arts. They are very attentive also to the cleanliness of their nests, and so orderly as to have been known to remove light substances, such as paper or straw, which have been placed to mark the spot." As regards this proof of their love of order, however, I would rather suggest that it may be a proof of their sagacity and sense of danger: they suspected that some human visitor, of whose friendly character they were not convinced, was intending to look in upon them, and they thought it best, therefore, to decline the honour of his visit.

The ordinary note of this bird, uttered rapidly if alarmed, is a sort of cheep, cheep. In the summer morning, however, it maybe heard singing a pleasant, mellow and modulated little song. Like the swallow, for which it is a match in elegance, it lives entirely on insects. If you would only stand silently for a few minutes by a water-side, where it haunts, you would be delighted with the grace and activity of its movements. " There it stands," says one of its friends, " on the top of a stone, gently vibrating its tail, as if balancing itself. An insect flies near; it darts off, flutters a moment in the air, seizes its prey, and settles on another stone, spreading and vibrating its tail. Presently it makes another sally, flutters around for a while, seizes two or three insects, glides over the ground, swerving to either side, then again takes its stand on a pinnacle." Not unfrequently too it may be seen on the roof of a house, or in a village street, still in pursuit of insects.


1 " British Birds."