Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt




This pretty little bird is also called the Beam or Pillar-Bird from the position which it chooses for its nest. Building mostly in gardens, it selects the projecting stone of a wall, the end of a beam or piece of wood, under a low roof, or by a door or gateway, the nest being, however, generally screened, and often made a perfect little bit of picturesque beauty, by the leaves of some lovely creeping rose, woodbine, or passionflower, which grows there.

This last summer, one of these familiar little birds, which, though always seeming as if in a flutter of terror, must be fond of human society, built in a rustic verandah, overrun with Virginian creeper, at the back of our house.

According to her peculiar fancy she built exactly in the doorway, though there were some yards of verandah on either hand; but here was the convenient ledge, forming an angle with the upright support; and here was placed, as in our picture, the small, somewhat flat nest, beautifully, though slightly, put together, of dried grass and moss, lined with wool and hair. Here the mother-bird laid her four or five greyish-white eggs, with their spots of rusty red, and here she reared her young. She had, however, it seemed to us, an uncomfortable time of it, for, though we carefully avoided giving her needless disturbance that we almost ceased to use the door, yet there was an unavoidable passing to and fro to which she never seemed to get accustomed, starting off her nest with a little flutter whenever we came in sight; nor -- although before she had finished sitting the quick-growing shoots of the Virginian creeper, with its broadly-expanding leaves, hid her nest so completely that, had it not been for her own timidity, we need not have known of her presence -- she never lost this peculiar trait of character.

The nest which Mr. Harrison Weir has drawn is, doubtless, taken from life. I wish, however, he could have seen ours, only about ten feet from the ground, a little dome of love, embowered amongst young shoots, vine-like leaves and tendrils -- a perfectly ideal nest, in which our friend, who has as keen a sense of natural beauty as any artist living, would have delighted himself.

The colours of this bird are very unobtrusive: the upper parts brownish-grey, the head spotted with brown, the neck and breast streaked or spotted with greyish-brown. It is a migratory bird, and arrives in this country about the middle or end of May, remaining with us till about the middle of October, by which time the flies on which it lives have generally disappeared.

Its mode of taking its winged prey is curious. Seated, stock-still, in a twig, it darts or glides oft" at the sight of an insect, like the bird of our picture, and seizes it with a little snapping noise; then returns to its perch ready for more, and so on; incessantly darting out and returning to the same spot, till it has satisfied its hunger, or moves off to another twig to commence the same pursuit.

When they have young, the number of flies consumed only by one little family must be amazing. It is recorded2 in one instance that a pair of fly-catchers, beginning to feed their nestlings at five-and-twenty minutes before seven in the morning, and continuing their labour till ten minutes before nine at night, supplied them with food, that is to say with flies, no less than five hundred and thirty-seven times. The gentleman who made these observations says: -- "Before they fed their young they alighted upon a tree for a few seconds, and looked round about them. By short jerks they usually caught the winged insects. Sometimes they ascended into the air and dropped like an arrow; at other times they hovered like a hawk when set on its prey. They drove off most vigorously all kinds of small birds that approached their nest, as if bidding them to go and hunt in their own grounds, where there were plenty of flies for them. Sometimes they brought only one fly in their bills, sometimes several, and flies of various sizes."

This bird seems to become attached to particular localities, where he finds himself conveniently situated and undisturbed. Mr. Mudie mentions, in his "Feathered Tribes," "that a pair of these birds had nested in his garden for twelve successive years." What is the length of life of a fly-catcher I cannot say; but probably if they were not the same birds, they would be their descendants -- birds hatched there, and consequently at home. The Rev. J. G. Wood also speaks of the same locality having been used by this bird for twenty successive years; and he supposes that the young had succeeded to their ancestral home. He gives also an interesting account of the commencement of a nest-building by this bird. He says that the female, who seems to be generally the active builder, placed, in the first instance, a bundle of fine grass in some conveniently forked branches, and after having picked it about for some time, as if regularly shaking it up, she seated herself in the middle of it, and there, spinning herself round and round, gave it its cuplike form. She then fetched more grasses, and after arranging them partly round the edge, and partly on the bottom, repeated the spinning process. A few hairs and some moss were then stuck about the nest and neatly woven in, the hair and slender vegetable fibres being the thread, so to speak, with which the moss was fastened to the nest.

Mr. Mudie, also speaking of their nest-building, says that, in one instance which came under his notice, " the bird began at seven o'clock on a Tuesday morning, and the nest was finished in good time on Friday afternoon." This was certainly rapid work. Mr. Yarrell says that the he-bird brings the materials to the hen, who makes use of them -- which is stated as a general fact by Michelet -- and that in constructing her nest the little fly-catcher, after she had rounded it into its first form, moves backwards as she weaves into it long hairs and grasses with her bill, continually walking round and round her nest. This, however, can only be when the situation of the nest will allow of her passing round it. Our fly-catcher's nest, and the nest of our picture, are placed as a little bed close to the wall, and in such situations the nest has sometimes no back, but simply the lining. A very favourite place with the fly-catcher for her nest is the hole in a wall, the size of a half brick, in which the builder fixed the spar of his scaffolding, and omitted to fill up when he had finished. In these convenient little nooks the fly-catcher's nest fills the whole front of the opening, but has seldom any back to it. From all this, I think it is clear that the fly-catcher is, in her arrangements, guided by circumstances: only, in every case, her little home is as snug as it can be.


2 See Macgillivray's "British Birds"