Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt




The wood-pigeon, ring--dove, or cushat is one of the most familiar and poetical of our birds. Its low, plaintive coo-gooroo-o-o is one of the pleasantest sounds of our summer woods.

"Tell me, tell me, cushat, why thou meanest ever.

Thrilling all the greenwood with thy secret woe?

'I moan not,' says the cushat, 'I praise life's gracious Giver

By murmuring out my love in the best way that I know.' "

The wood-pigeon belongs to a large family of birds -- columbinŠ or doves. The earliest mention of them in the world is in Genesis, when Noah, wearied with the confinement of the ark, and seeing that the mountain tops were visible, selected from the imprisoned creatures -- first the raven, then the dove, to go forth and report to him of the state of the earth. The raven, however, came not back, no doubt finding food which tempted him to stay; whilst the dove, finding no rest for the sole of her foot, returned, and Noah, putting forth his hand, took her in. Again he sent her forth, and she came back in the evening, and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off. A third time she was sent forth, but now she returned no more. So Noah looked out, and behold the face of the earth was dry. And he and his family, and all the creatures, again went forth and possessed all things.

This dove might probably be of the carrier-pigeon tribe, which is more nearly related to the rock-pigeon, also a native of this country, or rather, of the northern parts of Scotland. These carrier-pigeons were, in the old times, long enough before the invention of electric telegraphs, or even before post offices were established, used instead of both. Anacreon, the Greek poet, speaks of them as being used to convey letters; the pigeon, having, as it were, two homes, being fed in each; thus, a letter from a friend in one home was tied to the wing, and the bird turned into the air, probably without his breakfast, when he immediately flew off to his distant home, where the letter was joyfully received, and he fed for his pains. Whilst the answer was prepared he would rest, and it, perhaps, taking some little time, he grew hungry again; but they gave him nothing more, and, again securing the letter on his little person, he was sent back, making good speed, because he would now be thinking of his supper. Thus, the answer flew through the air.

"Come hither, my dove,

     And I'll write to my love,

And I'll send him a letter by thee! "

So says the old song. And we are told that a young man named Taurosthenes, one of the victors in the great Olympian games of Greece, sent to his father, who resided at a considerable distance, the tidings of his success, on the same day, by one of these birds. Pliny, the Roman historian, speaks of them being used in case of siege; when the besieged sent out these winged messengers, who, cleaving the air at a secure height above the surrounding army, conveyed the important intelligence of their need to their friends afar off. The crusaders are said to have made use of them at the siege of Jerusalem, and the old traveller, Sir John Maundeville -- " knight, warrior, and pilgrim," as he is styled -- who, in the reign of our second and third Edwards, made a journey as far as the borders of China, relates that, " in that and other countries beyond, pigeons were sent out from one to another to ask succour in time of need, and these letters were tied to the neck of the bird."

But enough of carrier-pigeons. Let us come back to our ring-dove or cushat, brooding on her eggs in the sweet summer woods, as Mr. Harrison Weir has so truthfully represented her. She is not much of a nest-maker.

          "A few sticks across,

          Without a bit of moss,

Laid in the fork of an old oak-tree;


          She says it will do,

And there she's as happy as a bird can be."

The nest, however, is not at all insufficient for her needs. You see her sitting brooding over her two white eggs in every possible bird comfort; and whether her mate help her In the building of the nest or not, I cannot say, but he is certainly a very good domesticated husband, and sits upon the eggs alternately with her, so that the hatching, whatever the building may be, Is an equally divided labour.

Wordsworth sees In this bird an example of unobtrusive home affection. He says: --

"I heard a stock-dove sing or say

His homely tale this very day:

His voice was buried among the trees,

Yet to be come at by the breeze;

He did not cease, but cooed and cooed,

And somewhat pensively he wooed;

He sung of love with quiet blending.

Slow to begin, and never ending;

Of serious faith and inward glee;

That was the song -- the song for me."

Wood-pigeons have immense appetites, and, being fond of all kinds of grain, as well as peas and beans, are looked upon b}' the farmer with great disfavour. They are, however, fond of some of those very weeds which are his greatest annoyance -- for instance, charlock and wild mustard; so that they do him some good in return for the tribute which they take of his crops. They are fond, also, both of young clover and the 3'oung green leaves of the turnip, as well as of the turnip itself Either by instinct or experience, they have learned that, feeding thus in cultivated fields, they are doing that which will bring down upon them the displeasure of man. " They keep," says the intelligent author of "Wild Sports in the Highlands," "when feeding in the fields, in the most open and exposed places, so as to allow no enemy to come near them. It is amusing to watch a large flock of these birds whilst searching the ground for grain. They walk in a compact body; and in order that all may fare alike -- which is certainly a good trait in their character -- the hindermost rank, every now and then, fly over the heads of their companions to the front, where they keep the best place for a minute or two, till those now in the rear take their place. They keep up this kind of fair play during the whole time of feeding. They feed, also, on wild fruit and all kinds of wild berries, such as the mountain-ash, and ivy; and where acorns abound, seem to prefer them to anything else. At the same time, I must confess that they are great enemies to my cherry-trees, and swallow as many cherries as they can hold. Nor are strawberries safe from them, and the quantity of food they manage to stow away in their crops is perfectly astonishing."

Besides man, the wood-pigeon has its own bird-enemies. " In districts where the hooded crow abounds," says the author whom I have just quoted, " he is always on the look-out for its eggs, which, shining out white from the shallow, unsubstantial nest, are easily seen by him. The sparrow-hawk seizes the young when they are half-grown and plump; he having been carefully noticed watching the nest day by day as if waiting for the time when they should be fit for his eating. The larger hawks, however, prey upon the poor wood-pigeon himself."

With all his pleasant cooings in the wood, therefore, and all his complacent strutting about with elevated head and protruded breast -- with all his gambols and graces, his striking the points of his wings together as he rises into the air, to express a pleasure to his mate beyond his cooing, he has not such a care free life of it. He is always kept on the alert, therefore, and, being always on the watch against clanger, is not at all a sound sleeper. The least disturbance at night rouses him. "I have frequently," continues our author, "attempted to approach the trees when the wood-pigeons were roosting, but even on the darkest nights they would take alarm. The poor wood-pigeon has no other defence against its enemies than Its ever watchful and never sleeping timidity; not being able to do battle against even the smallest of Its many persecutors."

'Gilbert White says that the wood-pigeons were greatly decreasing, in his time, in Hampshire, and there were then only about a hundred in the woods at Selborne, but in former times the flocks had been so vast, not only there, but in the surrounding districts, that they had traversed the air morning and evening like rooks, reaching for a mile together, and that, when they thus came to rendezvous there by thousands, the sound of their wings, suddenly roused from their roosting-trees in an evening, rising all at once into the air, was like a sudden rolling of distant thunder.

Although the wood-pigeon is considered to be the original parent of the tame pigeon, yet it does not seem possible to tame the young of this bird, though taken from the nest quite young. It is a bird which appears to hate confinement, and, as soon as it has the opportunity, spite of all kindness and attention, it flies away to the freedom of the woods.