Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt




With none of our migratory birds, our spring visitants from southern lands, is the lover of the country more familiar than with the White-throat, which, with its nest, is here so beautifully and livingly depicted by Mr. Harrison Weir.

This bird, with its many names -- White-throat, Peggy-white-throat, Peggy-chaw, Charlie-mufty, Nettle-creeper, Whishey-whey-beard or Pettichaps -- comes to us in April, about the same time as the cuckoo and the swallow; the male bird, like his cousin the nightingale, coming before the female, but he does not make himself very conspicuous till the hedges and bushes are well covered with leaves; then he may be found in almost every lane and hedge the whole country over.

As soon as the female is here, and the birds have paired, the business of nest-building begins, and they may then be seen flying m and out of the bushes with great alertness, the he-bird carolling his light and airy song, and often hurling himself, as it were, up into the air, some twenty or thirty feet, in a wild, tipsy sort of way, as if he were fuller of life than he could hold, and coming down again with a warble into the hedge, where the little hen-wife is already arranging her dwelling in the very spot probably where she was herself hatched, and her ancestors before her, for ages. For I must here remark that one of the most remarkable properties of birds is, that facility by which they so regularly disperse themselves over the whole country on their arrival after their far migration, each one, in all probability, attracted by some attachment of the past, stopping short at, or proceeding onward to, the exact spot where he himself first came into the consciousness of life. This is one of the wonderful arrangements of nature, otherwise of God, by which the great balance is so beautifully kept in creation. If the migratory bird arrives ever so weary at Dover, and its true home be some sweet low-lying lane of Devonshire, a thick hedgerow of the midland counties, or a thickety glen of Westmoreland, it will not delay its flight nor be tempted to tarry short of that glen, hedgerow, or lane with which the experience of its own life and affection is united.

At this charming time of the year none of the various performers in nature's great concert bring back to those who have passed their youth in the country a more delicious recollection of vernal fields and lanes than this bird of ours, the little whitethroat.

Yes, along those hedges, fresh and fragrant with their young leaves, along those banks studded with primroses, campions, blue-bells and white starwort, and through the thick growth of the wild-rose bushes, all of which have a beauty especially their own, the white-throat salutes you as you pass, as if to recognise an old acquaintance. He is brimful of fun; out he starts and performs his series of eccentric frolics in the air, accompanied by his mad-cap sort of warble; or, almost as if laughing at you, he repeats from the interior of the bushes his deep grave note, chaw! chaw! whence comes the name of peggy-chaw. This, however, is to tell you -- and to those who understand bird-language it is intelligible enough -- that he has now a family to attend to, and he begs, very  respectfully, that you will not trouble yourself about it.

A Scotch naturalist says that " the peasant boys in East Lothian imagine that the bird is mocking or laughing at them, as it tumbles over the hedge and bushes in the lane, and, therefore, they persecute it at all times, even more mercilessly than they do sparrows."

The white-throat is an excitable little bird, rapid in all its movements; and though it will apparently allow a person to come near, it incessantly flits on, gets to the other side of the hedge, warbles it quaint little song, flies to a short distance, sings again, and so on, for a long time, returning in the same way. It erects the feathers of its head when excited, and swells its throat so much when singing, that the feathers stand out like a ruff, whence it has obtained the name of Muffety, or Charlie-mufty, in Scotland.

Its colour, on the upper parts of the body, is reddish-brown, brownish-white below, with a purely white throat. Its food is principally insects and larvae of various kinds, for which it is always on the search amongst the thick undergrowth of the plants and bushes where it builds. One of its many names is Nettle-creeper, from this plant growing so generally in the localities which it haunts.

Its nest -- one of the most light and elegant of these little abodes -- may truly be called " gauze-like," for being constructed wholly of fine grasses, and very much of the brittle stems of the Galnim aparine, or cleavers, which, though slender, are not pliant, and bend only with an angle; they prevent the whole fabric from being closely woven, so that it maintains a gauzy texture; the inside, however, is put together more closely of finer and more pliant materials, delicate root-filaments, and various kinds of hair. The eggs, four or five in number, are of a greenish-gray colour, often with a tawny hue, blotched and spotted over with dark tints of the same colour.

A correspondent of the author of " British Birds " says that, one morning in June, when walking in his shrubbery within about eighty yards of a white-throat's nest, which he was taking great interest in, he found a portion of the shell of one of the eggs of this bird, and, fearing that a magpie had been plundering it, hastened to the spot, but found to his satisfaction that the nest was then full of newly-hatched birds. " The shell had," he says, "been instinctively taken away by the mother in order to prevent the discovery of the place of her retreat." He adds that the mother-bird was very shy, and usually dropped from her nest with the most astonishing rapidity, and, treading her way through the grasses and other entanglements, disappeared in a moment. The young, too, seemed greatly to dislike observation, and on his taking one into his hand to examine it, it uttered a cry, no doubt of alarm, on which all the other little things leapt out of their abode, although not more than half-fledged, and hopped amongst the grass. It is a singular fact that almost every kind of young bird, if they be caused to leave their nest through alarm, or by being handled, can never be induced to stay in the nest again, though they may be put back into it time after time.