Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt




This bird, which is common to all parts of the country, is very shy, and for the greater part of the year haunts the woods and thickets. In spring, however, its fondness for tender fruit-buds tempts it into gardens and orchards, where, being considered an enemy, it is destroyed without mercy. It is a question, however, whether it devours these young buds as favourite food, or whether it may not be the equally distinctive grub or insect which is the temptation; and thus, that it ought rather to be regarded as the friend than the enemy of the gardener and fruit-grower. At all events, the general opinion is against the poor bull-finch. He is declared to be a devourer of the embryo fruit, and no mercy is shown to him. The Rev. J. G. Wood, always a merciful judge where birds are concerned, thinks that public opinion is unfairly against him. He says that a gooseberry tree, from which It was supposed that the bull-finches had picked away every blossom-bud, yet bore the same year an abundant crop of fruit, which certainly proved that they had picked away only the already infected buds, and so left the tree in an additionally healthy state, doubly able to mature and perfect its fruit.

Bull-finches seldom associate with other birds, but keep together in small flocks as of single families. Its flight, though quick, is somewhat undulating or wavering; and in the winter it may sometimes be seen in large numbers flitting along the roadsides and hedges, being probably forced out of some of its shyness by the stress of hunger. Its ordinary note is a soft and plaintive whistle; its song, short and mellow. It is, in its native state, no way distinguished as a singing-bird, but at the same time it is possessed of a remarkable faculty for learning tunes artificially, of which I may have more to say presently.

The bull-finch begins to build about the beginning of May. She places her nest, as we see in our illustration, in a bush, frequently a hawthorn, at no great distance from the ground. The nest is not very solidly put together; the foundation, so to speak, being composed of small dry twigs, then finished off with fibrous roots and moss, which also form the lining. The eggs, five or six in number, are of a dull bluish- white, marked at the larger end with dark spots.

Although there is so little to say about the bull-finch in his natural state -- excepting that he is a handsome bird, with bright black eyes, a sort of rich black hood on his head; his back, ash-grey; his breast and underparts, red; wings and tail, black, with the upper tail-coverts white -- yet when he has gone through his musical education, he is not only one of the most accomplished of song-birds, but one of the most loving and faithfully attached little creatures that can come under human care. These trained birds are known as piping bull-finches.

Bishop Stanley, in his " History of Birds," thus describes the method by which they are taught: --

"In the month of June, the young ones, which are taken from the nest for that purpose, are brought up by a person, who, by care and attention, so completely tames them that they become perfectly docile and obedient. At the expiration of about a couple of months, they first begin to whistle, from which time their education begins, and no school can be more diligently superintended by its master, and no scholars more effectually trained to their own calling, than a seminary of bull-finches. They are formed first into classes of about six in each, and, after having been kept a longer time than usual without food, and confined to a dark room, the tune they are to learn is played over and over again, on a little instrument called a birdorgan, the notes of which resemble, as nearly as possible, those of the bull-finch; sometimes, also, a flageolet is used for this purpose, and birds so taught are said to have the finer notes. For awhile the little moping creatures will sit in silence, not knowing what all this can mean; but after awhile one by one will begin to imitate the notes they hear, for they have great power of imitation as well as remarkably good memories. As soon as they have said their lesson all round, light is admitted into the room, and they are fed.

"By degrees the sound of the. musical instrument -- be it flageolet or bird-organ -- and the circumstance of being fed, become so associated in the mind of the hungry bird, that it is sure to begin piping the tune as soon as it hears it begin to play. When the little scholars have advanced so far they are put into a higher class, that is to say, are turned over each to his private tutor; in other words, each bird is put under the care of a boy who must carry on its education, and who plays on the little instrument from morning to night, or as long as the bird can pay attention, during which time the head-master or feeder goes his regular rounds, scolding or rewarding the little feathered scholars by signs and modes of making them understand, till they have learned their lessons so perfectly, and the tune is so impressed on their memories, that they will pipe it to the end of their days; and let us hope, as I believe is the fact, that they find in it a never-ending delight.

"Just as in human schools and colleges, it is only the few out of the great number who take the highest honours or degrees, or become senior wranglers, so it is not above five birds in every hundred who can attain to the highest perfection in their art! but all such are valued at a very high price."

It is allowable to hope that the poor bull-finch, which has thus industriously applied himself to learn, and has thus become artificially gifted with the power of pleasing, takes great satisfaction in his accomplishment. Perhaps also the association with his human teacher calls forth his affection as well as his power of song, for it is a fact that the piping bull-finch is, of all birds, given to attach itself to some one individual of the family where it is kept, expressing, at their approach, the most vehement delight, greeting them with its piping melody, hopping towards them, and practising all its little winning ways to show its love, and to court a return of caresses.

"An interesting story," says the bishop, " was told by Sir William Parsons, who was himself a great musician, and who, when a young man, possessed a piping bull-finch, which he had taught to sing, ' God save the king.' On his once going abroad, he gave his favourite In charge to his sister, with a strict injunction to take the greatest care of it. On his return, one of his first visits was to her, when she told him that the poor little bird had been long in declining- health, and was, at that moment, very ill. Sir William, full of sorrow, went into the room where the cage was, and, opening the door, put in his hand, and spoke to the bird. The poor little creature recognised his voice, opened his eyes, shook his feathers, staggered on to his finger, piped ' God save the king,' and fell down dead."

We see in the piping bull-finch -- a bird which in its education is closely associated with man -- the deep and devoted affection of which it is capable; and if we could only live with the animal creation as their friends and benefactors, we should no longer be surprised by such instances of their intelligence and love.