Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt




This is the largest of our British song birds. It remains with us through the whole year, not being migratory, excepting in so far as it moves off in considerable flocks into Herefordshire and Monmouthshire for the sake of the mistletoe which abounds in the orchards there, on the viscous berries of which it delights to feed, and whence it has obtained its familiar name of missel, or mistletoe thrush. It is generally believed that this curious parasitic plant was propagated or planted upon the branches of trees, by this bird rubbing its bill upon the rough bark to clean it from the sticky substance of the berry, and thus introducing' the seeds into the interstices of the bark.

The Missel-thrush is a handsome bird; the head, back, and upper coverts of the wings olive-brown, the latter tipped with brownish-white, spotted with brown; the breasts and under parts pale yellow, covered with black spots; the legs are yellow and the claws black.

It is a welcome bird, being the earliest harbinger of spring, the first singer of the year. Long before the swallow is thought of, before even the hardy familiar robin has begun his song, its clear rich voice may be heard on Christmas or New Year's day, often amidst wild winds and winterly storms, whence its also familiar name, the storm-cock. It is known by different names in different parts of the country. The origin of its more general appellation -- the missel-thrush -- I have already mentioned. In the midland counties it is called the thrice cock, but why I know not. In Wales it is known as Pen-y-llwyn, which means the head or master of the coppice. Why it is so called I will mention presently.

The nest of the missel-thrush is large and well constructed, being made of almost every material ordinarily used for nest making purposes -- moss, and hay, and straw, and dry leaves, and little twigs, and locks of wool, with occasional odds and ends of every possible kind. All these are woven and wrought together very compactly; not, however, without loose straws and little tangles of wool hanging about. Within is a smooth casing of mud, as in the nest of the throstle, and within that a second coating of dry grass. Our picture represents all as being now complete. The busy labours of the year are now over; the eggs, four or five in number, of a greenish-blue, marked with reddish spots, are laid, and the mother-bird has taken her patient seat upon them, whilst her mate, from the branch above, sings as if he never meant to leave off again.

The song of this bird is loud, clear, and melodious -- a cheering, hopeful song; and when heard amidst the yet prevailing winter-storms, as if in anticipation of better times, it well deserves our admiration. It resembles, to a certain degree, the song of the blackbird and the thrush, and is often mistaken for them; but it has not the short, quick, and varied notes of the one, nor the sober, prolonged, and eloquent melody of the other. On the contrary it is of an eager, hurrying character, as if it could not sufficiently express its emotion, and yet was trying to do so.

The missel-thrush is a bird of very marked character, and is both bold and chivalrous. Its harsh, jarring note of anger and defiance is the first to be heard when a bird-enemy is at hand. If a cuckoo or hawk is anywhere near meditating mischief, the missel-thrush is vehement in his expression of displeasure. In our own neighbourhood, where the jays in summer come from the wood to carry the young of the sparrows from their nests in the ivied boles of the trees round our garden, the outcry of the parent sparrows instantly arouses the sympathetic missel-thrushes, who, with a scolding defiance, rush to the rescue. Of course these birds, which are of so militant a character, and so loud in protesting against a wrong done to another, will be equally alive to their own rights, and active in defending their own nests and young. Some naturalists have suggested that this combatant temper and extraordinary courage are but the natural consequence of the bird finding its nest open to common attack; for, being of a large size, and built early in the year whilst the trees are yet leafless, it is visible to every enemy and depredator.

Mr. Thompson says: " Often have I seen a pair of these birds driving off magpies, and occasionally fighting against four of them. One pair which I knew attacked a kestrel which appeared in their neighbourhood when the young were out. One of them struck the hawk several times, and made as many more fruitless attempts, as the enemy, by suddenly rising in the air, escaped the cunning blow. They then followed the kestrel for a long way, until they were lost to our sight in the distance."

The old Welsh name of " master, or head of the coppice," refers to the same warlike spirit. " The missel-thrush," says Gilbert White, "suffers no magpie, jay, or blackbird to enter the garden, where he haunts, and is, for the time, a good guardian of the new-sown crops. In general, he is very successful in defence of his family. Once, however, I observed in my garden that several magpies came determined to storm the nest of the missel-thrush. The parent- birds defended their mansion with great vigour, and fought resolutely. But numbers at last prevailed, and the poor missel-thrushes had the pain of seeing their nest torn to pieces, and their young carried off."

The missel-thrushes, however, as the year goes on, make for themselves enemies even more formidable than hawks or magpies; these are the gardeners. Towards the end of summer, when the young have flown, and they and the parent-birds congregate in large flocks, having then nothing to do but to enjoy themselves, like human families when children are all home for the holidays, they too go abroad on their excursions of pleasure; not, however, to sea-side watering places, but into gardens where the cherries and raspberries are ripe. Poor birds! Little aware of their danger, or if they be so, defiant of it in the greatness of the temptation, they make sad havoc amongst the fruit, and many unfortunates are shot or snared, and then hung up amidst the cherry-boughs or the raspberry-canes as a terror to their associates. It is a pity we cannot make them welcome to some and yet have enough left for ourselves.

The berries of the mountain-ash and the arbutus, and later on in the year those of the holly and ivy, supply them with food, as do also in the spring and summer insects of various kinds -- caterpillars and spiders -- so that in this respect they are good friends to the gardener, and might, one thinks, be made welcome to a little fruit in return.