Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt



This, though an extremely pretty bird, is so common that very little notice is taken of it. Its colours are varied and beautiful: the back and wings, bright red; the central part of each feather, brownish-black; the head and throat, bright yellow; the feathers of the upper part tipped with black; the breast, brownish-red. The colours of the female are much duller.

The yellow-hammer resembles linnets, finches, and sparrows in character and habits, and often associates with them, resorting to the fields in open weather, and often perching in hedges and bushes as well as in trees. In the winter, when the weather is severe, it congregates, with other birds, about houses, farm-buildings, and stack-yards.

One of the most pleasing features of autumn is, to my mind, these flocks of kindred birds, which are at that time all abroad and yet together, circling in their flight, all rising as you approach, and wheeling away into the stubble-field, or into the distant hedges, now rich with their wild fruits -- the blackberry, the wild-rose hip, and the bunches of black-privet berries -- and then away again, as you approach, with their variously modulated notes, through the clear air into the yet more distant stubble or bean-field.

The flight of the yellow-hammer is wavy and graceful, and, alighting abruptly, he has a curious way of jerking out his tail feathers like a little fan. All at once a whole flock of them will descend from a considerable h-eight and settle on the twigs of a tree, clothing it as with living leaves. Whatever number the flock may consist of, there is no impatient hurry or jostling among them to get the best perch, every individual settling as if on its own appointed place. As I have already observed, nothing is more charming at this season than these congregated companies of small birds. All the cares of life are now over-, their young broods are around them, and now, with nothing to do but to enjoy themselves in the freedom of nature, where -- on every hand, on every bush and tree, and in every outlying field -- though the crops are now carried, all except, perhaps, here and there a solitary field in which the bean-shocks stand up black in the golden autumnal sunshine; but here, and there, and everywhere, a full table is spread, and they are welcome to enjoy.

In spring and summer, the yellow-hammer sings a peculiar but mournful sort of little ditty, composed of a few short, sonorous notes, concluding with one long drawn out. In the midland counties, where stocking-weaving is the business' of the people, the note of the bird is said to resemble the working of the machine -- ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-e-e-chay -- the prolonged latter syllable being what the stockinger calls, in the machine movement, " pressing over the arch." In other parts of the country this bird's song is interpreted as "A little bit of bread, and -- no-cheese!" which may just as well be " A little bird am I, and -- no thief!"

The food of this bird consists of the seeds of all kinds of grasses, chickweeds, polygonums, and other such weeds; also, in summer, when food is needed for the young, insects and larvae.

The winter congregations break up in April, and then the yellow-hammer begins to think of family joys and cares. But, unlike their relations the sparrows and finches, the he-birds take everything quietly, without having their little skirmishes to show their spirit and prowess, like the knights of old, at the tournament, before the admiring ladies. The yellow-hammer does everything quietly, choosing his mate in an orderly way; and now that the buds are swelling on the trees, the primroses gemming the hedge-banks, and the golden catkins hanging on the willows by the watersides, hither come the little yellowhammers, and, having selected some sweet, hidden spot, under a bush, or on the fieldy banks amongst the thick herbage -- we see it a month later in our picture, when the buds have expanded into leaves, in a wild growth of beautiful grasses and herbage -- begin to make their nest. How picturesque it is! William Hunt never painted anything more beautiful The nest itself is somewhat large, and of simple construction, woven externally of coarse bents and small pliant twigs, and lined with hair and wool. Here the hen lays four or five eggs of a purplish white, marked with dark, irregular streaks, often resembling musical notes.

These poor little birds are extremely attached to their home and their young, so much so, that if these be taken by the pitiless bird-nester, they will continue for some days about the place uttering the most melancholy plaint, which, though still to the same old tune as the song of their spring rejoicing, has now the expression of the deepest woe.

The author of "British Birds" thus sums up their various characteristic actions: -- " When perched on a tree, especially in windy weather, they crouch close to the twigs, draw in their necks, and keep their tails declined. After pairing, the male is generally seen on a bush or tree, raising his tail by sudden jerks, and slightly expanding it. His notes are then usually two chirps, followed by a harsher note -- cit, chit, chirr -- with considerable intervals. When feeding in the stubble-fields, they advance by very short leaps, with their breasts nearly touching the ground; when apprehensive of danger they crouch motionless, and when alarmed give information to each other by means of their ordinary short note."