Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt




You have here a living portrait of the Magpie, sitting, so to speak, on his own door-sill, and contemplating it with rather a sentimental air, perhaps rather with tender admiration; and as to his dwelling, it is, we must confess, a wonderful structure -- a half-timbered edifice, so to speak, walled-round and roofed-in, with its front-door and all complete.

The magpie is one of our most beautiful as well as most amusing and characteristic birds. He is cousin to the jackdaw, and has, like him, odd ways of his own. In all countries where he is found, he is just the same. An old Greek poet, who lived two thousand years ago, speaks of him as a great mimic, and such an inordinate talker, that, in his own satirical humour, he pretends to believe that magpies were originally a family of young ladies, in Macedonia, who were noted for the volubility of their tongues. Handsome he is, as well as talkative, and very droll and mischievous.

Being such, we need not wonder that his nest is very original. He likes to place it in a secure angle of branches, on some lofty tree, as we see it here, fifty feet or so from the ground; and prefers to have it on a tree bare of branches to a considerable ' height, knowing that it is then more inaccessible. He is wise in all this, for its bulk being so large it is discernible to a great distance. As magpies, however, are found almost everywhere, and in some parts of the country, the north of Scotland for instance, where there are no trees, the poor magpie is then obliged to build in a bush, and do the best he can. In such a case, in Norway, he was known to barricade his nest with thorny branches, brought thither by himself for that purpose, till it was next to impossible for the domicile to be invaded. A cat could not get to it, and a man only with hedging-mittens on his hands, and by help of a bill- hook.

Like the rook, the magpie inhabits the same nest for several years, perhaps for the whole of his life, putting it into repair every year before he again needs it for family use -- like a wealthy country family taking possession of their ancestral mansion in the spring.

And now, turning to our picture, we find our magpie in excellent circumstances. Every thing has gone well with him. Here he is, and I will have the pleasure of giving you a bit of every-day magpie life, as sketched by that true pen-and-ink artist, the author of "British Birds." Our scene opens a few minutes before the time indicated in our picture: --

"There, on the old ash-tree, you may see a pair, one perched on the topmost twig, the other hopping on the branches below, keeping up an incessant chatter. How gracefully she, on the topmost twig, swings in the breeze! Off she starts, and directs her flight to the fir-woods opposite, chattering all the way, seemingly to call her mate after her. But he prefers remaining behind. He is in a brown study, or something of that kind, as we can plainly see. Now, having spied something below, he hops downwards from twig to branch, and descends to the ground. His ash-tree, you must understand, grows close to, and in part overshadows, a farmyard; so now he is on ground which, as is customary in such places, is not over clean; therefore, lifting up his tail to prevent it being soiled or wet, as the farmer's wife might hold up her Sunday gown, and raising his body as high as possible, he walks a few paces, and, spying an earth-worm half out of his hole, drags it forth by a sudden jerk, breaks it in pieces, and swallows it. Now, under the hedge, he has found a snail, which he will presently pick out of its shell, as an old woman would a periwinkle. But now something among the bushes has startled him, and he springs lightly upwards, chattering the while, to regain his favourite tree. It is a cat, which, not less frightened than himself, for both are intent on mischief, runs off towards the barn. The magpie again descends, steps slowly over the grassy margin of the yard, looking from side to side, stops, listens, advances rapidly by a succession of leaps, and encounters a whole brood of chickens, with their mother at their heels. If she had not been there he would have had a delicious feast of one of those chickens; but he dare not think of such a thing now, for, with fury in her eye, bristled plumage, and loud clamour, the hen rushes forward at him, overturning two of her younglings, and the enemy, suddenly wheeling round to avoid the encounter, flies off to his mate.

"There again you perceive them in the meadow, as they walk about with their elevated tails, looking for something eatable. By the hedge, afar off, are two boys, with a gun, endeavouring to creep up to a flock of plovers on the other side. But the magpies see them, for there are not many things which escape their sharp eyes, and presently rising, they fly directly over the field, chattering vehemently, and the flock of plovers on this take wing, and the disappointed young sportsmen sheer off in another direction."

Magpies always make a great chattering when they are disturbed, or when they apprehend that danger is near. Waterton says that they are vociferous at the approach of night, and that they are in truth valuable watchmen on that account. "Whoever enters the wood," he says, " is sure to attract their notice, and then their challenge is incessant. When I hear them during the night, or even during the day, I know that mischief is on the stir. Three years ago, at eleven o'clock in the day, I was at the capture of one of the most expert and desperate poachers, to whose hiding-place we were directed by the. chatter of the magpies."

The poor magpie has many enemies, and, knowing this, is always on the watch, and easily alarmed.

Its mode of walking is like that of the rook, but not having any dignity to maintain, it every now and then leaps in a sidelong direction. When alarmed itself, or wishing to announce danger to other birds, it utters a sort of chuckling cry or chatter. If a fox or cat, or any other unfriendly animal, approaches, it hovers about it, and alarms the whole neighbourhood by its cries till the enemy is out of sight.

Like the jackdaw, it generally keeps in pairs the whole year round; and, indeed, when birds continue to inhabit the same nest, season after season, it is quite natural that they should do so. It is a curious fact, however, that if by any accident the hen-magpie is killed, whilst sitting on her eggs, her mate sets off at once and brings home another wife, who takes to the nest and eggs, just as if she had laid them; and if by another mischance she too should come to an untimely end, the widower again goes off, and, without any loss of time, brings back a third wife, and she takes to her duties quite as naturally and lovingly as the other did; but where all these surplus mothers come from is a question which no naturalist has yet answered, and the magpie, with all his chattering, is not clever enough to explain the wonder.

The beauty of this bird's plumage is familiar to all; and although it is simply black and white, yet the exquisitely coloured gloss of green, blue, and purple, with their varying and intermingling tints, produce such a charming effect that one cannot sufficiently admire them.

With the external structure of the magpie's nest we are acquainted: the lower part, inside, is neatly plastered with mud, "and is furnished," says Bewick, "with a sort of mattress, formed of wool or fibrous roots, on which from three to six eggs are laid." The eggs frequently vary, both in size and colour; sometimes they are of a pale green, freckled over with amber-brown and light purple; sometimes pale blue, with smaller spots of the same dark colours.

The nest is, so to speak, a sort of little domed chamber, of a good size for its purpose; but then comes the question -- What does the magpie do with her long tail as she sits on her eggs? It would certainly poke a hole through the wall if left to its full extent; she must, therefore, lift it up, as she does when walking amongst the wet grass, and sit with it laid flat against the wall, which probably is not inconvenient to her.