Birds and Their Nests

By Mary Howitt


Birds and their Nests.


The birds in these pictures of ours have all nests, which is as it should be; for how could the bird rear its young without its little home and soft little bed, any more than children could be comfortably brought up without either a bed to lie upon, or a home in which to be happy.

Birds-nests, though you may find them in every bush, are wonderful things. Let us talk about them. They are all alike in the purpose for which they are intended, but no two families of birds build exactly alike; all the wrens, for instance, have their kind of nest; the thrushes have theirs; so has the swallow tribe; so has the sparrow, or the rook. They do not imitate one another, but each adheres to its own plan, as God, the great builder and artist, as well as Creator, taught them from the very beginning. The first nightingale, that sang its hymn of joyful thanksgiving in the Garden of Paradise, built its nest just the same as the bird you listened to last year in the coppice. The materials were there, and the bird knew how to make use of them; and that is perhaps the most wonderful part of it, for she has no implements to work with: no needle and thread, no scissors, no hammer and nails; nothing but her own little feet and bill, and her round little breast, upon which to mould it; for it is generally the mother- bird which is the chief builder.

No sooner is the nest wanted for the eggs which she is about to lay, than the hitherto slumbering faculty of constructiveness is awakened, and she selects the angle of the branch, or the hollow in the bank or in the wall, or the tangle of reeds, or the platform of twigs on the tree-top, exactly the right place for her, the selection being always the same according to her tribe, and true to the instinct which was implanted in her at the first.

So the building begins: dry grass or leaves, little twigs and root-fibres, hair or down, whether of feather or winged seed, spangled outside with silvery lichen, or embroidered with green mosses, less for beauty, perhaps -- though it is so beautiful -- than for the birds' safety, because it so exactly imitates the bank or the tree-trunk in which it is built. Or it may be that her tenement is clay-built, like that of the swallow; or lath and plaster, so to speak, like an old country house, as is the fashion of the magpie; or a platform of rude sticks, like the first rudiment of a basket up in the tree-branches, as that of the wood-pigeon: she may be a carpenter like the woodpecker, a tunneller like the sandmartin; or she may knead and glue together the materials of her nest, till they resemble thick felt; but in all this she is exactly what the great Creator made her at first, equally perfect in skill, and equally undeviating year after year. This is very wonderful, so that we may be quite sure that the sparrow's nest, which David remarked in the house of God, was exactly the same as the sparrow built in the days of the blessed Saviour, when He, pointing to that bird, made it a proof to man that God's Providence ever watches over him.

Nevertheless, with this unaltered and unalterable working after one pattern, in every species of bird, there is a choice or an adaptation of material allowed: thus the bird will, within certain limits, select that which is fittest for its purpose, producing, however, in the end, precisely the same effect. I will tell you what Jules Michelet, a French writer, who loves birds as we do, writes on this subject: -- " The bird in building its nest," he says, -"makes it of that beautiful cup-like or cradle form by pressing it down, kneading it and shaping it upon her own breast." He says, as I have just told you, that the mother-bird builds, and that the he-bird is her purveyor. He fetches in the materials: grasses, 'mosses, roots, or twigs, singing many a song between whiles; and she arranges all with loving reference; first, to the delicate egg which must be bedded in soft material; then to the little one which, coming from the egg naked, must not only be cradled in soft comfort, but kept alive by her warmth. So the he-bird, supposing it to be a linnet, brings her some horse-hair: it is stiff and hard; nevertheless, it is proper for the purpose, and serves as a lower stratum of the nest -- a sort of elastic mattress: he brings her hemp; it is cold, but it serves for the same purpose. Then comes the covering and the lining; and for this nothing but the soft silky fibre of certain plants, wool or cotton, or, better still, the down from her own breast, will satisfy her. It is interesting, he says, to watch the he-bird's skilful and furtive search for materials; he is afraid if he see you watching, that you may discover the track to his nest; and, in order to mislead you, he takes a different road back to it. You may see him following the sheep to get a little lock of wool, or alighting in the poultry yard on the search for dropped feathers. If the farmer's wife chance to leave her wheel, whilst spinning in the porch, he steals in for a morsel of flax from the distaff. He knows what is the right kind of thing; and let him be in whatever country he may, he selects that which answers the purpose; and the nest which is built is that of the linnet all the world over.

Again he tells us, that there are other birds which, instead of building, bring up their young underground, in little earth cradles which they have prepared for them. Of building-birds, he thinks the queerest must be the flamingo, which lays her eggs on a pile of mud which she has raised above the flooded earth, and, standing erect all the time, hatches them under her long legs. It does seem a queer, uncomfortable way; but if it answer its end, we need not object to it. Of carpenter-birds, he thinks the thrush is the most remarkable; other writers say the woodpecker. The shore-birds plait their nests, not very skillfully it is true, but sufficiently well for their purpose. They are clothed by nature with such an oily, impermeable coat of plumage, that they have little need to care about climate; they have enough to do to look after their fishing, and to feed themselves and their young; for all these sea-side families have immense appetites.

Herons and storks build in a sort of basket-making fashion; so do the jays and the mocking birds, only in a much better way; but as they have all large families they are obliged to do so. They lay down, in the first place, a sort of rude platform, upon which they erect a basket-like nest of more or less elegant design, a web of roots and dry twigs strongly woven together. The little golden-crested wren hangs her purse-like nest to a bough, and, as in the nursery song, "When the wind blows the cradle rocks." An Australian bird, a kind of fly-catcher, called there the razor-grinder, from its note resembling the sound of a razor- grinder at work, builds her nest on the slightest twig hanging over the water, in order to protect it from snakes which climb after them. She chooses for her purpose a twig so slender that it would not bear the weight of the snake, and thus she is perfectly safe from her enemy. The same, probably, is the cause why in tropical countries, where snakes and monkeys, and such bird-enemies abound, nests are so frequently suspended by threads or little cords from slender boughs.

The canary, the goldfinch, and chaffinch, are skilful clothweavers or felt makers; the latter, restless and suspicious, speckles the outside of her nest with a quantity of white lichen, so that it exactly imitates the tree branch on which it is placed, and can hardly be detected by the most accustomed eye. Glueing and felting play an important part in the work of the bird weavers. The humming-bird, for instance, consolidates her little house with the gum of trees. The American starling sews the leaves together with her bill; other birds use not only their bills, but their feet. Having woven a cord, they fix it as a web with their feet, and insert the weft, as the weaver would throw his shuttle, with their bill. These are genuine weavers. In fine, their skill never fails them. The truth is, that the great Creator never gives any creature work to do without giving him at the same time an inclination to do it -- which, in the animal, is instinct- and tools sufficient for the work, though they may be only the delicate feet and bill of the bird.

And now, in conclusion, let me describe to you the nest of the little English long-tailed titmouse as I saw it many years ago, and which I give from " Sketches of Natural History ": --

There, where those boughs of blackthorn cross,

Behold that oval ball of moss;

Observe it near, all knit together,

Moss, willow-down, and many a feather,

And filled within, as you may see.

As full of feathers as can be;

Whence it is called by country folk,

A fitting name, the feather-poke;

But learned people, I have heard,

Farus caudatus call the bird.

Yes, here's a nest! a nest indeed,

That doth all other nests exceed,

Propped with the blackthorn twigs beneath.

And festooned with a woodbine wreath!

Look at it close, all knit together,

Moss, willow-down, and many a feather;

So soft, so light, so wrought with grace.

So suited to this green-wood place,

And spangled o'er, as with the intent

Of giving fitting ornament,

With silvery flakes of lichen bright.

That shine like opals, dazzling white.

Think only of the creature small,

That wrought this soft and silvery ball.

Without a tool to aid her skill.

Nought but her little feet and bill --

Without a pattern whence to trace

This little roofed-in dwelling-place --

And does not in your bosom spring

Love for this skilful little thing?

See, there's a window in the wall;

Peep in, the house is not so small,

But snug and cosy you shall see

A very numerous family!

Now count them: one", two, three, four, five -

Nay, sixteen merry things alive --

Sixteen young, chirping things all sit.

Where you, your wee hand, could not get!

I'm glad you've seen it, for you never

Saw ought before so soft and clever.