Bird Watching/Chapter 12
Watching Blackbirds, Nightingales,
Birds are never more charming to watch than when they are building their nests, and, of all our British nest-builders, few, perhaps, build more charmingly than the blackbird. It is the hen alone that collects and shapes the materials, but the male bird accompanies her in every excursion either to or from the nest. When she is busied in its construction he sits in a tree or a bush near by, and, on her leaving it for fresh leaves or moss, follows her in a series of flights from tree to tree, and, finally, down on to the ground, where the two hop about, closely in each other's company. It is seldom that the hen flies at once to where she means to collect her materials, though time after time it may be at the same place. Usually she flies past the tree—all beautiful in spring and early morning—where the cock sits, and perches in another at some little distance beyond it. There you may lose sight of her, but as soon as you see her handsome gold-billed mate leave his bower and fly to hers, you know that she has flown on, and is now perched somewhere else. Thus you may see them glancing through the greenwood, she usually leading, but sometimes each alternately passing the other. Coming to the collecting ground—for there is usually some spot more liked by the birds than any other—the hen flies down and begins to hop about, making, at intervals, little dives forward with her bill, till she has collected some moss, dry grass, or quite a little bundle of dead brown leaves. The male bird follows her all about, hopping where she hops, prying where she pries, and seeming to make a point of doing all that she does except actually collect material for the nest, and this, in my experience, he never does do. Then, the one laden, the other empty-billed, they both fly back in just the same way, and the cock will sit again, often in the same tree, whilst the hen adds her store to the growing bulk of the nest. I have watched a pair make thirty-one excursions to and from the nest between five and eight o'clock in the morning. By half-past eight or nine the building would cease, nor would it be commenced again during the rest of the day.
Anything lovelier than the picture presented by the two birds thus busied together in the early, dewy morning, it would be difficult to imagine. It would arouse the enthusiasm of all except very dull people, and is even a prettier thing to see, I think, than when both male and female work jointly. In the latter case the straightforward business element predominates, but here, the attendance of the male bird upon the female, and his evident pleasure in such attendance, his anxious interest in what she is doing, and joy in seeing her do it, throws a more romantic element into the picture. It is that which makes me extend the word "busy" to both the birds, for the cock is as busy in escorting and observing the hen as she is in collecting the materials for and building the nest; whilst that she loves him and is cheered by his society, his presence making "the labour she delights in" still more a joy, is also apparent. These are sweet and lovely things to see, and the joy of them is the greater that the emotions concerned are so direct and simple, without those windings and ambiguities, those side-issues and counter-currents which, with us, lead direct to grey hairs, and novels not by Scott or Jane Austen. Here are no troublesome entanglements, no tiresome perplexities, no conscientious sacrificings of the best beloved to every other possible person and consideration. All is sweet simplicity and giving up to—not giving up. These blackbirds love each other and carry it through. They do not think of twenty other blackbirds and fail or come in draggle-tail at the end—as in the novels. Nor are they bothered with "questions." It is refreshing—most refreshing—to see them—like a sparkle of Gilbert after some very "serious" .
Roughly speaking, there are three stages in the building of a blackbird's nest. The first or foundation stage consists of moss, sticks, and leaves; the second is the mud stage; and the third, that of dry grass and fibre, with which the interior is finally lined. The nest of the blackbird differs, in this respect; from that of the thrush. The latter bird, as is well known, lays its eggs in a smooth plastered cup formed, not of mud, as one would think, but of rotten wood and cow-dung. The blackbird, after having collected all the moss and leaves that it deems necessary and made therewith the mass and bulk of the nest, resorts to some little ditch or sluggish stream and trowels up from its margin mud indeed, but not mud alone, for there is amidst it—generally, if not always—a certain proportion of the fibrous roots or rootlets of mud-loving aquatic plants. Of these, the bird can take a firm hold with its bill, and as the mud adheres to the fibrous network, it is enabled to carry a considerable quantity of it at a time, though a greater or less amount often falls off during the passage. It is in this circumstance, as I believe, that one can read the origin of the "extraordinary habit," as Darwin calls it, of a bird's plastering the inside of its nest with mud. It is the thrush to which he alludes, but the description applies equally, and, in respect of the material employed, still more accurately, to the blackbird. At a certain point in its construction, the nest of the latter would be mistaken by anyone without previous experience, for that of a thrush, the cup being as deep and perfect in form and the workmanship not noticeably inferior. It is, however, of a darker colour—black, or approaching to black—though this may vary, according to locality. Over the whole surface are seen the scorings of the bird's beak, which seems to have been used as a trowel. But now, if the nest had been examined a day or two before, its interior, and, especially, the bottom of it, would have been found to be composed of a dank moist mass of vegetation, largely consisting of small water-plants, both the green part and the roots, to the many fibres of which latter a quantity of mud was adhering. Here, then, we read the whole story. Fibrous material was needed on general principles by the female blackbird, and she found it in the spreading network of rootlets, belonging to water-loving plants that grew in little rills and ditches, near about her bosky brakes. But to this, mud clung, and, in consequence, there came to be a good deal of the latter in the cup of the nest. Something must be done with it. She began to daub and press it, and, as she became, gradually, more and more a plasterer, mud seemed more and more the proper sort of material to use, till, at last, she sought it for itself alone, utilising the fibres which bound it together, and which had, at first, been what, alone, she sought, as a means of conveying it. But when the mud, thus brought, had been thoroughly smoothed and plastered, so that the nest seemed perfect and "a thing complete," like the thrush's, there would still be something more to be done, for she—our hen blackbird—had always been accustomed to work in stages, and the final or grass-thatching stage had not yet been entered upon. Therefore, she would cover up and entirely conceal all her fine plaster-work, so that no one, seeing the finished nest, would imagine that it existed in any part of it. But will she always do this? I cannot think it, for she is a bird of sprightly intelligence, and I believe that, like the thrush, she will some day find out that the neatly-plastered cup of mud does quite well enough to lay her eggs in, and that the further labour of thatching it with grass can be very well dispensed with. Any saving of time or of labour must be of advantage to a species in the struggle for existence, and those birds who thatched their nests more thinly would be enabled to lay their eggs sooner, and thus rear more offspring. In this way, as well as on the "least action" principle, and the exercise of ordinary intelligence, the last stage of lining the cup with grass may finally cease. It has ceased with the thrush, but, with the thrush, there has been a still further process of change, for it no longer plasters its nest with mud, but with decaying wood and with cow-dung. Assuming the ancestors of the bird to have once used mud, and lined the interior, as does the blackbird, there does not seem to me to be any great difficulty in explaining this change. The blackbirds that I watched building their nest, always, when the proper period arrived, flew to a certain part of a little muddy dyke (it is in a land of dykes that I reside) some little way from the plantation in which the nest was situated, and there, lying flat behind tufts and tussocks of reeds and grass, I watched them take their mud as I have described—the female, that is to say, but a husband much interested in seeing a baby carried would deserve half the credit of carrying it. Now, much nearer, probably, than this specially-resorted-to dyke was some decayed tree or tree-trunk, whilst over the fields which it intersected and which adjoined the plantation, cows or oxen sometimes grazed. Here, again, a change in the working material might prove of advantage, and when once a bird had become a plasterer, intelligence, and also haste, might lead it to use whatever came first to hand. Bees will carry oatmeal instead of pollen if the former be put in their way, and birds may be credited with equal adaptability.
After watching blackbirds building, and examining the nest in its various stages of construction, I think it much more likely that the thrush has passed through, and then discarded, a final stage of thatching the nest, than that it has stopped short at the stage of plastering, and not yet got to the one of thatching or lining. Numberless birds, including other members of this family, line their nests with grass or other soft materials, whereas plastering is a comparatively rare habit. It is legitimate to assume that that which is common has preceded that which is rare. I would here point out that whilst, in works of ornithology, reference is always made to the strange habit which the thrush has of daubing its nest, nothing, as a rule, is said in regard to the similar habit of the blackbird, or, if anything is, we are told merely that mud is used to bind the materials together. The facts, however, are as I state, and, did the blackbird not line its nest with grass after it had so carefully plastered it with mud brought from the waterside, it would be as noted in this respect as is the thrush, its near relative.
I have never heard the male blackbird sing whilst thus attending the female as she built her nest, not even when he waited for her in a tree, during the actual time of its fashioning, though here was a fine poetical opportunity for him. Song, it seemed, had ended when once his bride had been won, and his rivals vanquished by it. It was the same, to a considerable extent, with a pair of nightingales that I watched under similar circumstances. I did, indeed, sometimes hear the song when the bird singing was invisible, and, therefore, I cannot say that it was not this particular one, which, for other reasons I am inclined, to think that it was. But during far the greater part of the time, and always when I could see him, he was as silent as his mate. It was in the early morning and not the night-time, but nightingales sing at all hours, both of the day and night. The early morning is, indeed, a favourite time with them, and it is then, in the beginning of spring, when nests have yet to be built and before the birds are properly married, that one can best observe how powerful a vehicle of hatred and rivalry their melodious strains are. I have closely watched two rival males for nearly an hour. Let anyone refer to my account of the rival wheatears, substitute a plantation with bush and tangle, and the turf- bordered roadside adjoining, for the open, sandy warrens, and song—but much more frequently indulged in—for the little frenzied dancings, and the two pictures will be identical, or nearly so. There was the same keeping close to, yet not appearing to follow, each other, the attending to each other's motions without seeming specially to watch them, the drawing near and, then, getting apart, only to approach again, the little bursts of fury—but here, mostly, harmonious—preceding each engagement, and surmounting, each time, that discretionary part of valour, which, in either case, both the birds seemed largely to possess. There were three engagements, one bird, each time, making, as though no longer able to control itself, a sudden little frenzied dash at the other. In no case, however, was the conflict very severe, and the attacked bird soon flew away, with which result the attacker seemed well satisfied. It looked more like a little furious play than a real fight, and so, no doubt, it would, were Moth or Cobweb to have a tussle with Peaseblossom or Mustardseed. Oberon and Titania, indeed, "squared" so, that —
"All their elves, for fear.
Crept into acorn-cups, and hid them there."
But, here, the audience were themselves fairies, so that it was all in proportion. Besides, the war was but of words, and, in these, we see how the prettiness of being fairies prevails, even over the relationship in which the two stood to each other. So it was with these warriors; they were rivals, and stuffed full of dislike, nay hatred, but, also, they were birds—and nightingales.
Jealousy, however, did not seem to blind them to the merit of each other's performance. Though, often, one, upon hearing the sweet, hostile strains, would burst forth instantly itself—and here there was no certain mark of appreciation—yet sometimes, perhaps quite as often, it would put its head on one side and listen with exactly the appearance of a musical connoisseur weighing, testing, and appraising each note as it issued from the rival bill. A curious, half-surprised expression would steal, or seem to steal (for fancy may play her part in such matters) over the listening bird, and the idea appeared to be, "How exquisite would be those strains, were they not sung by ——, and yet, I must admit that they are exquisite." Sometimes, however, there would be no special response on the part of the one bird, either by voice or attitude, whilst the other was singing. During these musical combats I often saw a third and silent bird, hopping with demure, modest look—by virtue of which it seemed rather to creep than to hop—just within, or just on the outside of, this or that briery bower. This I took to be the female, and, thinking so, it was easy to detect a little side-glance thrown, now and again, towards one or another of the rival suitors, in which seemed expressed the thought of a pretty, little bird (but a lady-bird)—Bunthorne—
"Round the corner I can see,
Each is kneeling on his knee."
Yet this bird may have been but another male, to whom the next unseen notes that I heard were, perhaps, due. Always I bless those birds whose sexes are plainly distinguishable from each other.
What was very noticeable in these nightingales—and the remark applies to others that I have closely listened to—was that, even when not singing against each other, they made little noises in their throats, and these, when distinctly heard, resolved themselves into a deep, guttural sound, which, though far from unpleasing, could hardly be called anything but a croak. This sound, as I have noticed, is very frequently uttered. It often commences the song, or is even intermingled with, though it can scarcely be said to belong to, it. It does not, in this case, diminish the beauty of the melody; yet, did it stand alone, the nightingale would be merely a somewhat musical croaker. Probably this is what it once has been, the low, croaking note representing the original utterance of the bird, on which the song, by successive variations, and choice of them on the part of the female, has been founded. Just as in the dull plumage of female pheasants and other birds, the males of which are splendidly adorned, or in both the sexes of some species belonging to the same families, we see the early state of their common, plain progenitors, so, in song-birds, the uninspired, workaday voice of call-note or twitter—the spoken language, as one may call it—probably represents the humble roots from which the various trees of song, with all their diversified branchings, and fluttering, trembling leaves, have shot up, beautifully, into the sky. How distinct in their glories are the mature males of the golden, silver, the impeyan, or our own common pheasant; how drabbily alike are the females of all of them, and they themselves in their first early plumage! So, whilst the song of the blackbird, missel, song-thrush, fieldfare, or redwing are distinct, or suggest each other only by their general quality, all have a high, harsh, scolding note, which is very much the same, except in degree, though differing in the frequency with which it is employed. Loudest and harshest of all is the fieldfare, and this bird has hardly developed a song. The missel, whose lay is very inferior to that of the song-thrush, is also a frequent and loud scolder, so that many a man, whilst alone and in the wild woods, might fancy himself within the bosom of his family. In the common thrush, however, who is such a fine singer, this note of fear is not nearly so often heard, and its shrewish character, though still there, has been softened. In the blackbird it is still more rare, yet occasionally, if I mistake not, it is uttered. Again, the well-known note of the blackbird, when disturbed (though this varies considerably), is common, also, though in a less degree, to the thrush, so that it is possible to mistake the one bird for the other. The same remarks apply to many finches and other small birds, who, whilst they sing very differently, chirp and twitter in much the same way. In all these cases, as I believe, there is a certain correspondence between the tone or pitch of the language and that of the song. From the low croak, as I have called it, of the nightingale, it would be difficult to imagine the high, clear notes of the thrush having been developed, whilst it would account for the low key in which its own are generally pitched. What I mean is—for I am not versed in musical terminology—that, in the nightingale's song, there are not those high, clear, ringing notes which we hear in that of the thrush, blackcap, skylark, and many other birds, just as in these we may listen in vain for those richer and more liquid tones which charm us so in the nightingale. Beautiful as these tones are, they do not, any more than those of other birds, include every excellence, and that particular one which they lack, being common to so many of our songsters, has come to be something which one loves and listens for, whenever bird sings upon bough. Partly because of this, perhaps, and partly because of the very pre-eminence of the nightingale as a singer, I have sometimes missed these franker, woodland-wilder strains whilst listening to its song, in a way in which I have never missed its own more dulcet notes from the song of lark or thrush. To say that Pindar is not also Sappho is no blame to Pindar, but the short continuance and frequent pauses in the song of the nightingale is, I think, a real fault, and from the blame of it this prima donna frequently escapes, when other sweet, but not so all-belauded, singers are taken thereupon to task. The poor blackbird, for instance, whose ditty is most "lovely-sweet," has been rated in these terms; yet, as a rule, in my experience, it sings continuously, for a longer time than does the nightingale, whose sometimes almost constant cessations, just when one's whole soul cries out, like Jacques, "More, more, I prythee, more," have even an irritating effect. Indeed, if this were always so it would be a serious drawback, even to a song so full of excellence. But it is not always so. Sometimes, on still, warm nights when the stars seem to breathe and tremble and the air is like a lazy kiss (and if nights are not like this in England, yet the song itself makes them seem so), the rich, full notes are poured forth in a continuous stream of melody that lasts long, and, whilst it lasts, seems to create the world afresh. Some time afterwards, indeed, one notices that the effect has not been quite so powerful, and that this crying want has still to be filled—but the dear bird has done its best.
"Sie jubelt so traurig, sie schluchzet so froh,
Vergessene Traüme erwachen,"
says Heine, whilst others say that the song is apt to keep them awake at night, and, having first paid their orthodox tribute to its supremacy over every other, will confess that they have sometimes been obliged to open the window and throw something out to put a stop to it. Yet the thought of how appreciative the world really is, and how severely a heretic in such a matter may be dealt with, shall not deter me from expressing a slight doubt as to the reality of this supremacy—or, at least, of its extent and absoluteness. Letters each year to the papers, from people who have been so fortunate as to hear the nightingale long before the nightingale is accustomed to reach our shores, have given rise to the suspicion that a thrush is, in most cases, the real performer; and if this be so, it shows that, with many, the comparative merits of the two depend upon its being known, for certain, which is which. For myself, I go with the general opinion in this respect, yet it is difficult to summon up in imagination the effect that the clear, joyous notes of the thrush might have upon one, did they ring out in the silence and stillness of the night. And if this is true in regard to the thrush, does it not apply still more to the skylark?—a bird whose lovely and long-continued outpouring, uttered, as it is, in the day and all around—common, and therefore, of necessity, undervalued—may yet, as it appears to me, in spite of such a disadvantage, well challenge comparison with the song of the nightingale itself If we look to effect, at any rate, the former bird seems to have inspired poets as highly, or almost as highly, as the latter. Then we have an opinion which, perhaps, may have been that of Shakespeare himself, who was a rare lover of music, that
The nightingale, if she should sing by day
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren.
Now the nightingale does sing by day, and, as a matter of fact, she is then thought at least no better than the lark or thrush—in fact, she is, like these, often not noticed at all, as I have had some opportunities of observing. This, at least, shows that some of the effect produced upon some of us by this bird's song, is due to that added and exquisite poetry which night and silence gives to it. We have no other night-singing bird who is sufficiently common, and whose song is at the same time sufficiently distinguished for it to attract much attention, and therefore the nightingale has this great advantage practically all to itself. I cannot help thinking that it owes to this that easy and unquestioned superiority which has been accorded to it in popular estimation over all our other song-birds, especially such glorious ones as the skylark, thrush, blackcap, blackbird, etc.
It will be said that I cannot appreciate the song of the nightingale, though I am trying only properly to appreciate that of other members of the choir. Yet if I were to say that Shakespeare was full of imperfections, that Julius Cæsar was a dull play, King Lear a—I forget what, something uncomplimentary—play, and Richard III. such a one as allowed "the discerning admirer" (a nom de plume) to see the author's quill-driven expression whilst writing it; that, moreover, the seven ages of man was by no means a fine passage, and that Hamlet's soliloquy had been much over-rated, it would not be said, on this account, that I was unable to appreciate Shakespeare. I judge so, because others who make these and similar statements (whether they or the Baconians are the more pestilent, I find it difficult to decide) pass, apparently, for the appreciative persons, which, I suppose, they think themselves to be. Yet how they can think so puzzles me, for people who write in this way must be, really, as much bored by Shakespeare as Shakespeare would have been by them, had an introduction been possible—and surely they must have found this out. I wish the poor, gullible public would. How I should rejoice to be accused—yes, and even convicted—of having no ear for the song of the nightingale, if only it could be discovered, also, that "critics" who, with a natural incapacity for seeing beauty in beauty, yet step modestly forward to teach us, and dance as fantastically on the body of a dead poet as did ever a Lilliputian on that of the sleeping Gulliver, are neither profound nor discerning nor even literary, but merely dull dogs posing, of which sort, indeed, most "great oneyers" keep their pack. Yet I wish they could leave the imperfections of Shakespeare (which they discern in his masterstrokes) as utterly beyond them, and busy themselves only with the perfections of such Baviuses and Mœviuses as it is their wont to crown. I commend them to old Bunyan with his "'Then,' said Mr Blind-man, 'I see clearly'"—and so pass on.
The sweet song of the nightingale has caused the more stress to be laid upon the sobriety of its colouring, the natural tendency being to exaggerate such a contrast. But now, when one watches for the bird in the shade of leafy thickets, the way in which it generally reveals itself is by a sudden flash of red or chestnut brown, a bright spot of colour which is conspicuously visible, sometimes even in the centre of a thorn-bush, and, one may almost say, brilliantly so, as its wearer flits amongst the trees and undergrowth. This brightness belongs to the tail generally, but there must, I think, be either upon or just above it—on the upper tail coverts, perhaps—a specially bright and more ruddy-hued patch which produces the effect of which I speak; and as nightingales habitually haunt wooded and umbrageous spots, it has sometimes occurred to me that this has been developed as a guiding star for one to follow another by, just as the white tail of the rabbit is supposed to have been. I have often watched two pursuing each other through the dim leafiness, each uttering a variant of the deep, croaking note of which I have spoken, and which answers to the call, chirp, or twitter amongst other birds. At such times the ruddy star or streak has always, as I say, been most conspicuous. Independently of this, the bird's general colouring is a pleasing olive brown which, according to position and circumstances, has a more or less glossy appearance, the tail having received the finest polish. By virtue of all this, I feel sure that, to anyone who had watched and waited for her, the nightingale would come rather as a conspicuous than a dull-looking bird, at least amongst our smaller British birds. Tits and chaffinches, as it seems to me, flash less as they flit through the trees. Therefore, when I read the eternal remarks about its dull colouring, which—and this is the bane of natural history—one writer hands down from the mouth of another through the generations, I say to myself that each and all of them have, either, never called upon the bird and stayed an hour or two, or else that they have got out of the habit—which may be also a trouble—of seeing anything other than as "it is written." So far from the nightingale being specially like a plain-bound book in which lovely songs are contained, to me it seems to offer an example of a bird distinguished both by its musical powers and—to a much lesser extent, certainly, but still not insignificantly—by its colour also. I am thinking of its tail, and particularly of that ruddy star or patch which, I think, is upon it, and which, little as it may seem in a stuffed specimen or one quite still or hardly seen, becomes a conspicuous feature under such circumstances as I have mentioned. That this patch, or the whole tail, means something I feel sure, but as to whether it is a badge or an ornament—whether natural or sexual selection has been at work—I can say little. In the latter case the same force would have been brought to bear in two different directions, and this, I think, has been often the case with our song-birds, though it seems to have been agreed to talk as if the opposite were. Surely the bullfinch, chaffinch, robin, linnet, greenfinch, and others—the males of all of which show off to some extent before the females—have been selected (if at all) as much by the eye as by the ear of the latter; whilst the lyre-bird of Australia offers an example of a highly adorned species that is also conspicuously musical. The nightingale is glossy, and sometimes—in effect, at least, and in some part of it—bright. It may be getting brighter, but, if so, it will probably have to rival the kingfisher before it ceases to be an encouraging symbol to those who hide a worth which they feel beneath a want which everybody can see.
No good illustration, that I know of, exists of the nightingale; none, at least, which at all resembles the bird as I have seen it, either sitting, hopping, flying, singing, or silent. In natural history books, after we have been solemnly told that the male alone sings, that his song constitutes his courtship, and that, therefore, both the "she" and the "melancholy" of poets are incorrect, we are generally presented with a gaunt, scraggy-looking creature, having a woe-begone gaze which is fixed upon the moon, towards which its neck and whole body seem drawn out, as by some attractive force. This is the nightingale of convention, but when I have seen it, it has always looked the pleasingly plump, cheerful, little, brisk, active body that it really is, and when it sang it was without any "pose," in a hunched-up, careless-looking attitude, which had almost a feathered podginess about it. The legs were bent, the feathers of the ventral surface touching, or almost touching, the twig of perch, the head inclining forward at an easy angle—a cosy, homely, happy, contented appearance. I have watched one singing thus for some time. Not once did he rear himself up, so as to become long, thin, and tubey—tubby he was rather, and had not the faintest resemblance to a horrible, man-made, first-prize-for-deformity canary bird. Just in the same way, too, he will often sing on the ground, looking as homely and rotund as can be. True it is, as the natural history books tell us, that no one familiar with the bird and its habits would think of calling it or its song melancholy; therefore (as these never add), remembering Milton's famous line, let us be thankful that he as well as some other poets were not familiar with it. There has long been a nightingale of poetry and literature, grown out of its own song but having little to do with the real bird, which no one except strict scientists—and a literary critic or two—would wish to do away with.
With regard to the nest-building habits of the nightingale, I have only the space to say that, as in the case of the blackbird, the female alone collects and arranges the materials, being attended upon whilst she does so—though, perhaps, not quite so closely—by the male. One should be cautious, however, in concluding that such is always the case either with this or other birds, for I have watched, for some time, one of a pair of long-tailed tits bringing feathers to the nest, whilst the other kept near about, with nothing in its bill. Yet ordinarily both sexes work together in a most exemplary way. Nothing can look prettier than these little, soft, pinky, feathery things, as they creep mousily into their soft, little purse of a nest; nothing can look prettier than they do as they sit within it, pulling, pushing, ramming, patting, and arranging; finally, nothing can look prettier than they look as they again creep out of it and fly away. Their perpetual feat of turning round in the nest without dislocating the tail, is also one of those few earthly things in the seeing of which one cannot weary.
I have often tried to watch these little birds collecting, so as to see them actually find and fly away with the materials for the nest. This, however, I found more difficult than I had expected. Every time I saw them fly out of their nest, but in spite of stealthy following, I generally lost them soon after they had entered a plantation close to where, in a fir-hedge, it was. All I could be sure of was that they flew about in different directions, sometimes into tall fir-trees, times into low tangles and bushes, sometimes, too, across the road again and into different parts of the fir-hedge. "They keep, for the most part, together, and whenever they are near enough I hear their soft, subdued little 'chit chit.' As lichen, which is what they are now principally collecting, is everywhere about on the trunks of trees, etc., it would seem as though even a minute would be a long time for them to take in getting a piece and returning with it, if they took it at random; and the inference appears to be that they exercise choice and selection, and return each time from the nest with a definite idea of the kind of bit they want next."
I will here quote, from my notes, an observation I made on the way these little birds roost at night, which may, perhaps, be of interest. "On my way back I noticed some object which I took to be a dead bird, in a tall, straggling brier-bush that formed a kind of bower, inside which one could stand up. Thinking that this bird might have been transfixed by a shrike, I came right under it, and, pulling down the branches with my stick, to my astonishment the object separated and became four little, fluttering, 'chittering,' long-tailed tits that had been sitting wedged close together. I stood perfectly still, and after they had 'chit, chitted' a little, and made a few little hops about the bush, two of them came back from different directions to just the same place, snoozled up to each other and were settled again for the night. Very soon, a third hopped on to the two backs and pressed himself down between them, taking no denial, and, indeed, not receiving any. The fourth remained a little longer apart, perhaps for ten minutes, during all which time I stood without a motion, leaning on my stick, and had, at last, the satisfaction to see him come perching down towards the bough, then perch on the three backs just as the third had done on the two, and squeeze himself in amongst them so that two were on one side of him and one on the other. All four now sat closely pressed together, three tails projecting on one side of the twig, and the fourth on the other. I sat down in the bush and made this entry, whilst the birdies—surely the prettiest little ones, almost, in the world—went to sleep.
"Next night, at about six, I took up my position in the same place, and waited. After I had sat silently for a few minutes, I saw a pair of the tits creeping softly about through the bushes adjacent, uttering the little chitter in a very subdued tone. One was soon in the actual bush, but crept out of it again and went away with the other. In another four or five minutes, however, they both return, this time coming more quickly and directly to the bush, when soon getting, from opposite sides, to very much the same part of it as before, they sidle to each other along the particular twig and then squeeze and press together so tightly that their outline on the inner side is quite lost, like that of a double cherry. Thus pressed and wedged, each little bird preens itself, the two little heads moving about and seeming to belong to one quite round body, having one tail—for their two tails are pressed, for their whole length, together. When their heads turn inwards the little birds appear to be caressing each other, and they must, I think, sometimes catch hold of each other's feathers, but it is all part, or intended to be part, of the process of preening themselves. This close pressing seems to be a pleasure in itself, independently of the result of warmth, for sometimes they will come unstuck, as it were, and move a little away from each other along the twig, in order to press and squeeze again. For a little, then, their tails may be separate, but soon they rejoin, and, the heads being now quiet—for they are going to sleep—and tucked closely in amongst the feathers of the breast, their outlines, never very salient, are entirely lost, and the two birds have become one perfectly globular one, without a head and with a long tail. Thus two of these long-tailed tits have returned again to roost in the same place, but the other pair do not come to the bush."
It is interesting to watch sand-martins building their nests, or, rather, excavating the tunnels in which they will afterwards be built. To see one enter one of these whilst it is yet but a few inches long, and then to see the dust powdering out at the aperture, as from the mouth of an ensconced cannon, is pretty. The sand is scratched out backwards with the feet, but the bird also uses its bill as a pickaxe, often making a series of rapid little blows with it, almost like a woodpecker, the wings, which quite cover the body, quivering at the same time. Both sexes work at the hole, and both often fly together to it, one remaining clinging at the edge whilst the other scratches out the sand from inside. I have seen one sitting just in the embrasure, quietly regarding the outer world and, thus, impeding the entrance of his partner, who at last squeezed by him with great difficulty. Sometimes three or four will descend upon the same hole and cling there without quarrelling; but once I saw a bird in a hole attacked by another, who flew suddenly down upon it with a little twittering scream.
Though each pair of birds excavate their own tunnel, yet the whole community, or, at any rate, a large proportion of it, will sometimes work together, sweeping on to the pit's face in a body, clinging there and burrowing, with a constant twittering, then darting off silently in a cloud and sailing and circling round in the pit's amphitheatre, making, when the sky is blue and the sun bright, a warm and delicious picture such as the Greeks must have loved to gaze on.
As each bird, however, only works at his own and his partner's hole, it is evident that this kind of social working is not the same as that of ants or bees and other such insect communities, though it has something of that appearance. Sometimes, for a short time, all the birds will keep fluttering round in small circles that only extend a little beyond the face of the cliff, not rising to a greater height than their own tunnels in it, which they almost touch each time, as they come round. They look like eddies in a stream beneath the bank, but are not so silent, for all are twittering excitedly. This is an interesting thing to see, a kind of aerial manoeuvres the special cause of which, if there be one, is not obvious.
But we will suppose that the birds are now all working, either inside their tunnels or clinging to the face of the cliff. All at once, either at or about the same instant of time, they all fly off, darting away, and disseminate themselves in the sky, not one being left either in or about the pit. In a few minutes they return, but, as is the case with the small birds at the stacks, not in nearly so instantaneous or simultaneous a manner; and this may be repeated for a greater or lesser number of times. All the remarks that I have made in regard to this phenomenon in the case of other birds apply equally here, perhaps, indeed, to a greater extent; for, as remarked, at the moment of each sudden exodus a certain number—sometimes about half—of these sand-martins will be more or less hidden within the holes they are excavating, yet out they all dart with the rest. Such sudden flights and disappearances for a few minutes, after which all come back, strike me as being extremely curious.
Sand-martins appear to be pugnacious. Indeed, they sometimes fight fiercely, and I have seen two, after closing with a sharp, shrill "charr" and struggling in the air for a little, roll down the steep declivity of sand in which the perpendicular face of the pit often ends. It, therefore, seems the more curious that they allow their holes to be taken possession of by sparrows (and, also, by tree-sparrows)—without offering any resistance. I have seen one of the latter birds sitting quietly and calmly in the mouth of a hole, whilst a pair of martins, who had, probably, excavated it, hovered excitedly just over and about him, but without doing more. On many other more or less similar occasions there has been excitement on the part of the martins, but never an attack. Yet a tree-sparrow, or even a sparrow, is not such a very much larger and stronger bird than a sand-martin, and, considering the numbers of the latter, as well as their greater activity and powers of flight, it seems to me an odd thing that they should submit to such a usurpation so tamely. If they are not capable of combining together in order to expel a stranger from the colony, this speaks little for their intelligence, as they have, at least, been generally two to one. This is a good working majority, and why, under such circumstances, an impudent sparrow should be allowed to sit quietly in the home whereinto he has intruded, I cannot quite understand. But so it is, or so, at least, it has been, in my own experience.
But I must not wrong the sparrow. Let me recall that word "impudent," and bury still more deeply another one, to wit, "unscrupulous," that I was about to make use of. A sparrow, when he thus acts, is simply annexing territory, and should have all the credit of forbearance and self-sacrifice that belongs to such an act. His motives in doing so are, no doubt, as creditable as are those which restrain him from acting similarly in the case of more powerful birds, and if a doubt of this should ever cross his mind, he need only read a newspaper or two and listen to some speeches in "the House." He will know the integrity of his own heart—then.
It seems wonderful that a bird of the swallow tribe—so aerial, and without any special structural adaptation for burrowing—should be capable of driving horizontal shafts into the face of a bank or pit, to the length, sometimes, of seven or even, it is said, nine feet. Though the excavations be in sand, yet this is often of a very firm consistency, and, moreover, in many pits, the face of which had been largely tunnelled by these birds, sand was a good deal mingled with a fairly stiff clay. Though I have not been able to watch the process of excavation from the commencement, so thoroughly as I should have liked to have done, yet I have seen it to a certain extent, and I will now quote from the notes which I took down on one such occasion:
"May 25th.—At the pit about 7.15 a.m. A great number of birds are working, and there is not now the same regularity in their movements—all coming to the holes and darting away together at intervals—as was the case, for a time, at least, when I first watched them. Though so late, several birds are but just commencing to make their holes, and to watch these is most interesting. Two plans seem to be employed. In the first, the bird constantly flutters its wings, whilst, with its feet, it at the same time clings to and scratches the face of the cliff. Thus it partly hovers in the air, and partly keeps itself in position with its feet, but more with the tail which is fanned out and pressed in against the cliff, like a woodpecker's against the trunk of the tree it is on. The second way is more curious. The wings, here, are partly extended, but, instead of being fluttered, they are pressed close against the sandy wall. Moving about over this, they seem to feel for every little inequality into which they can wedge themselves, and this the bird does, also, with his breast and the most available part of his body, the tail being fanned and pressed to the cliff, whilst the feet all the while are scratching vigorously. In this way a bird will sometimes crawl, or rather wedge itself, about, over the pit's face (which, though it may be perpendicular, or almost so, is yet full of roughnesses and inequalities), appearing to seek either the most yielding surface to scratch, or the best place to get fixed into whilst scratching; and, in doing this, it leaves a track on the sand or gravel which is quite perceptible through the glasses, and which I believe is made by the strongly bent-in tail as well as by the feet. It thus clings with wings, tail, and body, whilst scratching, far more than clinging, with its claws."
"It may be asked what part in all this does the beak play? In those birds which I have been just now watching at some twenty paces through glasses that brought them just under my eyes, and in bright sunlight, it seemed to play none at all. It might have been expected that, in thus commencing, the martins would cling with the feet whilst working with the bill. These have certainly not done so, nor have they ever been head downwards, either now or before. I have not yet seen a sand-martin in this position, or even approaching to it. The tail, which is made to play so great a part, would here lose much of its efficacy, but I do not at all think that they never do hang like this. Within certain wide limits, birds, in my experience, act, not uniformly, but with great variety. Probably, with longer watching, I should have seen this attitude, and, also, the bill used as well as the feet. Whether it is used or not in the first commencement of an excavation, it certainly is—in the way I have described—during the later stages.""I notice again this morning a particular hole, only about an inch deep, and at the bottom of which there is a large stone, naturally imbedded in the sand. No birds are now working at this, but, on the last occasion, one was attacked several times in succession, whilst doing so, by another. This seems as though the one bird of a pair had thought the place unsuitable on account of the stone, and not allowed the other to work there. Thus delicately are matrimonial teachings conveyed amongst birds. Not one unkind word did I hear upon either side."
"Whilst watching these sand-martins, a pretty little quadrupedal picture was also presented to me. A rabbit, the mother of three, came with them all from her burrow, which was near the top of the pit where it joined the fields on one side, and couched there, delicately, in the morning sunshine. The young ones flung themselves, all three, on their backs, and, wedging themselves under her, two of them took their breakfast in this position. The third one, however, having tried in vain to get properly under her chest, made a detour, and then took her in the flank in ordinary formation, and with successful results. To see this with the warm, bright sand as a background, and the swallows flying round! Lying dozing in the morning one may have pretty dreams, but they are not often prettier than this. Blue sky, too, though it is England, and in the depth of spring!"
I have spoken of blackbirds bringing materials thirty-one times to the nest in the course of three hours, but this is very slow work, and would be, even if both birds were to bring them instead of only one. Comparatively, I mean, and the bird that I am taking as a standard of comparison is the great crested grebe. In fifty minutes a pair of these that I watched had brought between them one hundred cargoes of weed, some so large that the head of the bird carrying them was almost hidden, and some trailing on the water for a considerable way behind. Each bird dives and comes up with its green, shining burden, with which it at once swims to the great heap of similar material which both have collected, and which projects a few inches above the water, at but a short distance from the bank. The male is, if possible, more earnest and indefatigable in the great work than even the female, and, sometimes, he will work for a little alone, whilst she is resting. Yet, with all this, it is apparent, at once, that she is the more effective of the two, in her actual workmanship. She dives more quickly, and comes up each time with a larger load, so large, sometimes, that her head is pulled right back as she drags it along the surface of the water. She places it, too,—if this is not fancy—a little more deftly and quickly, showing in everything a higher degree of professional skill, though her colleague, besides being second only to herself in this, seems, as I say, to glow with a more ardent enthusiasm.
Huge as the mass of weeds is, which constitutes the nest of these birds, it is collected by them in an astonishingly short space of time; how short, I am not quite sure about, but this I can positively say, that whereas on a certain morning I could see no trace of it above the surface of the water, on the morning after this it was to all intents and purposes finished, though the male bird, alone, once added very slightly to it, not occupying more than a few minutes in so doing. As to this, however, it can be said, in a certain sense, that the nest never is finished, or, at any rate, not till after the female has begun to lay her eggs. Morning after morning the male brings weeds to the heap that his partner is sitting on, but as I had to leave early in this stage of the bird's domestic history, I cannot tell for how long he continues to do this. Probably, as in the case of the shag, and also, I believe, the moor-hen, the nest is added to during the whole time that the birds make use of it. A nest, however, may properly be considered finished from the time that it is en etat to receive the eggs and the sitting bird, and according to this, these two grebes must have built theirs between about 8.30 a.m. on one day and 6 a.m. on the next. Now, in my experience, these birds only work during the early morning, from dawn or thereabouts, up to about 8 or 9. Possibly they may begin again in the evening, or work at night, but I never saw them building, or even (before it was finished) near the nest, at any later time of the day. That the nest I speak of was not begun till after 6.30 a.m. on the one day, is practically certain, for up to that time the birds were building another one, so that unless, as I say, they worked on the evening of that day, or in the night-time, they must have begun and finished it in one morning, between dawn (as we may suppose) and 8 o'clock—and this is what I believe. If so, it seems a remarkable feat, but the swiftness with which they dive and swim up with their cargoes, and the bulk of weeds which these represent makes me think it possible, though I must confess that all the work which I actually saw on the morning in question made little perceptible difference in the size of the heap that was already there on my arrival.
Like an iceberg, the great mass of the nest is beneath the surface of the water. It seems to be woven amongst the stems of growing weeds or other aquatic plants, but I have noticed in it (indeed, I have seen the birds placing and carrying them) water-logged sticks of some size, one end of which is fixed amongst the mass, whilst the other sinks down into the mud, and the tangle that may spring from it. Such sticks must act as so many anchors, and may, perhaps, be the chief means by which the nest is kept stationary. To judge by the two birds which I particularly watched, the great crested grebe has the habit of building several nests, and, besides this, the male makes a small platform of weeds just off the edge of the bank, and near to the nest. Sometimes he seems in doubt whether to take his weeds to the nest or the platform, and in this hesitation, and in the building of more than one nest, we may, perhaps, see the origin of the latter structure. With regard to this, and some other points which seemed to me of interest, I may refer to a paper of mine which has lately appeared in the Zoologist. In this I give a minute account of the nest-building and some other habits of these birds, as illustrated by a pair which I watched very closely; and I will here record my conviction that there is more to be learnt by such watching of any one species, or even any one individual bird, than in the killing or robbing of thousands.
When I say this, it is not only of the interest that there is in a creature's ways and habits that I am thinking, but also of the light that these may, at any moment, throw upon its descent and affinities—upon all those questions and subjects which are suggested by the word "evolution" and the names of Darwin and Wallace. To have a true classificatory system seems to be, now, the grand ideal of the naturalist, and this, I suppose, must be called a high one, though it is wonderful how, in some modern works, the soul of it has been taken out of the body, so that all has become dull and pedantic again, though a flight of stairs higher up than some fifty years ago. Thus can a matter seem rich or poor as one or another treats of it. But habits and instincts are as strongly inherited as structure, so that, as it appears to me, the study of life is, even from the orthodox scientific point of view, as important as the study of death. Yet it is death that most zoologists (as they call themselves) really revel in, and, though they may not say so, one cannot help feeling that they are a great deal happier and more comfortable dissecting a body in their study than studying a life out-of-doors.
Even admitting that both ways of acquiring knowledge are equally efficacious and legitimate, yet this is very clear, that the destruction of any species ends both, in regard to it. We can no more dissect the great auk or the dodo (or blow their eggs) now than we can observe their habits. Thus it is not only beauty, but knowledge also—how great and how varied who can say?—that is being every day drained out of the world, and against this there is, as it seems to me, an insufficient protest on the part of scientific men as a body. They care too little about it. When they think of birds or beasts, it is under glass cases in museums that their mind's eye sees them, and if there is only a specimen—nay, a bone or a feather—in one of these, it is to them as though a nation had been saved. More, if only a specimen, or a bone or feather, can be got for a museum in which they are interested, for the sake of it such nation may perish, and of this spirit we have only lately had a salient example. In their writings, these serenities are accustomed to speak calmly of the approaching extinction of this or that more or less lovely or interesting creature—say, for instance, the lyre-bird of Australia—if, "happily," such and such a museum has been supplied, or if Professor somebody has ascertained this or that in regard to it; or professors and the public generally are exhorted to obtain such supplies or such information "before the end comes."
"Before the end comes!" Every effort should be exhausted, every nerve strained, to avert such end, which, in nine cases out of ten, could be averted if the requisite measures were taken. This way of writing, however, is not calculated to further such efforts, or to hasten the taking of such measures. Indifference, at least with regard to the greater evil, is but too clearly indicated, and to this indifference the life of species after species is sacrificed.
No one, of course, supposes that the opinions or emotions of a scientific body (and in this I mean to include more than the term strictly covers) would exercise any influence on money-seeking men or brainless and heartless women; but they might on that great army of collectors who, thinking all the while that they are in some way doing good and helping science, keep sweeping countless thousands of birds, beasts, eggs, and insects out of existence. Alas for these amiable basilisks, these busy little man-shaped rinderpests, who kill so well-meaningly and hate the very breath of life without ever once knowing it! if they had devoted their whole lives to picking pockets, or even to being politicians, they would have done, at the end of them, less harm—far, far less harm—in the world than they are now every day doing. Every day, through them, some specific life that is, or was, of more value than all their individual ones put together, is getting scarcer, or ceasing to be. For, surely, a beautiful butterfly, say, that, for all time, charms—and raises by charming—some number of those who see it, does more good on this earth than any single man or woman, who, "departing," leaves no "footprints on the sands of time." Homer, for instance, has left his "Iliad" and "Odyssey," and these have been, and still are, mighty in their effects. But let them once perish, and Homer will be caught up and overtaken by almost any bird or butterfly—even a brown one. Or, if Homer will not, assuredly many an English poet-laureate will be, or has been already (Pye, for instance), though his volumes in the British Museum are safe as consols. If there be any truth in this reflection, it should tend to make us a little less conceited than we are. Yet what is a little in such a matter?—"Oh, reform it altogether."
For myself, I must confess that I once belonged to this great, poor army of killers, though, happily, a bad shot, a most fatigable collector, and a poor, half-hearted bungler, generally. But now that I have watched birds closely, the killing of them seems to me as something monstrous and horrible; and, for every one that I have shot, or even only shot at and missed, I hate myself with an increasing hatred. I am convinced that this most excellent result might be arrived at by numbers and numbers of others, if they would only begin to do the same; for the pleasure that belongs to observation and inference is, really, far greater than that which attends any kind of skill or dexterity, even when death and pain add their zest to the latter. Let anyone who has an eye and a brain (but especially the latter), lay down the gun and take up the glasses for a week, a day, even for an hour, if he is lucky, and he will never wish to change back again. He will soon come to regard the killing of birds as not only brutal, but dreadfully silly, and his gun and cartridges, once so dear, will be to him, hereafter, as the toys of childhood are to the grown man.
Nor will the good effect stop here. Birds are but a part of the life on this our earth, and the hatred of destruction, once kindled by them, will, like the ripples made by a stone flung into the water, extend outwards through the whole animal and vegetable kingdom till it include, at last, man himself—yes, even the Chinese. Unfortunately, long before anything of this kind is likely to happen, all birds, except poultry, and, perhaps, a lingering sparrow or two, will have been destroyed. This seems a cheerless prospect, but, as usual (to write like an optimist), it has its brighter side. Women will then be no longer able to wear hats, to adorn which the most beautiful of earth's creatures have been ruthlessly slaughtered, and, therefore, faith in them will begin once more to revive. Faith in woman, we know, is a very important thing. A nation that has once lost it must either get it again, or go rapidly downhill. How much better, therefore, to get it again!
I had meant, in this last chapter, besides touching a little more fully on some points to which I have here and there referred, to say something about the heron, nightjar, cuckoo, barn-owl, wagtail, and a few other birds ; but I have managed so clumsily that I now find myself at the furthest possible limit of space, without having left myself room either for the one or the other. With regard to the nightjar, I have kept an observational diary on the nesting habits of a pair of these birds, which was published in the Zoologist for, I think, September 1899. From this I had intended to quote, as in the case of the great plover, but it is too late to begin now. All these birds, therefore, must wait a little, but I will not forget them should I ever write another book of this kind.
- As far as I could ascertain this by coming a few times at intervals.
- The wheatears, however, sang as well as danced.
- Proximity to the nest, with young, is the most frequent cause.
- Especially when driven from the eggs.
- But do the musical powers of some birds differ in different countries? Never have I heard the two last sing here as I have in Germany. Germans, as we know, are very musical. Have the same general causes which—— etc., etc.?
- Sexual, as I now believe. A recent lucky glimpse of nightingale courtship has assured me that I have not unconsciously exaggerated. Indeed, the ruddy glow of the broadly fanned tail, caught in the last rays of the descending sun, could hardly be exaggerated. But the colour was on all the rectrices. They alone, I think, are the patch, the star.
- May 1901.