Page images

the materials of a nest ? Consequently, they all lay in holes of trees, the tops of rotten stumps, or in deserted ants' nests, the soft materials of which they can easily hollow out.

Many terns and sandpipers lay their eggs on the bare sand of the sea-shore, and no doubt the Duke of Argyll is correct when he says, that the cause of this habit is not that they are unable to form a nest, but that, in such situations, any nest would be conspicuous and lead to the discovery of the eggs. The choice of place is, however, evidently determined by the habits of the birds, who, in their daily search for food, are continually roaming over extensive tidewashed flats. Gulls vary considerably in their mode of nesting, but it is always in accordance with their structure and habits. The situation is either on a bare rock or on ledges of sea-cliffs, in marshes or on weedy shores. The materials are sea-weed, tufts of grass or rushes, or the debris of the shore, heaped together with as little order and constructive art as might be expected from the webbed feet and clumsy bill of these birds, the latter better adapted for seizing fish than for forming a delicate nest. The long-legged, broad-billed flamingo, who is continually stalking over muddy flats in search of food, heaps up the mud into a conical stool, on the top of which it lays its eggs. The bird can thus sit upon them conveniently, and they are kept dry, out of reach of the tides.

Now I believe that throughout the whole class of birds the same general principles will be found to hold

good, sometimes distinctly, sometimes more obscurely apparent, according as the habits of the species are more marked, or their structure more peculiar. It is true that, among birds differing but little in structure or habits, we see considerable diversity in the mode of nesting, but we are now so well assured that important changes of climate and of surface have occured within the period of existing species, that it is by no means difficult to see how such differences have arisen. Simple habits are known to be hereditary, and as the area now occupied by each species is different from that of every other, we may be sure that such changes would act differently upon each, and would often bring together species which had acquired their peculiar habits in distinct regions and under different conditions.

How do Young Birds learn to Build their First Nest?

But it is objected, birds do not learn to make their nest as man does to build, for all birds will make exactly the same nest as the rest of their species, even if they have never seen one, and it is instinct alone that can enable them to do this. No doubt this would be instinct if it were true, and I simply ask for proof of the fact. This point, although so important to the question at issue, is always assumed without proof, and even against proof, for what facts there are, are opposed to it. Birds brought up from the egg in cages do not make the characteristic nest of their species, even though the proper materials are supplied them,

[ocr errors]

and often make no nest at all, but rudely heap together a quantity of materials ; and the experiment has never been fairly tried, of turning out a pair of birds so brought up, into an enclosure covered with netting, and watching the result of their untaught attempts at nest-making. With regard to the song of birds, however, which is thought to be equally instinctive, the experiment has been tried, and it is found that young birds never have the song peculiar to their species if they have not heard it, whereas they acquire very easily the song of almost any other bird with which hey are associated.


Do Birds sing by Instinct or by Imitation? The Hon. Daines Barrington has given an account of his experiments in the “ Philosophical Transactions” for 1773 (Vol. 63); he says: “I have educated nestling linnets under the three best singing larks—the skylark, woodlark, and titlark, every one of which, instead of the linnet's song, adhered entirely to that of their respective instructors. When the note of the titlark linnet was thoroughly fixed, I hung the bird in a room with two common linnets for a quarter of a year,

which were full in song; the titlark linnet, however, did not borrow any passage from the linnet's song, but adhered stedfastly to that of the titlark.” He then goes on to say

that birds taken from the nest at two or three weeks old have already learnt the call-note of their species. To prevent this the birds must be taken from the nest when a day or two old, and he gives an account of a

goldfinch which he saw at Knighton in Radnorshire, and which sang exactly like a wren, without any portion of the proper note of its species.

This bird had been taken from the nest at two or three days old, and had been hung at a window opposite a small garden, where it had undoubtedly acquired the notes of the wren without having any opportunity of learning even the call of the goldfinch.

He also saw a linnet, which had been taken from the nest when only two or three days old, and which, not having any other sounds to imitate, had learnt almost to articulate, and could repeat the words “Pretty Boy," and some other short sentences.

The Rev. W. H. Herbert made similar observations, and states that the young whinchat and wheatear, which have naturally little variety of song, are ready in confinement, to learn from other species, and become much better songsters. The bullfinch, whose natural notes are weak, harsh, and insignificant, has nevertheless a wonderful musical faculty, since it can be taught to whistle complete tunes. The nightingale, on the other hand, whose natural song is so beautiful, is exceedingly apt in confinement to learn that of other birds instead. Bechstein gives an account of a redstart which had built under the eaves of his house, which imitated the song of a caged chaffinch, in a window underneath, while another in his neighbour's garden repeated some of the notes of a blackcap, which had a nest close by.

These facts and many others which might be quoted,

render it certain that the peculiar notes of birds are acquired by imitation, as surely as a child learns English or French, not by instinct, but by hearing the language spoken by its parents.

It is especially worthy of remark that, for young birds to acquire a new song correctly, they must be taken out of hearing of their parents very soon, for in the first three or four days they have already acquired some knowledge of the parent notes, which they will afterwards imitate. This shows that very young birds can both hear and remember, and it would be very extraordinary if, after they could see, they could neither observe nor recollect, and could live for days and weeks in a nest and know nothing of its materials and the manner of its construction. During the time they are learning to fly and return often to the nest, they must be able to examine it inside and out in every detail, and as we have seen that their daily search for food invariably leads them among the materials of which it is constructed, and among places similar to that in which it is placed, is it so very wonderful that when they want one themselves they should make one like it? How else, in fact, should they make it? Would it not be much more remarkable if they went out of their way to get materials quite different from those used in the parent nest, if they arranged them in a way they had seen example of, and formed the whole structure differently from that in which they themselves were reared, and which we may fairly presume is that which their whole


« EelmineJätka »