Page images

are at hand. Rooks dig in pastures and ploughed fields for grubs, and in doing so must continually encounter roots and fibres. These are used to line its nest. What more natural! The crow feeding on carrion, dead rabbits, and lambs, and frequenting sheep-walks and warrens, chooses fur and wool to line its nest. The lark frequents cultivated fields, and makes its nest, on the ground, of grass lined with horsehair-materials the most easy to meet with, and the best adapted to its needs. The kingfisher makes its nest of the bones of the fish which it has eaten. Swallows use clay and mud from the margins of the ponds and rivers over which they find their insect food. The materials of birds' nests, like those used by savage man for his house, are, then, those which come first to hand; and it certainly requires no more special instinct to select them in one case than in the other.

But, it will be said, it is not so much the materials as the form and structure of nests, that vary so much, and are so wonderfully adapted to the wants and habits of each species; how are these to be accounted for except by instinct ? I reply, they may be in a great measure explained by the general habits of the species, the nature of the tools they have to work with, and the materials they can most easily obtain, with the very simplest adaptations of means to an end, quite within the mental capacities of birds. The delicacy and perfection of the nest will bear a direct relation to the size of the bird, its structure and habits. That of the wren or the humming-bird is perhaps not finer or more beautiful in proportion than that of the blackbird, the magpie, or the crow. The wren, having a slender beak, long legs, and great activity, is able with great ease to form a well-woven nest of the finest materials, and places it in thickets and hedgerows which it frequents in its search for food. The titmouse, haunting fruittrees and walls, and searching in cracks and crannies for insects, is naturally led to build in holes where it has shelter and security; while its great activity, and the perfection of its tools (bill and feet), enable it readily to form a beautiful receptable for its eggs and young. Pigeons having heavy bodies and weak feet and bills (imperfect tools for forming a delicate structure) build rude, flat nests of sticks, laid across strong branches which will bear their weight and that of their bulky young. They can do no better. The Caprimulgidæ have the most imperfect tools of all, feet that will not support them except on a flat surface (for they cannot truly perch) and a bill excessively broad, short, and weak, and almost hidden by feathers and bristles. They cannot build a nest of twigs or fibres, hair or moss, like other birds, and they therefore generally dispense with one altogether, laying their eggs on the bare ground, or on the stump or flat limb of a tree. The clumsy hooked bills, short necks and feet, and heavy bodies of Parrots, render them quite incapable of building a nest like most other birds. They cannot climb up a branch without using both bill and feet; they cannot even turn round on a perch without holding on with their bill. How, then, could they inlay, or weave, or twist the materials of a nest ? Consequently, they all day 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 tidewasbed 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, 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 songs 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 they are associated.

Do Birds sing by Instinct or by Imitation ? The Hon. Daines Barrington was of opinion that “notes in birds are no more innate than language is in man, and depend entirely on the master under which they are bred, as far as their organs will enable them to imitate the sounds which they have frequent opportunities of hearing.” He 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 larksthe 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

« EelmineJätka »