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CHAPTER III

BIRD ARCHITECTURE

JUST as surely as the peoples of the earth have each a characteristic style of architecture, a Hotten­tot hut or an Indian tepee, a Moorish mosque, a Gothic cathedral or a Chinese pagoda being stamped on its face with the racial individuality of the designer, so the humblest home of the birds about us tells at once to the practised eye the species of the feathered architect who made it. The dang­ ling cup of felt" is quite as characteristic of the Baltimore oriole, for example, as the temple with its rows of profusely ornamented columns was of the Corinthian Greek. And the marvel is that, guided only by instinct, the birds should continue to repeat generation after generation the special architecture of their ancestors without taking the pains to study a finished model or standing by to watch the expert masters of their craft at work. For birds reared in captivity build as good homes and by precisely the same model as the wild birds of their species. Nor does any bird servilely copy the nest of one not of his own tribe. It would be difficult to name the style of architecture to which most of our modern suburban villas belong (unless we call it the Con­glomerate); but every farmer's boy can tell at a glance the robin's mud-plastered nest from the song sparrow's or bobolink's grassy cradle. Primitive creatures of necessity have singleness of purpose; it is only when we imperfectly civilized humans become bewildered by the multiplicity of ideas pre­sented for us to choose from, that we are in danger of losing our natural simplicity.


Photograph by Carlin
The robin's mud-plastered nest

INDIFFERENT BUILDERS

Ages and ages ago when the first birds evolved from reptiles (from which all are descended) it is probable they neither built nests, nor incubated their eggs, but left them for the sun to hatch, just as the reptiles leave theirs to this day. Birds of the lower orders are still indifferent builders when they build at all. A depression in the earth, such as barn-yard hens and ducks make with their bodies, and the gradual addition of grass, leaves and feathers to give comfort as well as to retain warmth, were certain marks of progress. Even before the days of the steam plough or the mowing machine, — the birds' Juggernaut, — there were ten enemies of the nests on the ground to one in the trees; and it did not take very highly developed birds to perceive that the perches on which they themselves sought safety from snakes, rats, mice and the larger prowling animals, might support a nursery. Fear has ever been a powerful spur to achievement. Stiff sticks, unyielding twigs that by no possibility could be woven into a cradle were simply piled in loose heaps on the limb of a tree; yet these crude lattices mark the first step in the evolution of bird architecture. On such bare slats the young of herons, egrets, pigeons, doves, cuckoos and many other birds that come into the world naked or with a thin coat of down, at most, to protect their tender flesh must spend an unusually long and helpless babyhood. Quite naturally, then, the next step forward was to carry the mattress of grass, moss, leaves, hair, fur or feathers into the tree. When some birds had learned to weave these mater­ials into a cup-shaped cradle (the second step), and choicely lined it (the third); finally when a few of the number actually expressed a sense of the beauti­ful in the exquisite neatness, symmetry and adorn­ ment of their home, their architecture became an art indeed. The nest had stood for love and duty before; now with the higher development of the intellectual and æsthetic sense of the home-maker carne new delight in achievement. Imagination awoke.


Photograph by Carlin
The song-sparrow's grassy cradle

But it must not be inferred that all the intelligent birds nest in trees and all the stupid ones remain on the ground. In a later paper we shall see that the terns and other sea birds which place their eggs among the pebbles on the beach, and the ruffed grouse which lays hers among dead leaves in the woods, and the night hawk which frequently chooses a depression in a bare rock to cradle her treasures, show just as much intelligence as the most expert weaver.


TUNNEL BUILDERS

The belted kingfisher and the bank swallow secure protection for themselves and their young, not by nesting in the trees, but by excavating a hole in a bank, preferably one that is steep enough to discourage intruding climbers. It usually takes a fortnight of hard digging for the kingfisher to tunnel four feet deep, so that when a home is found twice that depth with ample nursery accommodations at the far end, we can easily imagine the labour in­volved. No wonder the birds become devotedly attached to this place of refuge from the storm and fortress against enemies. One might suppose that parents capable of so much hard work would do just a little more and provide a comfortable bed for their babies. Not they! Disgorged fish bones and scales form the prickly cradle.


Photograph by Carlin
Dove's nest

"Yet these crude latices mark the first step in the evolution of bird architecture"


Copyright 1902, by Wm. Lyman Underwood
Opening in the four-foot tunnel of the belted kingfisher

The bank swallow, like all his kin, is fond of associating with large numbers of his fellows even at the nesting season. The face of an entire bank where a colony of these graceful birds elect to live will be drilled with holes as if it had been used as a target by soldiers practising with small cannon. To dig at least twenty inches into the sandy bank is no slight task for so small a bird, which still has energy enough remaining to carry twigs, grass and feathers into the end of the tunnel.


Photograph by Brownell
Bank swallow's nest and eggs (Burrow in the sand opened to show nest)


CARPENTERS IN FEATHERS

Not a few birds which like to hide away in deep holes prefer not to be underground and if they do not find a hollow tree what is there to do but use their stout bills as chisel and hammer to hollow out a tunnel to their liking? Of course, the master carpenters are the stockily built woodpeckers whose deserted homes many a bluebird, owl, tree swallow, wren or wood duck is thankful to occupy. First a circle of holes, more perfect than you or I are likely to draw, is drilled on the trunk or larger limb of a tree. Naturally, a partially decayed one is preferred. After the circular doorway has been cut out, how Mr. and Mrs. Woodpecker, working in turn, make the chips fly! To chisel two or three inches of sound or even partially decayed wood is a full day's work; yet, if for any reason the pair of carpenters become disgusted with the site, they do not hesitate about beginning another tunnel, another and still another, in different trees until they finally complete a horizontal passage descending abruptly into a pear-shaped chamber. Truly the workman is known by his chips; here the finer ones remain in the nest and form its lining, whereas the nuthatches, tit­ mice and chickadees, which live in similar homes, swelter in a lining of fur or feathers, probably be­ cause their hardy ancestors, living at the far North, needed warm bed-quilts which their more widely travelled descendants are too conservative to discard.


Photograph from life by A. L. Pr...horn
a master carpenter - a flicker at her hole


Photograph by Dogmore
The chickadees swelter in a lining of fur and feathers

Photograph from life by Dogmore
Chickadee and young (nest opened)


PROGRESSIVE MOTHERS

Occasionally a bird is strong minded enough to break away from old traditions. Before this country was settled, the swift also nested in hollow trees; but after trees began to be cut down and chimneys arose above the roofs of houses everywhere, the birds were quick to perceive that fires are generally out by their nesting season; therefore, why not take advantage of the innovation? So completely did they forsake their old nesting sites to build in chimneys that the name chimney swift is now universally applied to them. (They are not swallows; not even related to them, however frequently one hears them miscalled chimney swallows.) At the nesting season the saliva glands become much enlarged and with the mucilage-like fluid flowing from them the birds glue their wicker cradle together and hang it on the bricks inside of the chimney. The mucilaginous nest of our swift's Asiatic relative is much sought by Chinese epicures.


The chimney swift's wicker cradle which the bird glues to the bricks

We now speak of house wrens as if it had always been the habit of these friendly little birds to live under the eaves of our houses or in the boxes set up for them about the home grounds; but, before there were houses on this continent they, too, nested in tree hol­lows and do still when a satisfactory natural shelter can be found.


Wrens formerly nested in tree hollows


The barn swallow hangs its clay bracket against the rafter

The exquisitely beautiful little wood- duck, cousin of the Chinese Mandarin duck, likewise shows remarkable independence to nest in a hollow tree while nearly all her relatives place their eggs either on the ground, in a tussock of grass or in a floating mass of leaves and muck. Since baby ducks can swim long before they can fly, this strong-minded little mother willingly carries hers to the lake in her bill, much as a cat carries her kittens, rather than risk the loss of her eggs on the ground from the depredations of water rats.


TRADES REPRESENTED.

The tailor bird, one of the warbler tribe living in the East Indies, which sews leaves together to form a cradle, cannot be named to swell the list of trades represented in our birds' architecture; but we have many expert weavers, carpenters, felters, masons, moulders, decorators and a few professional humbugs. The barn swallow, manufacturing bricks without straw, hangs its clay bracket against the rafters; the Baltimore oriole makes a unique pouch from fine grasses, hair, string, plant fibre, down, woollen or cotton strips, felting the numerous materials into a thin but wonderfully strong material that neither storms nor the weight of a family can tear where it hangs from the tip of a high branch well beyond the reach of snakes and small boys — equally unwelcome visitors from the bird's point of view. Birds are exceedingly particular about the materials for their nests; even the slovenly, amorous dove rejects one stick in preference to another for her rickety lattice. The little, chipping sparrow will have horse hair, that and nothing else in the world, to line her cup- shaped cradle. The goldfinch chooses thistledown for her upholstery. After a heavy rain , how many robins' nests fall to the ground! This is because the unfortunate masons used mud among the grasses in the cradle rather than sticky, impervious clay, which, unhappily, is not always to be found The phoebe, cementing her exquisite nest of moss and lichens with mud, and lining it with hair, saves it from similar destruction by placing it under bridges, cliffs and the eaves of piazzas. Like a miniature Dutch oven is the nest of the golden-crowned thrush, whose domed nursery only the sharpest eyes can detect among the leaves on the ground in the woods.


The little chipping sparrow will have horse hair, that and nothing
else in the world, to line her cup-shaped cradle

Which are the best decorators among birds? While many show true strivings after the beautiful, one hesitates between the parula warbler and the humming-bird before awarding the palm, for the former will consent to live only where she can gather the graceful gray moss to festoon her nest, while the latter builds the daintiest, downiest, tiniest nest imaginable, then stuccos it with bits of lichen for the purpose of concealing this master­ piece of architecture, no doubt; but surely this æsthetic little creature is also influenced by a sense of beauty.

Which birds then are hum-bugs? If the marsh- wren, which goes to the pains of building a number of nests among the tall grasses in the same vicinity for the purpose of misleading intruders, does not belong in this category, the dusky crested flycatcher certainly does. This wild Irishman among birds " scours the country for cast snake skins to place in his nest; but when this bugaboo cannot be found he has had to content himself more than once with the skin of an onion! At a catbird's imitation of pussy's mew, even the house-dog pricks up his ears The yellow-breasted chat will lead you a sorry chase, throwing his unmusical, ventriloquous voice now into the cat-brier tangle across the stream, now among the undergrowth far beyond.


The marsh-wren goes to the pains of building a number of nests to mislead the intruder


HOW THE YELLOW WARBLER OUTWITS THE COWBIRD

There are still many lazy, slovenly, indifferent, commonplace or utilitarian home makers among undeveloped or degenerate birds as among humans, but happily only one of our birds disgraces itself; like the European cuckoo, by refusing to make a home and to perform any domestic duties whatever. When other virtuous nest builders are working and singing from morning till night, the cowbird, a dark, silent, decadent relative of those charming songsters, the oriole, bobolink and meadowlark, skulks about alone, slyly looking for the chance to drop an egg in the nest of some little warbler or vireo — any small, weak, tender-hearted foster-mother she can find — leaving to various such victims the labour of hatching and rearing her scattered brood. A serious task indeed awaits the over-burdened little mother who must feed a great gaping gourmand in the cradle with her own crowded and half-starved babies.

But there is at least one ingenious little architect among the cowbird's special victims whose wits fre­quently save it from such misfortune. Finding a strange egg in its cup-shaped nest and being unable to roll it out, the yellow warbler proceeds to weave a new bottom, effectually sealing up the cow-bird's egg and preventing the heat from her brave little heart from warming it into life. Suppose this "wild canary," as it is often called, had already laid her own eggs in the nest at the time of the cowbird's visit: what then? In this case the warbler does not hesitate to sacrifice them, sealing them up with the cowbird's by weaving a new bottom above them, rather than hatch out one interloper to worry and starve her brood. Where a second persecution has taken place, two new cradle bottoms have been woven. If you ever have the good fortune to find a two or three storied nest, you may be sure it belongs to this little Spartan mother.


THE CLIMAX OF BIRD-LIFE.

For special and excellent reasons of their own, some birds may build earlier in the season, some not until midsummer, but for the great majority May is the month of happy achievements; jealousies of courtship have given place to blissful content; every moment is filled with happy, profitable labour. Sometimes both lovers busy themselves with the home building; perhaps the wife does all the manual work, while the mate merely makes her pretty speeches, approves her every act, applauds her industry, her skill, cheers her by his constant presence and such music as love alone inspires. What of that? She is perfectly satisfied; these May days are her realization of Paradise. Whatever is best in the nature of both mates at least temporarily triumphs over the base; for however selfish birds may be at other seasons, in May they are truly one in purpose and sympathy. According to their temperament, some work impulsively with outbreaks of rollicking ecstatic, passionate song like the wren, or with steady persistence and the serene hymn of the thrush. At last the end crowns the work: the building of the nest embodies all that is greatest in a bird's life.


Yellow warbler's nest, normal shape


Yellow warbler's nest, showing how the bird has rebuilt because of repeated
persecutions of the cowbird. (One cowbird's egg in thr nest even now)


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