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Builders and Weavers, edited by Andrew Lang


No one can examine birds and their ways for long together without being struck by the wonderful neatness and cleverness of their proceedings. They make use of a great many different kinds of materials for their nests, and manage somehow to turn out a nest which not only will hold eggs, but is strong and of a pretty shape. Rotten twigs are, curiously enough, what they love best for the outside, and upon the twigs various substances are laid, according to the species and taste of the builder. The jay, for instance, collects roots and twists them into a firm mass, which he lays upon the twigs; the American starling uses tough wet rushes and coarse grass, and after they are matted together, somehow ties the nest on to reeds or a bush; while the missel thrush lines the casing of twigs with tree moss, or even hay. To these they often add tufts of wool, and lichen, and the whole is fastened together by a kind of clay. The favourite spot chosen by the missel thrush is the fork of a tree in an orchard, where lichens are large and plentiful enough to serve as a covering for the nests.

Still, if the account given by Vaillant and Paterson is true, the sociable grosbeaks surpass all the other birds in skill and invention. They have been known to cover the trunks of trees with a huge kind of fluted umbrella, made of dry, fine grass, with the boughs of the trees poking through in various places. No doubt in the beginning the nest was not so large, but it is the custom of these  birds to live together in clans, and each year fresh ‘rooms’ have to be added. When examined, the bird city was found to have many gates and regular streets of nests, each about two inches distant from the other. The structure was made of ‘Boshman’s’ grass alone, but so tightly woven together that no rain could get through. The nests were all tucked in under the roof, which, by projecting, formed eaves, thus keeping the birds warm and dry. Sometimes the umbrella has been known to contain as many as three hundred separate nests, so it is no wonder that the tree at last breaks down with the weight, and the city has to be founded again elsewhere.

Now in the nests of all these birds there has been a good deal of what we called ‘building’ and ‘carpentry’ when we are talking of our own houses and our own trades. But there are a whole quantity of birds spread over the world, who are almost exclusively weavers, and can form nests which hang down from the branch of a tree without any support. To this class belongs the Indian sparrow, which prefers to build in the tops of the very highest trees (especially on the Indian fig) and particularly on those growing by the river-side. He weaves together tough grass in the form of a bottle, and hangs it from a branch, so that it rocks to and fro, like a hammock. The Indian sparrow, which is easily tamed, does not like always to live with his family, so he divides his nest into two or three parts, and is careful to place its entrance underneath, so that it may not attract the notice of the birds of prey. In these nests glow-worms have frequently been found, carefully fastened into a piece of fresh clay, but whether the bird deliberately tries in this way to light up his dark nest, or whether he has some other use for the glow-worm, has never been found out. But it seems quite certain that he does not eat it, as Sir William Jones once supposed.

The Indian sparrow is a very clever little bird, and can be taught to do all sorts of tricks. He will catch a  ring that is dropped into one of the deep Indian wells, before it reaches the water. He can pick the gold ornament neatly off the forehead of a young Hindu woman, or carry a note to a given place like a carrier pigeon. At least so it is said; but then very few people have even a bowing acquaintance with the Indian sparrow.