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In view of the fact that birds display much activity about their nests there is a great advantage in studying the nesting bird. Once locate an occupied nest, and by quietly watching for a time, your field glass and bird guide will usually enable you to learn the owner’s name. If you do not know where any nest is to be found go out and hunt for one. This in itself will be an exciting sport, although it should be pursued with good judgment. Children unattended should not be permitted to hunt nests in spring. A very excellent way to find one is to keep a sharp watch upon birds at the time when they are engaged in nest building.

Nest Hunting. By noticing every bird suspected of being interested in domestic affairs, you are pretty sure to see one before long with grass, twigs, rootlets, or something of the kind in its bill. Now watch closely, for you are in a fair way to discover a nest. The bird may not go directly to the spot. If it suspects it is being watched it may hop from twig to twig and from bush to bush for many minutes before revealing its secret, and if it becomes very apprehensive it may even drop its burden and begin a search for insects with the air of one who had never even dreamed of building a nest. Even when unsuspicious it will not always go directly to the nest. From an outhouse I once watched a Blue Jay, with a twig, change its perch more than thirty times before going to the fork where its nest was being built.

Sometimes a bird may be induced to reveal its secret by placing in its sight tempting nesting material. By this means Mrs. Pearson last summer found a Redstart’s nest. Discovering a female industriously hopping about near the camp, and suspecting what it was seeking, she dropped some ravellings of a white cotton string from the veranda railing, letting them fall where the bird could see them. These proved most acceptable, and the Redstart immediately appropriated them, one at a time, with the result that she soon betrayed her nest.

Early morning is the best time of the day to find birds working at their nests, for then they are most active. Perhaps a reason for this is that the broken twigs, leaves, and dead grasses, wet with the dews of night, are more pliable, and consequently more easily woven into place.

For nesting sites birds as a rule prefer the open country. Rolling meadowlands, with orchards, thickets, and occasional streams, are ideal places for birds in spring.

Number and Colour of Eggs. The full complement of eggs laid by a bird is known as a set or clutch. The number varies greatly with different species. The Leach’s Petrel, Murre, and some other sea birds, have but one egg. The Turkey Vulture, Mourning Dove, Hummingbird, Whip-poor-will, and Nighthawk lay two. Various Thrushes, such as the Robin, Veery, and Wood Thrush, deposit from three to five, four being the most usual number. Wild Ducks, Turkeys, and Grouse range from eight to a dozen or more; while Quails sometimes lay as many as eighteen.

Eggs are variously coloured, and some are so marked that the blending of their colours with those of their surroundings renders them inconspicuous. Thus those of the Killdeer, Sandpiper, and Nighthawk, for example, are not easily distinguished from the ground on which they lie.

Many eggs that are laid in holes or other dark places are white without markings of any kind, as illustrated by those of the Chimney Swift, Belted Kingfisher, and all Woodpeckers. In such instances Nature shows no disposition to be lavish with her colouring matter where it is not needed.

Behaviour When Nest Is Discovered. After the young are hatched it is even easier to find nests by watching the parents. The nestlings are hungry at all hours, and the old ones are visiting the nest at frequent intervals throughout the day. Birds behave very differently when their nests are discovered. A Cuckoo will glide away instantly and will make no effort to dispute your possession of her treasures. A Crow will also fly off, and so will a Wild Duck and some others. On the other hand, the Mockingbird, Robin, or Shrike, will raise a great outcry and bring about her half the birds of the neighbourhood to pour out on you their vials of wrath, unless you have the good judgment to retire at once to a respectful distance. Warblers will flit from bush to bush uttering cries of distress and showing their uneasiness. The Mourning Dove, Nighthawk, and many others will feign lameness and seek to lead you away in a vain pursuit. A still larger number will employ the same means of deception after the young have been hatched, as, for example, the Quail, Killdeer, Sandpiper, and Grouse.

However much a bird may resent your intrusion on the privacy of its sanctuary, it is very rare for one to attack you. I remember, however, a boy who once had the bad manners to put his hand into a Cardinal’s nest and had a finger well bitten for his misdeed. Beware, too, of trying to caress a Screech Owl sitting on its eggs in a hollow tree; its claws are very sharp, and you will need first-aid attention if you persist. Occasionally some bird will let you stroke its back before deserting its eggs, and may even let you take its photograph while you are thus engaged. On one occasion I removed a Turkey Vulture’s egg from beneath the sitting bird. It merely hissed feebly as I approached, and a moment later humbly laid at my feet a portion of the carrion which it had eaten a short time before a well-meant but not wholly appreciated peace-offering.

Lessons to Be Learned. An infinite variety of interesting things may be learned by watching birds at their nests, or by a study of the nests themselves. How many persons have ever tried to answer seriously the old conundrum: “How many straws go to make a bird’s nest?” Let us examine critically one nest and see what we find. One spring after a red squirrel had destroyed the three eggs in a Veery’s nest which I had had under observation, I determined to study carefully its composition, knowing the birds would not want to make use of it again. The nest rested among the top limbs of a little brush-pile and was just two feet above the ground. Some young shoots had grown up through the brush and their leaves partly covered the nest from view. It had an extreme breadth of ten inches and was five inches high. The inner cup was two and one-half inches deep, and measured the same across the top. In its construction two small weed stalks and eleven slender twigs were used. The latter were from four and one-half to eight inches long. The main bulk of the nest was made up of sixty-eight large leaves, besides a mass of decayed leaf fragments. Inside this bed was the inner nest, composed of strips of soft bark. Assembling this latter material I found that when compressed with the hands its bulk was about the size of a baseball. Among the decaying leaves near the base of the nest three beetles and a small snail had found a home.

The Veery, in common with a large number of other birds, builds a nest open at the top. The eggs, therefore, are often more or less exposed to the Crow, the pilfering Jay, and the egg-stealing red squirrel. This necessitates a very close and careful watch on the part of the owners. At times it may seem that the birds are not in sight, and that the eggs are deserted; but let the observer go too near, and invariably one or both old birds will let him know of their presence by voicing their resentment and sending abroad their cries of distress.

Character of Material Used. A wide variety of material is used by birds that build open nests. Cotton and feathers enter largely into the composition of the lining of a Shrike’s nest. In Florida the Mockingbird shows a decided preference for the withered leaves and stems of life-everlasting, better known as the plant that produces “rabbit tobacco.” The nest of the Summer Tanager is made almost entirely of grasses, the outer half being green, freshly plucked blades that contrast strikingly with the brown inner layer with which the nest is lined. Many of the Thrushes make use of large flat leaves, and also of rags and pieces of paper. Robins stiffen their nests by making in them a substantial cup of mud, which, when dry, adds greatly to the solidity of the structure. On the island of Cape Hatteras there are many sheep, and many Prairie Warblers of the region make their nests entirely of wool.

The most dainty structure built, in this country, by the bill and feet of birds, is the nest made by the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. When completed it is scarcely larger than an English walnut, and is saddled on a small horizontal limb of a tree, often many feet from the ground. It is composed almost entirely of soft plant fibres, fragments of spiders’ webs sometimes being used to hold them in shape. The outer sides are thickly studded with bits of lichen, and practised, indeed, is the eye of the man or woman that can distinguish it from a knot on a limb. Although the Hummingbird’s nest is exceedingly frail, there is nothing on record to show that any great number of them come to grief during the summer rains. It is, however, not called upon for a long term of occupation. Within a month after the two white eggs are laid the young depart on their tiny pinions. Young birds that require a longer period for growth before leaving the nest are furnished usually with more enduring abiding places. In the case of the Bald Eagle, the young of which do not fly until they are many weeks old, a most substantial structure is provided.

It was on the twentieth of January, a number of years ago, that the writer was first delighted by the sight of a Bald Eagle’s nest. It was in an enormous pine tree growing in a swamp in central Florida, and being ambitious to examine its contents, I determined to climb to the great eyrie in the topmost crotch of the tree, one hundred and thirty-one feet above the earth. By means of climbing-irons and a rope that passed around the tree and around my body, I slowly ascended, nailing cleats for support as I advanced. After two hours of toil the nest was reached, but another twenty minutes were required to tear aside enough of the structure to permit climbing up one of the limbs on which it rested. In doing this there were brought to view several layers of decayed twigs, pine straw, and fish bones, showing that the birds had been using the nest for many years. Season after season the huge structure had been enlarged by additions until now it was nearly five feet in thickness and about four feet across the top.

At this date it contained two fledglings perhaps three weeks old. Having been led to believe that Eagles were ferocious birds when their nests were approached, it was with feelings of relief that I noticed the parents flying about at long rifle-range. The female, which, as is usual with birds of prey, was the larger of the pair, once or twice swept within twenty yards of my head, but quickly veered off and resumed her former action of beating back and forth over the tree-tops two hundred yards away.

Nests in Holes. The members of the Woodpecker family, contrary to certain popular beliefs, do not lay their eggs in hollow trees but deposit them in cavities that they excavate for the purpose. The bird student will soon learn just where to look for the nest of each species. Thus you may find the nesting cavity of the Red-headed Woodpecker in a tall stump or dead tree; in some States it is a common bird in towns, and often digs its cavity in a telephone pole. Some years ago a pair excavated a nest and reared their young in a wooden ball on the staff of the dome of the State House in Raleigh, North Carolina.

On the plains, where trees are few, the telegraph poles provide convenient nesting sites for Woodpeckers of various species. While travelling on a slow train through Texas I counted one hundred and fifty telegraph poles in succession, thirty-nine of which contained Woodpeckers’ holes. Probably I did not see all of them, for not over two-thirds of the surface of each pole was visible from the car window. Not all of these holes, of course, were occupied by Woodpeckers in any one season.

Flickers, or “Yellowhammers,” use dead trees as a rule, but sometimes make use of a living tree by digging the nest out of the dead wood where a knot hole offers a convenient opening. The only place I have ever known them regularly to nest in living trees is in the deserts of Arizona, where the saguaro or “tree cactus” is about the only tree large enough to be employed for such a purpose. In the Northern States Flickers sometimes chisel holes through the weatherboarding of ice-houses and make cavities for their eggs in the tightly packed sawdust within. They have been known also to lay their eggs in nesting boxes put up for their accommodation.

In travelling through the pine barrens of the Southern States one frequently finds grouped about the negroes’ cabins and plantation houses the popular chinaberry, or Pride of India tree. Here are the places to look for the nest of the Hairy Woodpecker. In that country, in fact, I have never found a nest of this bird except in the dead, slanting limb of a chinaberry tree.

The member of this family which displays most originality in its nest building is the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. It is a Southern bird, and the abode for its young is always chiselled from a living pitch-pine tree. This, in itself, is very unusual for any of our eastern Woodpeckers. The bird, however, has a still stranger habit. For two or three feet above the entrance hole, and for five or six feet below it, all around the tree, innumerable small openings are dug through to the inner bark. From these little wells pour streams of soft resin that completely cover the bark and give the trunk a white, glistening appearance, which is visible sometimes for a quarter of a mile. Just why they do this has never been explained. It is true, however, that the sticky resin prevents ants and flying squirrels from reaching the nest, and both of these are known to be troublesome to eggs and young birds.

A simple plan, which is usually successful in finding out if a Woodpecker is at home in its nesting hole, is to strike a few sharp blows on the tree with some convenient club or rock. After a little treatment of this kind the bird will often come to the entrance and look down, as if to inquire into the meaning of all the disturbance. If the nest has been newly made many fragments of small chips of wood will be found on the ground beneath the tree.

Variety of Situations. The student who takes up the subject of nest architecture will soon be impressed not only with the wide assortment of materials used, but also with the wonderful variety of situations chosen.

The Grebe, or “Water Witch,” builds one of the most remarkable nests of any American bird. It is a floating raft, the buoyant part of which is the green stems of water plants, not bent over, but severed from their roots and piled across one another. On this platform is collected decaying vegetation gathered from beneath the water. Here the eggs are deposited, and are carefully covered with more decaying vegetation when the bird desires to be absent from the nest.

Variation in Families. Sometimes there is wide variety in the character of the nests of different species classified as belonging to the same family. The Flycatcher group is a good example of this fact. Here we have as one member of the family the Kingbird, that makes a heavy bulky nest often on one of the upper, outermost limbs of an apple tree. The Wood Pewee’s nest is a frail, shallow excuse for a nest, resting securely on a horizontal limb of some well-grown tree. Then there is the Phoebe, that plasters its cup-shaped mass of nesting material with mud, thus securing it to a rafter or other projection beneath a bridge, outbuilding, or porch roof. Still farther away from the typical Flycatcher’s nest is that made by a perfectly regular member of the family, the Great-crested Flycatcher. The straw and other substances it collects as a bed for its eggs and young is carried into some hollow tree, old Woodpecker hole, or nesting box. Often a cast-off skin of a snake is used, and sometimes the end is permitted to hang out of the hole a sort of “scare-crow,” perhaps, intended for the notice of annoying neighbours.

Meagre Nests. Heretofore, mention has been made only of the nests of birds built with much labour and usually constructed in trees or bushes. A very large number of species, however, lay their eggs on the ground with little or no attempt to gather around or beneath them any special nesting material. The Killdeer’s eggs are simply deposited in a slight hole scratched in the earth, usually in an open field or on a rocky hillside. The only lining is a few grass blades or smooth pebbles. To protect them from enemies the birds depend much upon the peculiar marking of the eggs, which makes them look like the ground on which they lie, and this seems to be a sufficient safeguard for the eggs and offspring of the species. The Nighthawk lays her two eggs on the bare ground in a field or open woods; and the Whip-poor-will’s nest is on the fallen leaves of a thicket at any spot which the bird happens to select.

The Gulls so common along our coast and about the larger lakes make substantial nests, as a rule but not always. I have found them on the islands along the coast of Maine containing not a dozen blades of grass, a seemingly scant protection against the danger of rolling away to destruction.

On the sandy islands of the Atlantic Coast, from Long Island southward, many species of Terns make nests by simply burrowing a slight depression in the sand among the sea-shells. Some of the sea birds of the far North, as, for example, the Murres and Auks, often lay their eggs on the shelving cliffs exposed to the sweep of the ocean gales. These are shaped as if designed by nature to prevent them rolling off the rocks. They are very large at one end and toward the other taper sharply. When the wind blows they simply swing around in circles.

Although we sometimes speak of the bird’s nest as its home, such really is not the case, for the nest of the wild bird is simply the cradle for the young. When the little ones have flown it is seldom that either they or their parents ever return to its shelter.