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Or, upon summer earth,
In April, the “bird-world” is in the very height of its “season.” Many birds are arriving from their long travels; many are waging amorous musical war with the ardour of the old Minne-Sänger upon the Wartburg, whilst the critical hen-birds sit aloft in their bowers “queens of love and beauty,” awaiting to crown with love the victor poets. Here and there, too, nests are already built, and patient mother-birds may be seen brooding in love over their delicate eggs. At such a time, when every grove, copse, and dingle resounds with the sweet jargonings of love and joy, we especially feel attracted with affection towards those wonderful little creatures, and read with especial interest anything which can throw light upon their physical nature and habits
In the last edition of Bechstein's “ Cage Birds''* we meet with some most interesting remarks regarding
THE VOICE AND Song OF BIRDS.
“Every species of bird has a peculiarity of voice possessed by no other. By this variety of vocal endowment, birds are not only distinguished above the rest of the animal creation, but are enabled to express to one another their wants and passions. There can be no doubt that this power of communication exists not only between the sexes, but between all individuals of the same species. The least experienced observer of nature knows that the approach of danger is expressed by a universally intelligible cry; which, if uttered by the wren, for instance, is understood by the turkey-cock, and vice versa. Of whatever species the one may be, which first perceives the approach of a bird of prey, it is able to excite the attention of all birds in the neighbourhood by its peculiar cry of warning. As soon as the blue-tit utters her Iss ! so indicative of fear and terror,which, nevertheless, she seems sometimes to do from pure love of mischief,—the wood is silent in an instant; and every bird either listens for the enemy's coming, or hastens to the aid of the comrade who is attacked. This peculiarity is so marked, that fowlers have not failed to turn it to purposes of profit. They build a hut, roof it with green boughs, and cover the roof with a plentiful supply of limed twigs. They then display a screech-owl or other bird of prey, imitate the sonorous cry of a jay or woodpecker in fear and distress; and birds of every size and species flock to the hut, and are caught.
“The tones of happiness and joy, by which one bird is able to call forth from another a similar expression of feel. ing, seem to be almost as universally intelligible. Nor is this joy shown by song alone; although when one little creature begins to sing, the whole wood, or the whole room, soon manifests its sympathy by a general chorus. The same is frequently indicated by single notes. In spring
* Bechstein's Cage and Chamber Birds, including Sweet's Warblers, with numerous plates. Bohn's Illustrated Library. 1853.
THE VOICES OF BIRDS.
and autumn, a great variety of species may often be noticed in hedges and bushes, which seem to take a great delight in the utterance of a common cry. Again, when in confinement, birds may often be induced to sing by various noises, loud conversation, and above all, by instrumental music; though on wild birds these means would produce no other effect than to frighten them away.*
“In many cases also different species have a language, which serves for various purposes of mutual communication. For instance, ravens, crows, jackdaws, &c., understand and respond, both by voice and action, to each other's call. By imitating the call of the yellow-hammer, the fowler succeeds in taking the ortolan, the snow-bunting, the reed-bunting, the foolish-bunting, &c. : the cry of the chaffinch decoys the mountain-finch ; and that of the siskin attracts the citron. finch and the redpole.
“ These notes, if connected in a melodious succession, are called a song ; if unconnected, a call. In some cases the call is the same, however different the emotions which it is intended to express: in others, it is very various. For instance, the chaffinch's call, when on the wing, is eyak ! eyak ! its expression of joy is fink! fink!--if angry, the same syllable is repeated more quickly; and trief! trief! is the sign of tenderness or melancholy. The raven’s call-, graab! graab!-is, on the contrary, the same under all circumstances; and the only indication of a change of emotion, is the degree of rapidity with which it is uttered.
* A singular instance of the effect of musical sounds fell under our observation, some few years ago, in the case of a favourite canary of our own. An Eolian harp had been placed in the casement of the room in which the bird was hanging, and scarcely had the wind swept over the strings, calling forth the mournful, sighing tones of the little instrument, than the poor canary, as though seized with a sudden insanity, flew wildly against the bars of its cage, striking both head and wings against them.
The harp was removed; but the memory of the mournful tones seemed still to vibrate through the nerves of the wretched little bird. It continued several days in a most agitated state ; and at length having loosened a wire in the cage, made its escape, and flew away through an open window. The fate of this canary was long a matter of speculation in the family, but was nearly forgotten when another little incident occurred which singularly recalled it.
My two youngest children discovered one day in the garden a young turtledove, which seemed much exhausted and half-famished. It sat listlessly upon a bough, and allowed the children to catch it; its poor little feet were bleeding, and altogether it was in a most miserable condition, as though it had been deserted by its companions on one of their mysterious migrations. The children tended it with the greatest possible love and care, and gradually it recovered its health and spirits. It naturally became a great favourite, and one day was carried by them into the room where they were taking their music-lesson. But before long the dove, like the canary of former years, was seized with a sort of insanity ; it beat with its wings, and flew madly about its cage. The children carried it away into a distant room, hung a cloth over its cage, did all they could to soothe it, and then returned to their lesson. When the lesson was over, they hastened to their poor favourite, but it was dead Ep.
“What is called the song of birds is, in all cases, expressive either of love or happiness. Thus, the nightingale sings only during the pairing season, and the period of incubation, and is silent as soon as compelled to feed its young; while, on the contrary, the starling, the bullfinch, and the canary, sing throughout the year, except when dejected by moulting. It seems, in general, to be a prerogative of the males, by which they either invite or seek to retain the affections of the females. There are indeed a few species, e. g. the redbreast, lark, canary, &c., the females of which, especially if kept by themselves, manifest the capability of uttering a few notes like those of the male ; but in general they only listen to the song of the males, in order to show their preference for the most accomplished singer. In a cage of canaries, the liveliest female always pairs with the best singer; and a female chaffinch, when wild, will choose out of a hundred males, the mate whose song is most pleasing to her."
Here are some interesting remarks from the same author regarding
THE PLUMAGE OF BIRDS. “The feathers of birds, the coverings of the featherless parts, and even the beaks and claws, are all, chemically speaking, formed of nearly the same materials ; and nearly the same with the hair and cuticle of all animals, and even with the epidermis which covers living shells. This material is coagulated albumen, or nearly the same substance as white of egg when consolidated by heat, in which state it better resists the action of water than almost any other flexible substance. This substance is, especially in the upper or more coloured and glossy part of the feathers, combined