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Eccentric Bird Builders, edited by Andrew Lang

From Jones’ Glimpses of Animal Life.

Everybody knows how fond birds are of building their nests in church, and if we come to think of it, it is a very reasonable and sensible proceeding. Churches are so quiet, and have so many dark out-of-the-way corners, where no one would dream of poking, certainly not the woman whose business it is to keep the church clean. So the birds have the satisfaction of feeling that their young are kept safe and warm while they are collecting food for them, and there is always some open door or window to enable the parents to fly in or out.

But all birds have not the wisdom of the robins, and swallows, and sparrows that have selected the church for a home, and some of them have chosen very odd places indeed wherein to build their nests and lay their eggs. Hinges of doors, turning lathes, even the body of a dead owl hung to a ring, have all been used as nurseries; but perhaps the oddest spot of all to fix upon for a nest is the outside of a railway carriage, especially when we remember how often railway stations are the abode of cats, who move safely about the big wheels, and even travel by train when they think it necessary.

Yet, in spite of all the drawbacks, railway carriages remain a favourite place for nesting birds, and there is a curious story of a pair of water-wagtails which built a snug home underneath a third-class carriage attached to a train which ran four times daily between Cosham and Havant. The father does not seem to have cared about  railway travelling, which, to be sure, must appear a wretched way of getting about to anything that has wings; for he never went with the family himself, but spent the time of their absence fluttering restlessly about the platform to which the train would return. He was so plainly anxious and unhappy about them, that one would have expected that he would have insisted on some quieter and safer place the following year when nesting time came round again; but the mother apparently felt that the situation had some very distinct advantages, for she deliberately passed over every other spot that her mate pointed out, and went back to her third-class carriage.

Yet a railway carriage seems safety itself in comparison with a London street lamp, where a fly-catcher’s nest was found a few years ago. Composed as it was of moss, hair, and dried grass, it is astonishing that it never caught fire, but no doubt the great heat of the gas was an immense help in hatching the five eggs which the birds had laid.

Those fly-catchers had built in a hollow iron ornament on the top of the lamp, but some tomtits are actually known to have chosen such a dangerous place as the spot close to the burner of a paraffin street lamp. And even when the paraffin was exchanged for gas, the birds did not seem to mind, and would sit quite calmly on the nest, while the lamplighter thrust his long stick past them to put out the light.

Birds reason in a different way from human beings, for a letter-box would not commend itself to us as being a very good place to bring up a family, with letters and packages tumbling on to their heads every instant. A pair of Scotch tomtits, however, thought otherwise, and they made a comfortable little nest at the back of a private letter-box, nailed on to the trunk of a tree in Dumfriesshire. The postman soon found out what was going on, but he took great pains not to disturb them, for he was fond of birds, and was very curious to see what  the tomtits would do. What the tomtits did was to go peacefully on with their nest, minding their own business, and by-and-bye eight little eggs lay in the nest. By this time the mother had got so used to the postman, that she never even moved when he unlocked the door, only giving his hand a friendly peck when he put it in to take out the letters, and occasionally accepting some crumbs which he held out to it. But no sooner did the little birds break through their shells than the parents became more difficult to deal with. They did not mind knocks from letters for themselves, but they grew furiously angry if the young ones ever were touched by so much as a corner, and one day, when a letter happened to fall plump on top of the nest, they tore it right to pieces. In fact, it was in such a condition, that when the postman came as usual to make his collection, he was obliged to take the letter back to the people who had written it, for no Post Office would have sent it off in such a state.