I WONDER how many birds you know by sight, and what you could tell about their nests and their lives?
There are between three and four hundred different British birds, and very few people know them all. But in any one place there are not more common birds than you could learn in a year. You can look for the rare ones afterwards.
The best way to begin is to write down those you are sure about, and say how you recognise them. You cannot mistake a Robin, with his red breast, his plump little body, and his brown wings. The mother robin's breast is not quite so red, and the young have no red at all. But when you have seen them with the cock-robin, you will soon know them by their shape.
But a Chaffinch has a red breast. How can you tell him from a robin? His breast is much browner than the robin's, and even at a distance you may know him by the white bands on his dark wings, and the yellow tips to some of his feathers. Then his body is longer, and he moves more gracefully than the robin, while his loud "pink, pink," if you go near his nest, will tell you at once what he is.
The Lark you know by his slender brown body and white speckled throat, and by the way he soars, as he sings his sweet song. The common green Woodpecker is easily known by his bright colours, his curious feet, and his stiff tail, which he uses to jerk himself up a tree. And though a Nuthatch also goes up a tree by jumps, you would never take him for a woodpecker, for he is no bigger than a sparrow, and he has a short tail and blue-grey wings and a dingy red breast.
Then you know the cooing Wood-pigeon, the chattering Magpie, the soaring Hawk and his hooked beak, and the downy Owl. And I daresay you could tell me of many more.
The birds you know best will most of them be with us all the year round. But not all. The Swifts fly away to the south in August, and the Swallows and the Martins follow in October. When they are gone the Fieldfares come from the north, and feed in flocks on the worms in the damp fields, and on the holly berries when the ground is hard with frost.
The Swallow and the House Martin are so alike that, as they come and go together, you might not know them apart, unless you remember that a Swallow has a blue-black collar across his breast, and that the fork of his tail is longer than that of the Martin. You may be busy all the year round watching the birds, seeing when they come and go, what food they eat, how they fly, whether they sing in the morning or evening, and where they build their nests.
Many farmers and gardeners shoot little birds because they eat their corn and peas and fruit. But a large number of birds feed chiefly on insects. You ought to know which these are, for they are very useful in clearing away earwigs and caterpillars, as well as slugs and snails. If you look out early some morning and see a Thrush tapping a snail-shell against a stone to get at the snail, you will say he is a good gardener. You will not grudge him a little fruit in the summer.
Then there are the nests and the young birds to watch. You need not take the nests, nor rob the birds of their eggs. You will learn much more by pulling back the leaves and the twigs, and peeping gently into the nest. For then you can come another day and watch when the eggs hatch, and how the young birds grow. If you are careful not to disturb the bush nor touch the eggs, the mother will not desert them. Last year a pair of Thrushes built their nest in a hedge by the side of a path where people were always passing. But though I went often to look at it, the mother brought up all her four little ones. She would even sit still on the nest when I peeped in, while her mate sang on a tree close by.
Point out and describe six birds common in the neighbourhood.