O N the edge of the forest next to the meadow, a pair of young Goldfinches were about to begin housekeeping. They were a handsome couple, and the birds who were already nesting near by were much pleased to see them tree-hunting there.
Mr. Goldfinch was a fine, cheerful little fellow, every feather of whose black and yellow coat was always well oiled and lying in its proper place. His wife was dressed in a dull, greenish brown with a touch of yellow on her breast. "Bright yellow and black does very well for Mr. Goldfinch," she would say, "but for one who has to sit on the nest as long as I shall have to, it would never do. People would see me among the leaves and know just where to find my eggs."
Mr. Goldfinch thought that there was never a bird who had a prettier, dearer, or harder-working little wife than he, and he would wonder how he was ever happy before he knew her. That is a way that people have of forgetting the days that are past; and the truth is that Mr. Goldfinch had made fun of the Robins and other birds all spring, because they had to build nests and hunt worms for their babies, while he had nothing to do but sing and sleep and feed himself. In those days the Robins used to call after him as he flew away, "Silly fellow! Silly fellow! Silly!" They knew that there is something sweeter in life than just taking good care of one's self.
One afternoon Mr. Goldfinch saw a tiny green-brown bird on a sweetbriar bush, and as he watched her he thought her the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. She had such a dainty way of picking out the seeds, and gave such graceful hops from one twig to another. Then Mr. Goldfinch fluffed up his feathers and swelled out his throat and sang her such songs as he had never sung before. He did not want her to speak to anybody else, and yet he could not help her doing so, for Goldfinches always go together in crowds until they have homes of their own, and at this time they were having concerts every morning. He showed her where the finest dandelion seeds could be found, and one bright and sunshiny day she became Mrs. Goldfinch, and they went together to find a place for their home.
They began one nest and had it nearly done, when Mr. Goldfinch said it was not in a good place, and tore it all to pieces. Mrs. Goldfinch felt very badly about this and talked it over with some of her Goldfinch neighbors. They told her not to mind it at all, that their husbands often did the same thing, and that sometimes they came to like the new place much better than the old. At any rate, there was no use in getting cross about it, because that was something she would have to expect.
Mr. Goldfinch was sure that they had built too near the ground, and he had chosen a crotch above. Toward this he was dragging the bits of grape-vine and cedar-bark which were woven into their first nest. He said they could also use some of the grasses and mosses which they had gotten together, and he even told his wife of some fine thistle-down which he could bring for the inside, where the eggs were to be laid. Mrs. Goldfinch watched him tugging with bill and both feet to loosen the bits of bark, and she said to herself: "Dear fellow! what a helper he is! I won't mind rebuilding if it makes him happy," and she went to work with a will.
When the sun went down in the west the next night the second nest was done, and it was the last thing at which the Goldfinches looked before tucking their heads under their wings and going to sleep. It was the first thing that they saw the next morning, too, and they hopped all around it and twittered with pride, and gave it little tweaks here and little pokes there before they flew away to get breakfast.
While they were gone, Mrs. Cowbird came walking over the grass and dry leaves to the foot of the tree. She wagged her head at every step, and put on as many airs as though she were showily dressed, instead of wearing, as she always does, a robe of dull brownish gray. She had seen the Goldfinches fly away, and she was looking for their home. She was a lazy creature in spite of her stirring ways, and she wished to find a nice little nest in which to lay an egg. You know Cowbirds never think of building nests. They want all of their time to take care of themselves, which is a very foolish way of living; but then, you could never make a Cowbird think so!
"That nest is exactly right," said Mrs. Cowbird. "I will lay my egg there at once, and when Mrs. Goldfinch has laid hers she will have to hatch them all together and take care of my baby for me. What an easy way this is to bring up one's family! It is really no work at all! And I am sure that my children will get along well, because I am always careful to choose the nests of small birds for them. Then they are larger and stronger than the other babies, and can get more than their share of food."
So she laid a big white egg with gray and brown spots on it in the Goldfinches' new home, and then she flew off to the Cowbird flock, as gay and careless as you please. When the Goldfinches came back, they saw the egg in their nest and called all their neighbors to talk it over. "What shall I ever do?" said Mrs. Goldfinch. "I wanted my nest for my own eggs, and I meant to lay them to-morrow. I suppose I shall have to sit on this one too, but it won't be at all comfortable."
"I wouldn't," said one of her neighbors, a Yellow Warbler. "I left my nest once when such a thing happened to me, and built a new one for my own eggs."
"Oh dear!" cried Mrs. Goldfinch, "we have built two already, and I cannot build another.
"Well, whatever you do," said a Vireo, "don't hatch the big egg out with your own. I did once, and such a time as I had! The young Cowbird pushed two of my little Vireos out onto the ground, and ate so much that I was quite worn out by the work of hunting for him."
"My dear," said Mr. Goldfinch, "I have an excellent plan. We will put another floor in our nest, right over this egg, and then by adding a bit all around the sides we can have plenty of room for our own children. It will be much less work than beginning all over again, and then the Cowbird's egg will be too cool to hatch."
Everybody called this a most clever plan, and Mr. Goldfinch was very proud to have thought of it. They went to work once more, and it was not so very long before the new floor was done and the new walls raised. Then, oh, wonder of wonders! there were soon four tiny, pearly eggs of their own lying on the thistle-down lining of the nest.
Mrs. Goldfinch had to stay very closely at home now, but her husband went off with his friends a great deal. He bathed and sang and preened his feathers and talked about his queer nest and his bright little wife, after the manner of Goldfinches everywhere.
His friends laughed at him for helping so much about the nest, for, you know, Goldfinches do not often help their wives about home. He cocked his handsome head on one side and answered: "My wife seemed to need me then. She is not so very strong. And I do not know what she would ever have done about the strange egg, if I had not been there to advise her."
When he got back to his home that night, Mrs. Goldfinch said: "I have been wondering why we did not roll the Cowbird's egg out on the ground, instead of going to all that trouble of building around it."
And Mr. Goldfinch declared that he believed she was the only bird who had ever thought of such a thing. "It could have been done just as well as not," he said. "I must tell that to the other birds in the morning. How lucky I am to have such a bright wife! It would be dreadful if such a clever fellow as I had a dull mate!"