My hawthorn hedge does not have a calendar but it seems to know that spring is here. In celebration, it has put on a new bright green jacket. My birds’ chorus should be here any day now, although the sky is still more grey than blue. Looking from the top window, I noticed the green mist spreading everywhere, and the profusion of sticky, shining, half-open buds. The mischievous spring wind lifts up long twigs of my house-climbing rose and knocks on my door so convincingly that it brings me without fail to the front door every time. The wind gets my blackbird in a twist too by blowing hard into the feathers of his undercarriage while the bird sits relaxing on the branch of the elderberry tree by my kitchen door. The blackbird does deserve a peaceful break since it is quite an exhausting time for his family. He has to spend a large part of the day defending his territory and chasing away at least two other blackbirds from his garden. This may seem simple but is, in fact, a real battle of wits and endurance since the birds move in circles, determined not to give in at any cost. I wisely tend to avoid getting involved in the fracas and retreat to the kitchen.
As spring progresses, nest-building activity becomes frantic. The instinct to build starts often much earlier – January or February but it looks like a game or a rehearsal when some birds , for instance rooks, pick up small twigs and then drop them. Their interest intensifies in February, and by then rooks not only pick up twigs, but break them off trees as well, and they fly with pieces of wood in their beaks. But the building of the nest will not start until March. Contrary to popular belief, birds don’t always choose high places to build their nests. Most nests are built at a height of one metre, and many are placed just on the ground. Many male birds choose the nesting site first and then use this as their “piece de resistance” to woo a female while they sing a love song. Most bird couples cooperate in nest-building by dividing the workload. Some male birds gather and bring the material for the female to build the nest. It isn’t common for the birds to work together on the nest , it seems, because they know what many humans have learned to their cost , that it often leads to disagreements. Birds are often masters of disguise and original design. Some cover their nest with pieces of bark corresponding perfectly with the pattern of the tree bark on which the nest is situated. Some weave elaborate sacks divided into two compartments, and others decorate the nests with soft feathers, flowers, fluff or fresh herbs.
Most of us know of the famous Chinese delicacy – bird’s nest soup. This isn’t any old nest, though. The birds involved are similar to swifts and they make their nests almost entirely from their own saliva, into which they mix a small amount of highly spiced and fragrant leaves. The saliva has the property of drying instantly, and it resembles carpenter’s glue. Those birds nest in attics, and this is regarded by the house owner as very good luck indeed, as he will profit from the sale of nests greatly in years to come. Only the first nest is removed, and the birds make a second one straight away, which they are allowed to keep to raise their young. As those birds nest together in quite large numbers, it really is good fortune for the happy homeowners. The fresh nests are cooked in water and when they dissolve, the concoction becomes like a very herby, spicy soup.
Our own swifts and swallows, among others, build their nests by binding mud or earth with their saliva into small bits and then sticking them one by one under the roof to form a nest. Some cousins of the swallows mix their saliva with disintegrating old wood and thus produce a perfect paper-mache substance which lines their nests. Some exotic birds have nesting habits worth mentioning: the village weaver tears up large leaves into long strips to weave an elaborate contraption. Another bird, the tailorbird, folds a large leaf that hangs vertically and then proceeds to sew it with his beak with a long grass stem, taking care to even secure the ends of his thread.
There is one conclusion to be drawn here. That is, only we humans differ in our individual understanding of what “taking pride in our work” means. Birds don’t waste their time on such trivia. They simply always do their best.