1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nidification

NIDIFICATION (from Lat. nidus), the process of making a nest (q.v.). Nidification is with most birds the beginning of the breeding season, but with many it is a labour that is scamped if not shirked. Some of the auk tribe place their single egg on a bare ledge of rock, where its peculiar conical shape is but a precarious safeguard when rocked by the wind or stirred by the thronging crowd of its parents' fellows. The stone-curlew and the goatsucker deposit their eggs without the slightest preparation of the soil on which they rest; yet this is not done at haphazard, for no birds can be more constant in selecting, almost to an inch, the very same spot which year after year they choose for their procreant cradle. In marked contrast to such artless care stand the wonderful structures which others, such as the tailor-bird, the bottle-titmouse or the fantail-warbler, build for the comfort or safety of their young. But every variety of disposition may be found in the class. The apteryx seems to entrust its abnormally big egg to an excavation among the roots of a tree-fern; while a band of female ostriches scrape holes in the desert-sand and therein promiscuously drop their eggs and leave the task of incubation to the male. Some megapodes bury their eggs in sand, leaving them to come to maturity by the mere warmth of the ground, while others raise a huge hotbed of dead leaves wherein they deposit theirs, and the young are hatched without further care on the part of either parent. Some of the grebes and rails seem to avail themselves in a less degree of the heat generated by vegetable decay and, dragging from the bottom or sides of the waters they frequent fragments of aquatic plants, form of them a rude half-floating mass which is piled on some growing water-weed—but these birds do not spurn the duties of maternity.

Many of the gulls, sandpipers and plovers lay their eggs in a shallow pit which they hollow out in the soil, and then as incubation proceeds add thereto a low breastwork of haulm. The ringed plover commonly places its eggs on shingle, which they so much resemble in colour, but when breeding on grassy uplands it paves the nest-hole with small stones. Pigeons mostly make an artless platform of sticks so loosely laid together that their pearly treasures maybe perceived from beneath by the inquisitive observer. The magpie, as though self-conscious that its own thieving habits may be imitated by its neighbours, surrounds its nest with a hedge of thorns. Very many birds of almost every group bore holes in some sandy cliff, and at the end of their tunnel deposit their eggs with or without bedding. Such bedding, too, is very various in character; thus, while the sheldduck and the sand-martin supply the softest of materials—the one of down from her own body, the other of feathers collected by dint of diligent search—the kingfisher forms a couch of the undigested spiny fish bones which she ejects in pellets from her own stomach. Other birds, such as the woodpeckers, hew holes in living trees, even when the timber is of considerable hardness, and therein establish their nursery. Some of the swifts secrete from their salivary glands a fluid which rapidly hardens as it dries on exposure to the air into a substance resembling isinglass, and thus furnish the “edible birds' nests” that are the delight of Chinese epicures. In the architecture of nearly all the passerine birds, too, some salivary secretion seems to play an important part. By its aid they are enabled to moisten and bend the otherwise refractory twigs and straws, and glue them to their place. Spiders' webs also are employed with great advantage for the purpose last mentioned, but perhaps chiefly to attach fragments of moss and lichen so as to render the whole structure less obvious to the eye of the spoiler. The tailor-bird deliberately spins a thread of cotton and therewith stitches together the edges of a pair of leaves to make a receptacle for its nest. Beautiful, too, is the felt fabricated of fur or hairs by the various species of titmouse, while many birds ingeniously weave into a compact mass both animal and vegetable fibres, forming an admirable non-conducting medium which guards the eggs from the extremes of temperature outside. Such a structure may be open and cup-shaped, supported from below as that of the chaffinch and goldfinch, domed like that of the wren and bottle-titmouse, slung hammock-wise as in the case of the golden-crested wren and the orioles, or suspended by a single cord as with certain grosbeaks and humming-birds.

Certain warblers (Aedon and Thamnobia) invariably lay a piece of snake's slough in their nests—to repel, it has been suggested, marauding lizards who may thereby fear the neighbourhood of a deadly enemy. The clay-built edifices of the swallow and martin are known to everybody, and the nuthatch plasters up the gaping mouth of its nest-hole till only a postern large enough for entrance and exit, but easy of defence, is left. In South America the oven-birds (Furnariidae) construct on the branches of trees globular ovens, so to speak, of mud, wherein the eggs are laid and the young hatched. The flamingo erects in the marshes it frequents a mound of earth sometimes 2 ft. in height, with a cavity atop. The females of the hornbills submit to incarceration during this interesting period, the males immuring them by a barrier of mud, leaving only a small window to admit air and food.

But though in a general way the dictates of hereditary instinct are rigidly observed by birds, in many species a remarkable degree of elasticity is exhibited, or the rule of habit is rudely broken. Thus the falcon, whose ordinary eyry is on the beetling cliff, will for the convenience of procuring prey condescend to lay its eggs on the ground in a marsh, or appropriate the nest of some other bird in a tree. The golden eagle, too, remarkably adapts itself to circumstances, now rearing its young on a precipitous ledge, now on the arm of an ancient monarch of the forest and again on a treeless plain, making a humble home amid grass and herbage. Herons will breed according to circumstances in an open fen, on sea-banks or (as is most usual) on lofty trees. Such changes are easy to understand. The instinct of finding food for the family is predominant, and where most food is there will the feeders be gathered together. This explains, in all likelihood, the associated bands of ospreys or fish-hawks, which in North America breed (or used to breed) in large companies where sustenance is plentiful, though in the Old World the same species brooks not the society of aught but its mate. Birds there are of eminently social predilections. In Europe, apart from sea-fowls whose congregations are universal and known to all only the heron, the fieldfare and the rook habitually flock during the breeding season; but in other parts of the world many birds unite in company at that time, and in none possibly is this habit so strongly developed as in the anis of the neotropical region, the republican swallow of North America and the sociable grosbeak of South Africa, which last joins nest to nest until the tree is said to break down under the accumulated weight of the common edifice.

In the strongest contrast to these amiable qualities is the parasitic nature of the cuckoos of the Old World and the cowbirds of the New. The egg of the parasite is introduced into the nest of the dupe, and after the necessary incubation by the fond fool of a foster-mother the interloper successfully counterfeits the heirs, who perish miserably, victims of his superior strength. The whole process has been often watched, but the reflective naturalist will pause to ask how such a state of things came about, and there is not much to satisfy his inquiry. Certain it is that some birds whether by mistake or stupidity do not infrequently lay their eggs in the nests of others. It is within the knowledge of many that pheasants' eggs and partridges' eggs are often laid in the same nest, and gulls' eggs have been found in the nests of eider-ducks and vice versa; a redstart and a pied flycatcher will lay their eggs in the same convenient hole the forest being rather deficient in such accommodation; an owl and a duck will resort to the same nest-box, set up by a scheming woodsman for his own advantage; and the starling, which constantly dispossesses the green woodpecker, sometimes discovers that the rightful heir of the domicile has to be brought up by the intruding tenant. In all such cases it is not possible to say which species is so constituted as to obtain the mastery, but it is not difficult to conceive that in the course of ages that which was driven from its home might thrive through the fostering of its young by the invader, and thus the abandonment of domestic habits and duties might become a direct gain to the evicted householder.  (A. N.) 

Nests and Coloration.—The correlation between nests and the coloration of the birds has been investigated by A. R. Wallace. Accordingly he divides birds into two main groups, first those in which the sexes are alike and of conspicuous or showy colours, and which nidificate in a covered site; secondly, those in which the males are showy and the females sombre, and which use open sites for their nests. The many exceptions to these generalizations caused J. A. Allen (Bull. Nutt. Orn. Club, 1878) to write an adverse criticism. C. Dixon (H. Seebohm's Hist. Brit. Birds, ii., 1884, introduction) has reviewed the question from Wallace's point of view. He established the following categories.

1. Birds in which the plumage of the male is bright and conspicuous in colour, and that of the female dull and sombre, and which nidificate in open sites. In these very common cases, the female alone incubates, and obviously derives protection from its inconspicuous plumage.

2. Birds in which the plumage of both sexes is showy or brilliant in colour, and which nidificate in open nests. This group forms one of those exceptions which at first sight appear seriously to affect the validity of Wallace's theory. In most of the cases, however, the birds, as, for instance, crows, gulls, herons, are either well able to defend themselves and their nests or, as, for instance, the sandpipers, they seek safety for themselves in flight, relying upon the protective tints of their eggs or young.

3. Birds in which the male is less brilliant than the female, and which nidificate in open nests. Such birds are exceedingly few, e.g. the Phalaropes, the common cassowary, the emu, a carrion hawk (Milvago leucurus) from the Falkland Islands, an Australian tree-creeper (Climacteris erythrops) and an Australian goatsucker (Eurystopodus albigularis). In all these cases the male performs the duty of incubation. The male tinamous do the same, although they do not differ from their mates, but the conspicuously coloured male ostrich takes this duty upon himself during the night.

4. Birds in which both sexes are brightly coloured, and which rear their young in holes or covered nests. For instance, the gaudy coloured rollers, bee-eaters, kingfishers, the hoopoe, hornbills. toucans, parrots, tits, the sheldrake and many others.

5. Birds in which both sexes are dull in colour, and which build covered nests from motives of safety other than concealment. For example, the swifts (Cypselus), the sand-martin (Cotyle riparia), wrens, dippers and owls.

6. Birds in which the female is duller in colour than the male, and which nidificate in covered nests; e.g. the redstart (Ruticilla phoenicura), the pied flycatcher (Muscicapa atricapilla), rock-thrushes (Monticola), chats (Saxicola) and robin-chats (Thamnobia), and birds of the genus Malurus. In some of these cases the showy male bird assists in incubation, the kind of nest allowing him to do so with safety.

Similar difficulties beset the generalizations concerning the correlation of the colour of the eggs and the exposed or hidden condition of the nest. The eggs of most birds which breed in holes, or even in covered nests, are white, but the number of exceptions is so great that no general rule can be laid down to this effect. Conversely the number of birds which lay purely white eggs in open nests, e.g. pigeons, is also large. The eggs of owls are always white, whether they be deposited in holes on the bare ground or in open nests in a tree. The eggs of the goshawk are white, but those of its small relation, the sparrowhawk, are always blotched, the nest of both being built precisely in the same kind of position, &c. In regard to the almost countless cases of spotted eggs in holes or covered nests, of which so many groups of birds furnish examples either wholly or in part, it has been suggested that the species in question has taken to hiding its eggs in times comparatively recent, and has not yet got rid of the ancestral habit of secreting and despositing pigment.

Length of Time of Incubation.—Most of the smaller Passeres seem to hatch their young in from 13-15 days. The shortest period, only 10 days, is recorded of the small Zosterops coerulescens; the largest, amounting to about 8 weeks, is that of some of the larger Ratitae, penguins and the condor. The best list, comprising birds of most groups, is that by W. Evans (Ibis, 1891, pp. 52-93; and 1892, pp. 55-58). Speaking broadly, the largest birds lay the largest eggs and require the longest time for incubation, but there are very many exceptions, and only birds of the same group can be compared with each other. The domestic fowl takes 21 days, but the pheasant, though so very nearly allied, takes 2 or 3 days longer, and even the small partridge requires 24 days. The mallard takes 26, the domestic duck 27, the musk duck 35 days, like most of the swans. The cuckoo, with 13 to 14 days, seems to have adapted itself to the short period of its foster parents.

The whole question still affords ample opportunities of experimental investigation and comparison. The condition of the newly hatched birds also varies extremely. The Nidifugae are born with their eyes open, are thinly clothed with neossoptiles of simple structure, leave the nest on the first day and feed themselves. The Nidicolae are born blind, remain a long time in the nest and have to be fed by their parents. Taken as a whole, the Nidifugae comprise most of the phylogenetically older groups; but many of these may include some closely allied members which have reached the developmental level of the Nidicolae: for instance, some Alcidae, the pigeons, Sphenisci, Tubinares, Ciconiae. For detail see Birds: Classification. While in the first category the sense organs, tegumentary and locomotory organs are far advanced, these are retarded in the Nidicolae, the development of these structures being shifted on to the postembryonic period. Yet the length of the incubation is by no means always longer in the Nidifugae, when compared with equal-sized Nidicolae.

For further information the reader may be referred to: A. R. Wallace, “A Theory of Birds' Nests,” Journ. of Travel and Nat. Hist., 1868, p. 73, reprinted in his Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection (London, 1870); A. McAldpwie, “Observations on the Development and the Decay of the Pigment Layer in Birds' Eggs,” Journ. An. Phys. xx., 1886, pp. 225-237; W. Hewitson, Coloured Illustrations of the Eggs of British Birds (3rd ed., London, 1856); T. M. Brewer, North American Oology (4to, Washington, 1857); A. Lefèvre, Atlas des œufs des oiseaux d'Europe (8vo, Paris, 1845); F. W. Baedeker, Die Eier der europäischen Vögel (fol., Leipzig, 1863); E. Rey, Eier d. Vögel Mittel-Europa's (Gera, 1905); A. Newton, Ootheca Wolleyana (8vo, London, 1864-1907); and articles on “Eggs” and “Nidification” in Dict. Birds (London, 1893-1896).  (H. F. G.)