Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/November 1893/Birds' Judgements of Men


WE put animals under all sorts of contributions, taking even their lives for our necessities, pleasure, and caprice, without once considering what their views may be of our proceedings or of us, or whether they have any views. We need not doubt that they have views, and some very definite ones. Mute witnesses of our lives, they examine, observe, and judge us; and some judge with a marvelous accuracy.

Birds, in particular, are all the time fluttering around us; they witness all our motions, interpret all our gestures, and very quickly form a perfectly just opinion of our character. The selection exercised by swallows has been remarked—they are said never to build their nests, except in quiet houses—and the prudence of the crow, which readily marks the difference between a harmless pedestrian and a hunter, and always keeps itself out of reach of the sportsman's gun, is well recognized. The accuracy of the observation of birds goes beyond this ordinary sagacity, and I am convinced that those birds which reside near man utilize for their advantage, security, or pleasure a multitude of very complete, fine, and judicious remarks which they make concerning their dangerous neighbor. I will tell here of two recent examples as a contribution to the study of the pyschology of birds.

The house I live in is situated in a faubourg of Dijon, in the midst of a garden surrounded by other gardens. The quarter is a chosen haunt of birds—nightingales, warblers, tomtits, finches, redthroats, wrens, etc., are abundant, besides the innumerable and undisciplinable army of sparrows. All the people of the house profess for the inhabitants of the garden feelings of the highest sympathy, which are manifested in numerous good ways by bathing-troughs judiciously placed in the shadows of thickets, various seeds put in good places where they will be found, by leaving the nests in absolute solitude, etc. There result such a cordiality and security of relation between our birds and us that the former sometimes manifest a familiarity in our quarters exceeding the limits of good taste.

Some time ago, the weather being pleasant, although it was as yet but little after six o'clock in the morning, I was working with one of the windows of my room open. All at once I heard a sound of wings, and perceived a redthroat, its bill still bordered with the yellow characteristic of infancy, fluttering frightened across the room. It had probably, in its first attempt at flight, met a cat or a squirrel, and had taken refuge with me under the stress of a panic-stricken terror. It was so frightened that, in trying to get out, it did not see the open window, and beat obstinately against the glass of those which were shut. I thought it best not to interfere, lest I might frighten it still more; hoping, besides, that it would be more perspicacious when it had recovered its self-possession. It soon desisted from its attempts and perched itself on a corner of my bookcase. I watched it with the corners of my eyes without moving; I observed that its respiration gradually became more regular, and its expression resumed its calm. It completely recovered itself in a few moments, but, instead of trying to escape, it stayed where it was, uttering frequent light cries. In response to these calls, another redthroat came in, adult and experienced, evidently the father of our frightened one. He flew rapidly round in my room, like one examining the resources and means of the country; then, having beaten his wings for a few seconds before his offspring to encourage him to follow him, I fancied, he went out alone with a jerk of his wings, without missing the window. Here, I thought, is a father who takes things philosophically; sure that his chick will be in no danger, he plants it there and goes back to his business. But I judged too hastily. In less than a minute the father came back, bringing a caterpillar in his bill; he gave it to the little one, then went out, returned, and made twenty journeys for provisions, bringing in all sorts of insects, to the great satisfaction of the young one, which became quite contented and made itself well at home, erecting its feathers, smoothing them, working itself into a ball, and peeping. But its skill did not correspond with its appetite: it dropped the insects on my books, not to my pleasure; then there came a spider of respectable size, when, having a horror of spiders as unreasonable as unconquerable, and disliking the litter left by the little bird on my books, I thought it was time to give these creatures to understand that their familiarity was a little in excess of the limits. I opened all the windows, and, shaking my handkerchief, sent them to continue their feast in the woods.

Among our birds are a pair of redstarts which faithfully return to us every April. We are old acquaintances, and a degree of confidence is established between us above anything that can be imagined. These birds habitually make their nests, within reach of the hand, in a large ivy that grows on the wall near the garden gate. Whether this situation had ceased to please them, or some accident had happened to a first nest that we did not see, they this year set up their household in a new spot, selecting the letter-box. One of the boards of the frame of the box having become detached, an opening was made in it large enough to allow them to pass back and forth. This box is fixed to a little footgate connected with the large wagon-gate, which is opened and shut more than a hundred times a day; about twenty inches above it is a bell that sounds loudly enough to be heard within the house, two hundred and fifty feet distant, which is rung every time the little gate is opened. I should say that, as soon as I saw my birds take the box for their house, I asked the postman to put nothing more in it; but when I perceived that the nest was in building, it was nearly done, and the letter-box had been used as such for nearly two days without the birds being troubled by it; and I should add that during those two days the box was emptied by a groom too small to see to the bottom of it, and the nest being in a corner, he had not seen or disturbed it. There are now four eggs in the nest, and the birds have begun to sit upon it.

It is therefore evident that these redstarts as well as the red-throats had formed a correct idea of the kindliness of their host, that it had taken deep root in their little brains, and that the confidence they showed in us was the result of very attentive, precise, and just observations which they had been able to make upon the inhabitants of my house.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.