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Uncollected Essays

Birds' Nests.

Sarah O. Jewett.

     It gives one an uncomfortable feeling to have the revered traditions of one's youth interfered with. Were not these daintily made little dwellings always a favorite illustration of the wonders of instinct? But in an article in The Revue des Deux Mondes, which refers to a book by Mr. A. R. Wallace, the English naturalist, it appears that we have taken this thing for granted, without reasonable foundation. Mr. Wallace says birds do not build their nests by instinct any more than we do our houses, and claims that they use largely their faculty of imitativeness, and their reason, which enables them to take their surroundings into consideration; that birds do change for the better their processes of construction, under such influences as produce similar changes for the better in men's architectural ideas.

     Instinct enables animals to perform, without instruction or previously acquired knowledge, acts which call for a logical train of thought in man. But when we try to test the facts usually urged as proving the power of instinct, they are by no means invariably conclusive. It is made certain that the songs of birds are not innate; so the writer tells us. The experiment has been tried of placing several young linnets in cages with different varieties of larks, and it was found that every one adopted completely the song of the music-master set over him. And the song of the bird being the result of its education, so it may be with nest building. It is said that a bird brought up in a cage does not construct the nest peculiar to its species; that it seems to have little skill, and sometimes no purpose of building any nest at all. This is one of the surest proofs that instead of being wholly guided by instinct, the bird, as was said in the beginning, builds its nest as we do our own dwellings.

     The form and structure are more dependent than is usually supposed on external conditions. Each species takes the materials that come in their way in their search for their especial food. For instance, kingfishers use the little bones of the fish they eat; wrens living in thickets and hedges use the moss in which they hunt for insects; some large water birds merely build up hillocks of mud on the flats. It is asked why creatures like these, availing themselves of the circumstances around them for definite objects, are inferior to the Patagonians who make a rough shelter of leaves and branches, or to some Africans who dig holes in the ground. What advance has been made in the architecture of the Arab's tent? And sometimes the fashion of building remains unchanged, when the circumstances which called for it are done away with. The former generations of Malays built their houses on piles after the manner of the ancient lake-dwellers of Europe, and now that the population has increased, and the country is settled far into the interior on dry plains and hills, the people still prudently raise their dwellings high above the ground.

     The common sparrow takes far less pains with his nest, when he can avail himself of a nook in a wall than when he has to build in the open air; and the orchard oriole builds his nest almost flat when he can fasten it to a stiff branch, but much deeper if he hangs it to a slender, swaying one, lest the eggs may be thrown out when the wind moves it.

     The final and most convincing argument is, that M. Pouchet published in 1870 some curious observations on the progressive improvements of martins' nests. He kept for forty years, in the museum at Rouen, some of these nests which he had taken from the walls of old buildings in that city. One day having obtained some new nests, he was astonished, on comparing them with the old ones, to perceive considerable difference. The new nests all had come from the new quarter of the town and were all on the same plan; but on investigating churches and other old buildings, as well as certain rocks inhabited by martins, he found many nests of the old pattern together with some of the more recent model. The descriptions given by old naturalists are only of the primitive type, which is a quarter hemisphere with a very small round orifice. On the contrary the new nests have a width greater than their depth. We see here an evident progress, for these are larger and more comfortable. The wider bed gives the young birds more liberty of movement than they had in the more contracted, deeper one; the wider opening gives them more air and a better chance for looking out and seeing the world around them. 'One well proved case of this kind is enogh to show that the bird architecture is susceptible of progress; and this seems to force us to abandon the hypothesis of blind instinct. Then, too, the imperfections noticed in the nests of some species, and the awkward nest, not to say blunders of some birds, cannot be reconciled with the idea of instinct being infallible.'

     'We do not find innate ideas or blind and irresistible tendencies. The bird learns to build his nest, each species having its own tradition, which can be changed according to external circumstances. As regards the origin of these constructive processes, it can readily be understood without supposing a special instinct, if we show that, after all, the processes are simpler than would appear at first thought. We should not exaggerate the grade of intelligence needed by a bird in order to build a nest, which appears simply marvelous because it is so small. We are charmed with the sight of this, but the rough mud wall of a peasant's hut would appear to be fine handiwork in the eyes of a giant. It all depends upon perspective.'

     This is all very plausible, and certainly very interesting; but if we give up the idea of birds acting from instinct, we must no less deny it to many other animals who possess just as exquisite powers of adaptation. There are innumerable acts which closely simulate reason, and the line can hardly be drawn between the two. To us, the robins' nests have all looked very much alike year after year, and even those sensible martins at Rouen may have changed their way of building from some other cause than that the writer suggests. They may have themselves changed in their own structure, instead of being dissatisfied with the houses their grandpapas built, and thought good enough for them; and the new architecture may have followed as a natural consequence. Our wise naturalists, with their acute observation and unwearied research, can, undoubtedly, see many wonderful capacities and adaptations in a creature which seems particularly stupid to you and me, and of which we are quite confident the creature itself is still more ignorant. So, until our own robins [robbins] and swallows show a disposition analogous to our own for bay-widows and French roofs, and we have unmistakable proof before our own eyes, we will wait patiently.


"Birds' Nests" originally appeared in The Tonic (June 11, 1873, p. 3). The Tonic, edited by Mary S. Deering, published June 7 through June 19 of 1873 as a daily newspaper of the Maine General Hospital Fair in Portland, Maine. The text appears here courtesy of the collections of the Maine Historical Society, Portland, ME.
    Apparent errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets.
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Mr. A. R. Wallace, the English naturalist: Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was an English naturalist best known, perhaps, for developing a theory of evolution simultaneously with Charles Darwin. The Alfred Russel Wallace Page at reprints his essay, "The Philosophy of Birds' Nests," where Wallace presents the arguments Jewett discusses; this piece first appeared in 1867 in The Intellectual Observer, and there was a revision and reprinting in 1870. The French review of this material in The Revue des Deux Mondes has not been located. Assistance is welcome.
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M. Pouchet published in 1870 ... martins' nests: It seems likely Jewett refers to Félix-Archimède Pouchet, (1800-1872), whose Moeurs et Instincts Des Animaux appeared posthumously in 1887. "Livre Sixième: L'architecture Des Oiseaux" includes an extensive discussion of birds' nests, including swallows/martins, and presumably it was this material that was discussed in the Revue article Jewett read. One of Pouchet's books had been published earlier in English: The Architecture of God. The Wonders of Creation. The Infinitely Great and the Infinitely Little (Hallett: Portland, ME, 1860).
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.

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