Children's nature walks--May part three

This is the fourth  in the series Children's Nature walks and the third that is taken during the month of May. {see content banners Children's nature walks -2 and 3}. 

The stories are taken from Country Walks of a Naturalist {with his children} a Shropshire naturalist conveys his experience to us. The book was published in the 1800,s. Where necessary I will update species names etc.   On this walk we meet with the Sedge Warbler, the Cuckoo and some wild vegetation.

Our story begins

Hark! what is that bird singing so sweetly and with so much animation in the hedge? Do you hear? It is the dear little sedge warbler, often,indeed,heard, but seldom seen for it is fond of hiding itself in the bushes or sedge's. The sedge warbler like migratory warblers generally, comes to us in April and leaves again in September. How often I have listened with delight to its music,when returning home quite late at night during the summer months! If the bird stops its music for a few moments,you have only to throw a stone into the bushes, and the singing commences again. I am not clever in describing musical sounds, and I can not describe that of the sedge warbler, and neither can I always distinguish it from its near relative the Reed Warbler. Both imitate the songs of other birds,and their incessant warblings and babblings at night,cause them often being mistaken for nightingales.

I have generally found the nest of the sedge warbler near to the ground,on a tuft of grass or sedge, the nest of the reed warbler is supported on four or five tall reeds, and is made of  seed branches of  the reeds, and long grass wound round and round;it is made deep; so that the little eggs are tossed out when the reeds are shaken by high winds. 

Nest of the Reed warbler

Hark !, here is the cuckoo; how clearly he utters "cuckoo!"," cuckoo!",He his not far away. Some people can imitate the well known call so well, as to deceive the bird and bring it to the place where they are hiding. Your uncle Philip,just the other day made a cuckoo respond to him. Had the day been calm instead of windy;he would no doubt have induced the bird to come close to us. There he goes with his long tail, flying something like a hawk. You should remember the rhyming lines about the cuckoo's visit to this country.

In April,

Come he will.

In may,

He sings all day.

In June,

He alters his tune.

In July ,

He prepares to fly,.

In August

Go he must.


" I think you said Papa", said May, " that only the male bird utters the cuckoo note. What kind of voice has the female?" I have never heard the note of the female. Mr, Jenyns says " The note of the female cuckoo is so unlike the male, which is familiar to everyone, that persons are sometimes with difficulty persuaded that it sometimes proceeds from that bird.. it is a kind of chattering cry,consisting of a few notes uttered in quick succession, but remarkably clear and liquid" Very curious are the habits of the cuckoo. Unlike other birds, they do not pair; You all know, too that cuckoos do not make nests, but the lay their eggs one by one, in the nests of various other birds such as those of the Hedge warbler, or Hedge sparrow,as it is generally wrongly called, Robin,Whitethroat and other birds. It is probable that the same cuckoo does not go twice to the same nest to deposit her egg. What a curious exception is the case of the cuckoo  to the instinctive love of their offspring observable in almost most birds!. After the eggs are laid the parent bird has no further trouble with them,no period of incubation to bare the breast of the brooding bird, no anxiety about her young ones,as some idle, wanton lad seeks among the trees and bushes,destroys  both nest and eggs or tortures the helpless fledglings! " But Papa" said Willy, " How does it happen that the young birds hatched in the same nest with the young cuckoo always get turned out of it? "

The cuckoo, being much larger and heavier bird,fills up the greater part of the nest,consequently the smaller fledgling companions get placed on the sides of the nest, and partially also on the back of the young cuckoo when, therefor, the latter stands up in the nest he often lifts up on his back one of the smaller companions, who thus gets thrown headlong to the ground. This seems to me to be the mode in which the ejection sometimes takes place, till at last the young cuckoo is left alone in the nest and of course gets all the food; At the same time I ought to say that some naturalists attribute murderous disposition to the young cuckoo, and say that the other inmates in the nest are maliciously thrown out. Others, again, say that the foster bird throw their own young ones out. It is certain  that the young ones are  sometimes treated thus, for they have been seen on the ground when the young cuckoo was to small to eject them itself. { the young cuckoo is born with a hollow on its back that forms a kind of cradle which helps it to eject the young of the foster species. This grows out as the bird gets older.-Dal}



" But why do cuckoos not build nests and sit on their eggs like other birds?" said Jack. Such a question is more easily asked than answered : nevertheless I hope you always try to discover reasons for things. " It is now", writes a celebrated naturalist," commonly admitted that the more immediate and final cause of the cuckoo's instinct is, that she lays her eggs, not daily but at intervals of two or three days;so that if she was to make her own nest and sit on her own eggs, those first laid would have to be left for some time unincubated or there would be eggs and young birds of different ages in the same nest. If this were the case the process of laying at hatching might be inconveniently long,more especially  as she has to migrate at an early period, and the young hatched would have to be fed by the male alone ". The cuckoos come to this country about the middle of April;and thew male birds arrive before the females. Whether this behaviour is ungallent conduct on the part of the gentleman birds, who prefer to come alone, or whether,when the gentleman cuckoo is ready and almost impatient to start, her ladyship has all at once discovered some important matter that ought to be finished first before leaving the country,some adjustment to her dress, some tiresome feather that will ruffel itself up in spite of every effort to keep it smooth, I know not, but the fact remains, that my Lord and Lady cuckoo do not travel together.

Let us suppose that both sexes have arrived in this country, we will say about the 24th of April. It is natural that they would need a little time to look about. At any rate no egg is ready to be sat upon  for some weeks after the arrival of the birds, say  the 15th of May. The eggs require fourteen days setting, before they are hatched;this brings the date to the 29th of May. The young ones will require  three weeks in the nest and feeding constantly all the time, we now arrive about the 20th of June, when the young ones would be ready to leave the nest. but they want five weeks more feeding by the parents after they leave the nest, before they are able to feed themselves;This would bring the date to about the 25th of July, when there is hardly a parent bird in this country;they have left for other parts of the world.

" Oh but papa",said Willy, " in the lines you told us to remember----

In Julky,

he prepares to fly.

In August ,

Go he must.

And now you say that the cuckoo leaves before the end of July,I think you must have made a mistake somehow" I am glad you have found out the error,if there is one. Old rhymes are not always to be trusted, but I suspect the couplet 'Come August Go he must', means to imply that the cuckoo does never really stay so late with us. I must not, however,  forget to tell you, that it is the old parent birds that leave us so early,young birds remain until September, and even October; but they have not by that time acquired the cuckoos note. If you ask why the old cuckoos can't stay with us for longer, then all go away in a family party, young and old, in September, instead of being in such a hurry, I have only to say that it is the fashion among cuckoos, and of course cuckoos, like certain other animals, must be in the fashion. this is Dr.Jenner's explanation of the peculiar habits of the cuckoo in respect of the eggs. I am not prepared to say whether or not it is sufficient to explain them. The cuckoo's egg is very small when compared to the size of the bird,it is a pale grey tinged with red.

" But how does the cuckoo's eggs get in to some nests?" asked Willy " For some nests in which the cuckoo's eggs are found are to small to allow  the cuckoo herself to enter to lay her egg". ;  You are quite right; I believe it has been proved, that cuckoos lay their egg on the ground and carries it in her bill into other birds nests. 

Horse tail

" Oh ,papa" said Jack " " What is that curious plant that grows so abundantly on the grass here? I know it well by sight, but do not know its name" It is the spike of a horsetail;see how the stem is marked with lines;and see how curiously it is jointed it is;and quite hollow except where the joints occur. the fruit is borne at the top of the plant {a};see, as I shake it what a quantity of;the dust comes from it.; this dust is the fruit or spores as they are called. Each spore is of an oval form,with four elastic threads. if I was to put some of this dust on a glass slide and look at it through a microscope,I should see a curious sight. the four threads would be spread out, but if I were to breathe on the glass, these threads would coil themselves around the oval body; but as soon as the moisture had passed away; the threads would shoot out again in the same position as they were at first,causing the spore to leap as though it were alive.

The stems are two kinds fertile and infertile;the one you have in your hands is a fertile spike and appears only in the spring;the infertile ones form quite a thick cover. Feel how rough the stem is; This is due to the presence of a quantity of silex or flint in it; on this account some of the species,are used for polishing purposes. One kind, under the name of 'Dutch rushes',is imported from Holland, being used for polishing mahogany,ivory metal etc. { They were once used to clean pewter and acquired the name of Pewter wort.-Dal}

The horsetails for the most part grow in moist soil in ditches and on the borders of lakes, Some however, grow in corn fields and on the side of roads. in this country they do not attain the height of  more than a few feet, but in tropical countries,one or two species grow to the height of  sixteen feet or more. Now it is time to go home until our next walk.



Horse tails with their foliage

Courtesy of MPF,Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 unported license.

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