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Title: Birds in the Calendar
Author: Aflalo, Frederick G. (Frederick George), 1870-1918
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Birds in the Calendar" ***

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              BIRDS
         IN THE CALENDAR

         BY F. G. AFLALO

          [Decoration]


      LONDON: MARTIN SECKER
 NUMBER FIVE JOHN STREET ADELPHI



_First Published 1914_


Transcriber's Note:

    Minor typographical errors have been corrected without note. Common
    bird names remain as originally printed. Inconsistent hyphenation
    has been standardised. The oe ligature is represented by [oe].



CONTENTS


                                          PAGE

 January: The Pheasant                      11

 February: The Woodcock                     21

 March: The Woodpigeon                      33

 April: Birds in the High Hall Garden       45

 May: The Cuckoo                            55

 June: Voices of the Night                  67

 July: Swifts, Swallows and Martins         79

 August: The Seagull                        91

 September: Birds in the Corn              103

 October: The Moping Owl                   113

 November: Waterfowl                       125

 December: The Robin Redbreast             137



NOTE


These sketches of birds, each appropriate to one month of the twelve,
originally appeared in _The Outlook_, to the Editor and Proprietors of
which review I am indebted for permission to reprint them in book form.

                                                            F. G. A.

EASTER, 1914.



JANUARY

THE PHEASANT



THE PHEASANT


As birds are to be considered throughout these pages from any standpoint
but that of sport, much that is of interest in connection with a bird
essentially the sportsman's must necessarily be omitted. At the same
time, although this gorgeous creature, the chief attraction of social
gatherings throughout the winter months, appeals chiefly to the men who
shoot and eat it, it is not uninteresting to the naturalist with
opportunities for studying its habits under conditions more favourable
than those encountered when in pursuit of it with a gun.

In the first place, with the probable exception of the swan, of which
something is said on a later page, the pheasant stands alone among the
birds of our woodlands in its personal interest for the historian. It is
not, in fact, a British bird, save by acclimatisation, at all, and is
generally regarded as a legacy of the Romans. The time and manner of its
introduction into Britain are, it is true, veiled in obscurity. What we
know, on authentic evidence, is that the bird was officially recognised
in the reign of Harold, and that it had already come under the ægis of
the game laws in that of Henry I, during the first year of which the
Abbot of Amesbury held a licence to kill it, though how he contrived
this without a gun is not set forth in detail. Probably it was first
treed with the aid of dogs and then shot with bow and arrow. The
original pheasant brought over by the Romans, or by whomsoever may have
been responsible for its naturalisation on English soil, was a
dark-coloured bird and not the type more familiar nowadays since its
frequent crosses with other species from the Far East, as well as with
several ornamental types of yet more recent introduction.

In tabooing the standpoint of sport, wherever possible, from these
chapters, occasional reference, where it overlaps the interests of the
field-naturalist, is inevitable. Thus there are two matters in which
both classes are equally concerned when considering the pheasant. The
first is the real or alleged incompatibility of pheasants and foxes in
the same wood. The question of rivalry between pheasant and fox, or (as
I rather suspect) between those who shoot the one and hunt the other,
admits of only one answer. The fox eats the pheasant; the pheasant is
eaten by the fox. This not very complex proposition may read like an
excerpt from a French grammar, but it is the epitome of the whole
argument. It is just possible--we have no actual evidence to go on--that
under such wholly natural conditions as survive nowhere in rural England
the two might flourish side by side, the fox taking occasional toll of
its agreeably flavoured neighbours, and the latter, we may suppose,
their wits sharpened by adversity, gradually devising means of keeping
out of the robber's reach. In the artificial environment of a hunting or
shooting country, however, the fox will always prove too much for a bird
dulled by much protection, and the only possible _modus vivendi_ between
those concerned must rest on a policy of give and take that deliberately
ignores the facts of the case.

More interesting, on academic grounds at any rate, is the process of
education noticeable in pheasants in parts of the country where they
are regularly shot. Sport is a great educator. Foxes certainly, and
hares probably, run the faster for being hunted. Indeed the fox appears
to have acquired its pace solely as the result of the chase, since it
does not figure in the Bible as a swift creature. The genuine wild
pheasant in its native region, a little beyond the Caucasus, is in all
probability a very different bird from its half-domesticated kinsman in
Britain. I have been close to its birthplace, but never even saw a
pheasant there. We are told, on what ground I have been unable to trace,
that the polygamous habit in these birds is a product of artificial
environment; but what is even more likely is that the true wild pheasant
of Western Asia (and not the acclimatised bird so-called in this
country) trusts much less to its legs than our birds, which have long
since learnt that there is safety in running. Moreover, though it
probably takes wing more readily, it is doubtful whether it flies as
fast as the pace, something a little short of forty miles an hour, that
has been estimated as a common performance in driven birds at home.

The pheasant is in many respects a very curious bird. At the threshold
of life, it exhibits, in common with some of its near relations, a
precocity very unusual in its class; and the readiness with which
pheasant chicks, only just out of the egg, run about and forage for
themselves, is astonishing to those unused to it. Another interesting
feature about pheasants is the extraordinary difference in plumage
between the sexes, a gap equalled only between the blackcock and greyhen
and quite unknown in the partridge, quail and grouse. Yet every now and
again, as if resentful of this inequality of wardrobe, an old hen
pheasant will assume male plumage, and this epicene raiment indicates
barrenness. Ungallant feminists have been known to cite the case of the
"mule" pheasant as pointing a moral for the females of a more highly
organised animal.

The question of the pheasant's natural diet, more particularly where
this is not liberally supplemented from artificial sources, brings the
sportsman in conflict with the farmer, and a demagogue whose zeal
occasionally outruns his discretion has even endeavoured to cite the
mangold as its staple food. This, however, is political, and not natural
history. Although, however, like all grain-eating birds, the pheasant is
no doubt capable of inflicting appreciable damage on cultivated land, it
seems to be established beyond all question that it also feeds greedily
on the even more destructive larva of the crane-fly, in which case it
may more than pay its footing in the fields. The foodstuff most fatal to
itself is the yew leaf, for which, often with fatal results, it seems to
have an unconquerable craving. The worst disease, however, from which
the pheasant suffers is "gapes," caused by an accumulation of small red
worms in the windpipe that all but suffocate the victim.

Reference has been made to the bird's great speed in the air, as well as
to its efficiency as a runner. It remains only to add that it is also a
creditable swimmer and has been seen to take to water when escaping from
its enemies.

The polygamous habit has been mentioned. Ten or twelve eggs, or more,
are laid in the simple nest of leaves, and this is generally placed on
the ground, but occasionally in a low tree or hedge, or even in the
disused nest of some other bird.

Comparatively few of the birds referred to in the following pages appeal
strongly to the epicure, but the pheasant, if not, perhaps, the most
esteemed of them, is at least a wholesome table bird. It should,
however, always be eaten with chip potatoes and bread sauce, and not in
the company of cold lettuce. Those who insist on the English method of
serving it should quote the learned Freeman, who, when confronted with
the Continental alternative, complained bitterly that he was not a
silkworm!



FEBRUARY

THE WOODCOCK



THE WOODCOCK


There are many reasons why the woodcock should be prized by the winter
sportsman more than any other bird in the bag. In the first place, there
is its scarcity. Half a dozen to every hundred pheasants would in most
parts of the country be considered a proportion at which none could
grumble, and there are many days on which not one is either seen or
shot. Again, there is the bird's twisting flight, which, particularly
inside the covert, makes it anything but an easy target. Third and last,
it is better to eat than any other of our wild birds, with the possible
exception of the golden plover. Taking one consideration with another,
then, it is not surprising that the first warning cry of "Woodcock
over!" from the beaters should be the signal for a sharp and somewhat
erratic fusillade along the line, a salvo which the beaters themselves
usually honour by crouching out of harm's way, since they know from
experience that even ordinarily cool and collected shots are sometimes
apt to be fired with a sudden zeal to shoot the little bird, which may
cost one of them his eyesight. According to the poet,

    "Lonely woodcocks haunt the watery glade;"

and so no doubt they do at meal-time after sunset, but we are more used
to flushing them amid dry bracken or in the course of some frozen ditch.
Quite apart, however, from its exhilarating effect on the sportsman, the
bird has quieter interests for the naturalist, since in its food, its
breeding habits, its travels, and its appearance it combines more
peculiarities than perhaps any other bird, certainly than any other of
the sportsman's birds, in these islands. It is not, legally speaking, a
game bird and was not included in the Act of 1824, but a game licence is
required for shooting it, and it enjoys since 1880 the protection
accorded to other wild birds. This is excellent, so far as it goes, but
it ought to be protected during the same period as the pheasant,
particularly now that it is once more established as a resident species
all over Britain and Ireland.

This new epoch in the history of its adventures in these islands is the
work of the Wild Birds' Protection Acts. In olden times, when half of
Britain was under forest, and when guns were not yet invented that could
"shoot flying," woodcocks must have been much more plentiful than they
are to-day. In those times the bird was taken on the ground in springes
or, when "roding" in the mating season, in nets, known as "shots," that
were hung between the trees. When the forest area receded, the resident
birds must have dwindled to the verge of extinction, for on more than
one occasion we find even a seasoned sportsman like Colonel Hawker
worked up to a rare pitch of excitement after shooting woodcock in a
part of Hampshire where in our day these birds breed regularly. Thanks,
however, to the protection afforded by the law, there is once again
probably no county in England in which woodcocks do not nest.

At the same time, it is as an autumn visitor that, with the first of the
east wind in October or November, we look for this untiring little
traveller from the Continent. Some people are of opinion that since it
has extended its residential range fewer come oversea to swell the
numbers, but the arrivals are in some years considerable, and if a
stricter watch were kept on unlicensed gunners along the foreshore of
East Anglia, very much larger numbers would find their way westwards
instead of to Leadenhall. As it is, the wanderers arrive, not
necessarily, as has been freely asserted, in poor condition, but always
tired out by their journey, and numbers are secured before they have
time to recover their strength. Yet those which do recover fly right
across England, some continuing the journey to Ireland, and stragglers
even, with help no doubt from easterly gales, having been known to reach
America.

The woodcock is interesting as a parent because it is one of the very
few birds that carry their young from place to place, and the only
British bird that transports them clasped between her legs. A few
others, like the swans and grebes, bear the young ones on the back, but
the woodcock's method is unique. Scopoli first drew attention to his own
version of the habit in the words "_pullos rostro portat_," and it was
old Gilbert White who, with his usual eye to the practical, doubted
whether so long and slender a bill could be turned to such a purpose.
More recent observation has confirmed White's objection and has
established the fact of the woodcock holding the young one between her
thighs, the beak being apparently used to steady her burden. Whether the
little ones are habitually carried about in this fashion, or merely on
occasion of danger, is not known, and indeed the bird's preference for
activity in the dusk has invested accurate observation of its habits
with some difficulty. Among well-known sportsmen who were actually so
fortunate as to have witnessed this interesting performance, passing
mention may be made of the late Duke of Beaufort, the Hon. Grantley
Berkeley, and Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey.

Reference has already been made to the now obsolete use of nets for the
capture of these birds when "roding." The cock-shuts, as they were
called, were spread so as to do their work after sundown, and this is
the meaning of Shakespeare's allusion to "cock-shut time." This "roding"
is a curious performance on the part of the males only, and it bears
some analogy to the "drumming" of snipe. It is accompanied indeed by the
same vibrating noise, which may be produced from the throat as well,
but is more probably made only by the beating of the wings. There
appears to be some divergence of opinion as to its origin in both birds,
though in that of the snipe such sound authorities as Messrs. Abel
Chapman and Harting are convinced that it proceeds from the quivering of
the primaries, as the large quill-feathers of the wings are called.
Other naturalists, however, have preferred to associate it with the
spreading tail-feathers. Whether these eccentric gymnastics are
performed as displays, with a view to impressing admiring females, or
whether they are merely the result of excitement at the pairing season
cannot be determined. It is safe to assume that they aim at one or other
of these objects, and further no one can go with any certainty. The word
"roding" is spelt "roading" by Newton, who thus gives the preference to
the Anglo-Saxon description of the aërial tracks followed by the bird,
over the alternative derivation from the French "roder," which means to
wander. The flight is at any rate wholly different from that to which
the sportsman is accustomed when one of these birds is flushed in
covert. In the latter case, either instinct or experience seems to have
taught it extraordinary tricks of zigzag man[oe]uvring that not seldom
save its life from a long line of over-anxious guns; though out in the
open, where it generally flies in a straight line for the nearest
covert, few birds of its size are easier to bring down. Fortunately, we
do not in England shoot the bird in springtime, the season of "roding,"
but the practice is in vogue in the evening twilight in every
Continental country, and large bags are made in this fashion.

In its hungry moments the woodcock, like the snipe, has at once the
advantages and handicap of so long a beak. On hard ground, in a long
spell of either drought or frost, it must come within measurable
distance of starvation, for its only manner of procuring its food in
normal surroundings is to thrust its bill deep into the soft mud in
search of earthworms. The bird does not, it is true, as was once
commonly believed, live by suction, or, as the Irish peasants say in
some parts, on water, but such a mistake might well be excused in anyone
who had watched the bird's manner of digging for its food in the ooze.
The long bill is exceedingly sensitive at the tip, and in all
probability, by the aid of a tactile sense more highly developed than
any other in our acquaintance, this organ conveys to its owner the
whereabouts of worms wriggling silently down out of harm's way. On first
reaching Britain, the woodcock remains for a few days on the seashore to
recover from its crossing, and at this time of rest it trips over the
wet sand, generally in the gloaming, and picks up shrimps and such other
soft food as is uncovered between tidal marks. It is not among the
easiest of birds to keep for any length of time in captivity, but if due
attention be paid to its somewhat difficult requirements in the way of
suitable food, success is not unattainable. On the whole, bread and milk
has been found the best artificial substitute for its natural diet. With
the _kiwi_ of New Zealand, a bird not even distantly related to the
woodcock, and a cousin rather of the ostrich, but equipped with much the
same kind of bill as the subject of these remarks, an even closer
imitation of the natural food has been found possible in menageries.
The bill of the _kiwi_, which has the nostrils close to the tip, is even
more sensitive than that of the woodcock and is employed in very similar
fashion. At Regent's Park the keeper supplies the bird with fresh worms
so long as the ground is soft enough for spade-work. They are left in a
pan, and the _kiwi_ eats them during the night. In winter, however, when
worms are not only hard to come by in sufficient quantity but also
frost-bitten and in poor condition, an efficient substitute is found in
shredded fillet steak, which, whether it accepts it for worms or not,
the New Zealander devours with the same relish.

When a woodcock lies motionless among dead leaves, it is one of the most
striking illustrations of protective colouring to be found anywhere.
Time and again the sportsman all but treads on one, which is betrayed
only by its large bright eye. There are men who, in their eagerness to
add it to the bag, do not hesitate in such circumstances to shoot a
woodcock on the ground, but a man so fond of ground game should
certainly be refused a game licence and should be allowed to shoot
nothing but rabbits.



MARCH

THE WOODPIGEON



THE WOODPIGEON


The woodpigeon is many things to many men. To the farmer, who has some
claim to priority of verdict, it is a curse, even as the rabbit in
Australia, the lemming in Norway, or the locust in Algeria. The tiller
of the soil, whose business brings him in open competition with the
natural appetites of such voracious birds, beasts, or insects, regards
his rivals from a standpoint which has no room for sentiment; and the
woodpigeons are to our farmers, particularly in the well-wooded
districts of the West Country, even as Carthage was to Cato the Censor,
something to be destroyed.

It is this attitude of the farmer which makes the woodpigeon
pre-eminently the bird of February. All through the shooting season just
ended, a high pigeon has proved an irresistible temptation to the guns,
whether cleaving the sky above the tree-tops, doubling behind a broad
elm, or suddenly swinging out of a gaunt fir. Yet it is in February,
when other shooting is at an end and the coverts no longer echo the
fusillade of the past four months, that the farmers, furious at the
sight of green root-crops grazed as close as by sheep and of young
clover dug up over every acre of their tilling, welcome the co-operation
of sportsmen glad to use up the balance of their cartridges in organised
pigeon battues. These gatherings have, during the past five years,
become an annual function in parts of Devonshire and the neighbouring
counties, and if the bag is somewhat small in proportion to the guns
engaged, a wholesome spirit of sport informs those who take part, and
there is a curiously utilitarian atmosphere about the proceedings.
Everyone seems conscious that, in place of the usual idle pleasure of
the covert-side or among the turnips, he is out for a purpose, not
merely killing birds that have been reared to make his holiday, but
actually helping the farmers in their fight against Nature. As,
moreover, recent scares of an epidemic not unlike diphtheria have
precluded the use of the birds for table purposes, the powder is burnt
with no thought of the pot.

The usual plan is to divide the guns in small parties and to post these
in neighbouring plantations or lining hedges overlooking these spinneys.
At a given signal the firing commences and is kept up for several hours,
a number of the marauders being killed and the rest so harried that many
of them must leave the neighbourhood, only to find a similar warm
welcome across the border. Some such concerted attack has of late years
been rendered necessary by the great increase in the winter invasion
from overseas. It is probable that, as most writers on the subject
insist, the wanderings of these birds are for the most part restricted
to these islands and are mere food forays, like those which cause
locusts to desert a district that they have stripped bare for pastures
new. At the same time, it seems to be beyond all doubt the fact that
huge flocks of woodpigeons reach our shores annually from Scandinavia,
and their inroads have had such serious results that it is only by joint
action that their numbers can be kept under. For such work February is
obviously the month, not only because most of their damage to the
growing crops and seeds is accomplished at this season, but also
because large numbers of gunners, no longer able to shoot game, are thus
at the disposal of the farmers and only too glad to prolong their
shooting for a few weeks to such good purpose.

Many birds are greedy. The cormorant has a higher reputation of the sort
to live up to than even the hog, and some of the hornbills, though less
familiar, are endowed with Gargantuan appetites. Yet the ringdove could
probably vie with any of them. Mr. Harting mentions having found in the
crop of one of these birds thirty-three acorns and forty-four
beech-nuts, while no fewer than 139 of the latter were taken, together
with other food remains, from another. It is no uncommon experience to
see the crop of a woodpigeon that is brought down from a great height
burst, on reaching the earth, with a report like that of a pistol, and
scatter its undigested contents broadcast. Little wonder then, that the
farmers welcome the slaughter of so formidable a competitor! It is one
of their biggest customers, and pays nothing for their produce. One told
me, not long ago, that the woodpigeons had got at a little patch of
young rape, only a few acres in all, which had been uncovered by the
drifting snow, and had laid it as bare as if the earth had never been
planted. Seeing what hearty meals the woodpigeon makes, it is not
surprising that it should sometimes throw up pellets of undigested
material. This is not, however, a regular habit, as in the case of hawks
and owls, and is rather, perhaps, the result of some abnormally
irritating food.

Pigeons digest their food with the aid of a secretion in the crop, and
it is on this soft material, popularly known as "pigeons' milk," that
they feed their nestlings. This method suggests analogy to that of the
petrels, which rear their young on fish-oil partly digested after the
same fashion. Indeed, all the pigeons are devoted parents. Though the
majority build only a very pretentious platform of sticks for the two
eggs, they sit very close and feed the young ones untiringly. Some of
the pigeons of Australia, indeed, go even further. Not only do they
build a much more substantial nest of leafy twigs, but the male bird
actually sits throughout the day, such paternal sense of duty being all
the more remarkable from the fact that these pigeons of the Antipodes
usually lay but a single egg. Australia, with the neighbouring islands,
must be a perfect paradise for pigeons, since about half of the species
known to science occur in that region only. The wonga-wonga and
bronze-wing and great fruit-pigeons are, like the "bald-pates" of
Jamaica, all favourite birds with sportsmen, and some of the birds are
far more brightly coloured than ours. It is, however, noticeable that
even the gayest Queensland species, with wings shot with every prismatic
hue, are dull-looking birds seen from above, and the late Dr. A. R.
Wallace regarded this as affording protection against keen-eyed hawks on
the forage. His ingenious theory receives support from the well-known
fact that in many of the islands, where pigeons are even more plentiful,
but where also hawks are few, the former wear bright clothes on their
back as well.

The woodpigeon has many names in rural England. That by which it is
referred to in the foregoing notes is not, perhaps, the most
satisfactory, since, with the possible exception of the smaller
stock-dove, which lays its eggs in rabbit burrows, and the rock-dove,
which nests in the cliffs, all the members of the family need trees, if
only to roost and nest in. A more descriptive name is that of ringdove,
easily explained by the white collar, but the bird is also known as
cushat, queest, or even culver. The last-named, however, which will be
familiar to readers of Tennyson, probably alludes specifically to the
rock-dove, as it undoubtedly gave its name to Culver Cliff, a prominent
landmark in the Isle of Wight, where these birds have at all times been
sparingly in evidence.

The ringdove occasionally rears a nestling in captivity, but it does not
seem, at any time of life, to prove a very attractive pet. White found
it strangely ferocious, and another writer describes it as listless and
uninteresting. The only notable success on record is that scored by St.
John, who set some of the eggs under a tame pigeon and secured one
survivor that appears to have grown quite tame, but was, unfortunately,
eaten by a hawk. At any rate, it did its kind good service by enlisting
on their side the pen of the most ardent apologist they have ever had.
Indeed, St. John did not hesitate to rate the farmers soundly for
persecuting the bird in wilful ignorance of its unpaid services in
clearing their ground of noxious weeds. Yet, however true his eloquent
plea may have been in respect of his native Lothian, there would be some
difficulty in persuading South Country agriculturists of the
woodpigeon's hidden virtues. To those, however, who do not sow that they
may reap, the subject of these remarks has irresistible charm. There is
doubtless monotony in its cooing, yet, heard in a still plantation of
firs, with no other sound than perhaps the distant call of a shepherd or
barking of a farm dog, it is a music singularly in harmony with the
peaceful scene. The arrowy flight of these birds when they come in from
the fields at sundown and fall like rushing waters on the tree-tops is
an even more memorable sound. To the sportsman, above all, the
woodpigeon shows itself a splendid bird of freedom, more cunning than
any hand-reared game bird, swifter on the wing than any other purely
wild bird, a welcome addition to the bag because it is hard to shoot in
the open, and because in life it was a sore trial to a class already
harassed with their share of this life's troubles.



APRIL

BIRDS IN THE HIGH HALL GARDEN



BIRDS IN THE HIGH HALL GARDEN


All March the rooks were busy in the swaying elms, but it is these
softer evenings of April, when the first young leaves are beginning to
frame the finished nests, and the boisterous winds of last month no
longer drown the babble of the tree-top parliament at the still hour
when farm labourers are homing from the fields, that the rooks
peculiarly strike their own note in the country scene. There is no good
reason to confuse these curious and interesting fowl with any other of
the crow family. Collectively they may be recognised by their love of
fellowship, for none are more sociable than they. Individually the rook
is stamped unmistakably by the bald patch on the face, where the
feathers have come away round the base of the beak. The most generally
accepted explanation of this disfigurement is the rook's habit of
thrusting its bill deep in the earth in search of its daily food. This,
on the face of it, looks like a reasonable explanation, but it should be
borne in mind that not only do some individual rooks retain through
life the feathers normally missing, but that several of the rook's
cousins dip into Nature's larder in the same fashion without suffering
any such loss. However, the featherless patch on the rook's cheeks
suffices, whatever its cause, as a mark by which to recognise the bird
living or dead.

Unlike its cousin the jackdaw, which commonly nests in the cliffs, the
rook is not, perhaps, commonly associated with the immediate
neighbourhood of the sea, but a colony close to my own home in
Devonshire displays sufficiently interesting adaptation to estuarine
conditions to be worth passing mention. Just in the same way that gulls
make free of the wireworms on windswept ploughlands, so in early summer
do the old rooks come sweeping down from the elms on the hill that
overlooks my fishing ground and take their share of cockles and other
muddy fare in the bank uncovered by the falling tide. Here, in company
with gulls, turnstones, and other fowl of the foreshore, the rooks strut
importantly up and down, digging their powerful bills deep in the ooze
and occasionally bullying weaker neighbours out of their hard-earned
spoils. The rook is a villain, yet there is something irresistible in
the effrontery with which one will hop sidelong on a gorging gull, which
beats a hasty retreat before its sable rival, leaving some half-prized
shellfish to be swallowed at sight or carried to the greedy little beaks
in the tree-tops. While rooks are far more sociable than crows, the two
are often seen in company, not always on the best of terms, but usually
in a condition suggestive of armed neutrality. An occasional crow visits
my estuary at low tide, but, though the bird would be a match for any
single rook, I never saw any fighting between them. Possibly the crow
feels its loneliness and realises that in case of trouble none of its
brothers are there to see fair play. Yet carrion crows, like herons, are
among the rook's most determined enemies, and cases of rookeries being
destroyed by both birds are on record. On the other hand, though the
heron is the far more powerful bird of the two, heronries have likewise
been scattered, and their trees appropriated, by rooks, probably in
overwhelming numbers. Of the two the heron is, particularly in the
vicinity of a preserved trout stream, the more costly neighbour. Indeed
it is the only other bird which nests in colonies of such extent, but
there is this marked difference between herons and rooks, that the
former are sociable only in the colony. When away on its own business,
the heron is among the most solitary of birds, having no doubt, like
many other fishermen, learnt the advantage of its own company.

One of the most remarkable habits in the rook is that of visiting the
old nests in mid-winter. Now and again, it is true, a case of actually
nesting at that season has been noticed, but the fancy for sporting
round the deserted nests is something quite different from this. I have
watched the birds at the nests on short winter days year after year, but
never yet saw any confirmation of the widely accepted view that their
object is the putting in order of their battered homes for the next
season. It seems a likely reason, but in that case the birds would
surely be seen carrying twigs for the purpose, and I never saw them do
so before January. What other attraction the empty nurseries can have
for them is a mystery, unless indeed they are sentimental enough to like
revisiting old scenes and cawing over old memories.

The proximity of a rookery does not affect all people alike. Some who,
ordinarily dwelling in cities, suffer from lack of bird neighbours,
would regard the deliberate destruction of a rookery as an act of
vandalism. A few, as a matter of fact, actually set about establishing
such a colony where none previously existed, an ambition that may
generally be accomplished without extreme difficulty. All that is needed
is to transplant a nest or two of young rooks and lodge them in suitable
trees. The parent birds usually follow, rear the broods, and forthwith
found a settlement for future generations to return to. Even artificial
nests, with suitable supplies of food, have succeeded, and it seems that
the rook is nowhere a very difficult neighbour to attract and establish.

Why are rooks more sociable than ravens, and what do they gain from such
communalism? These are favourite questions with persons informed with an
intelligent passion for acquiring information, and the best answer,
without any thought of irreverence, is "God knows!" It is most certain
that we, at any rate, do not. So far from explaining how it was that
rooks came to build their nests in company, we cannot even guess how the
majority of birds came to build nests at all, instead of remaining
satisfied with the simpler plan of laying their eggs in the ground that
is still good enough for the petrels, penguins, kingfishers, and many
other kinds. Protection of the eggs from rain, frost, and natural
enemies suggests itself as the object of the nest, but the last only
would to some extent be furthered by the gregarious habit, and even so
we have no clue as to why it should be any more necessary for rooks than
for crows. To quote, as some writers do, the numerical superiority of
rooks over ravens as evidence of the benefits of communal nesting is to
ignore the long hostility of shepherds towards the latter birds on which
centuries of persecution have told irreparably. Rooks, on the other
hand, though also regarded in some parts of these islands as suspects,
have never been harassed to the same extent; and if anything in the
nature of general warfare were to be inaugurated against them, the
gregarious habit, so far from being a protection, would speedily and
disastrously facilitate their extermination. Another curious habit
noticed in these birds is that of flying on fine evenings to a
considerable height and then swooping suddenly to earth, often on their
backs. These antics, comparable to the drumming of snipe and roding of
woodcock, are probably to be explained on the same basis of sexual
emotion.

The so-called parliament of the rooks probably owes much of its detail
to the florid imagination of enthusiasts, always ready to exaggerate the
wonders of Nature; but it also seems to have some existence in fact, and
privileged observers have actually described the trial and punishment of
individuals that have broken the laws of the commune. I never saw this
procedure among rooks, but once watched something very similar among the
famous dogs of Constantinople, which no longer exist.

The most important problem however in connection with the rook is the
precise extent to which the bird is the farmer's enemy or his friend. On
the solution hangs the rook's fate in an increasingly practical age,
which may at any moment put sentiment on one side and decree for it the
fate that is already overtaking its big cousin the raven. Scotch farmers
have long turned their thumbs down and regarded rooks as food for the
gun, but in South Britain the bird's apologists have hitherto been able
to hold their own and avert catastrophe from their favourite. The
evidence is conflicting. On the one hand, it seems undeniable that the
rook eats grain and potato shoots. It also snaps young twigs off the
trees and may, like the jay and magpie, destroy the eggs of game birds.
On the other hand, particularly during the weeks when it is feeding its
nestlings, it admittedly devours quantities of wireworms, leathergrubs,
and weevils, as well as of couch grass and other noxious weeds, while
some of its favourite dainties, such as thistles, walnuts, and acorns,
will hardly be grudged at any time. It is not an easy matter to decide;
and, if the rook is to be spared, economy must be tempered with
sentiment, in which case the evidence will perhaps be found to justify a
verdict of guilty, with a strong recommendation to mercy.



MAY

THE CUCKOO



THE CUCKOO


With the single exception of the nightingale, bird of lovers, no other
has been more written of in prose or verse than the so-called "harbinger
of spring." This is a foolish name for a visitor that does not reach our
shores before, at any rate, the middle of April. Even _Whitaker_ allows
us to recognise the coming of spring nearly a month earlier; and for
myself, impatient if only for the illusion of Nature's awakening, I date
my spring from the ending of the shortest day. Once the days begin to
lengthen, it is time to glance at the elms for the return of the rooks
and to get out one's fishing-tackle again. Yet the cuckoo comes rarely
before the third week of April, save in the fervent imagination of
premature heralds, who, giving rein to a fancy winged by desire, or
honestly deceived by some village cuckoo clock heard on their country
rambles, solemnly write to the papers announcing the inevitable March
cuckoo. They know better in the Channel Islands, for in the second week
of April, and not before, there are cuckoos in every bush--hundreds of
exhausted travellers pausing for strength to complete the rest of their
journey to Britain. Not on the return migration in August do the
wanderers assemble in the islands, since, having but lately set out,
they are not yet weary enough to need the rest. The only district of
England in which I have heard of similar gatherings of cuckoos is East
Anglia, where, about the time of their arrival, they regularly collect
in the bushes and indulge in preliminary gambols before flying north and
west.

Cuckoos, then, reach these islands about the third week of April, and
they leave us again at the end of the summer, the old birds flying south
in July, the younger generation following three or four weeks later.
Goodness knows by what extraordinary instinct these young ones know the
way. But the young cuckoo is a marvel altogether in the manner of its
education, since, when one comes to think of it, it has no upbringing by
its own parents and cannot even learn how to cry "Cuckoo!" by example or
instruction. Its foster-parents speak another language, and its own
folk have ceased from singing by the time it is out of the nest. A good
deal has been written about the way in which the note varies, chiefly in
the direction of greater harshness and a more staccato and less
sustained note, towards the end of the cuckoo's stay. According to the
rustic rhyme, it changes its tune in June, which is probably poetic
licence rather than the fruits of actual observation. It is, however,
commonly agreed that the cuckoo is less often heard as the time of its
departure draws near, and the easiest explanation of its silence, once
the breeding season is ended, is that the note, being the love-call of a
polygamous bird, is no longer needed.

In Australia the female cuckoo is handsomely barred with white, whereas
the male is uniformly black; but with our bird it is exceedingly
difficult to distinguish one sex from the other on the wing, and, were
it not for occasional evidence of females having been shot when actually
calling, we might still believe that it is the male only that makes this
sound. The note is joyous only in the poet's fancy, just as he has also
read sadness into the "sobbing" of the nightingale. There is, indeed,
when we consider its life, something fantastic in the hypothesis that
the cuckoo can know no trouble in life, merely because it escapes the
rigours of our winter. Eternal summer must be a delight, but the cuckoo
has to work hard for the privilege, and it must at times be harried to
the verge of desperation by the small birds that continually mob it in
broad daylight. This behaviour on the part of its pertinacious little
neighbours has been the occasion of much futile speculation; but the one
certain result of such persecution is to make the cuckoo, along with its
fellow-sufferer, the owls, preferably active in the sweet peace of the
gloaming, when its puny tyrants are gone to roost. Much heated argument
has raged round the real or supposed sentiment that inspires such
demonstrations on the part of linnets, sparrows, chaffinches, and other
determined hunters of the cuckoo. It seems impossible, when we observe
the larger bird's unmistakable desire to win free of them, to attribute
friendly feelings to its pursuers. Yet some writers have held the
curious belief that, with lingering memories of the days when, a year
ago, they devoted themselves to the ugly foster-child, the little birds
still regard the stranger with affection. If so, then they have an
eccentric way of showing it, and the cuckoo, driven by the chattering
little termagants from pillar to post, may well pray to be saved from
its friends. On the other hand, even though convinced of their
hostility, it is not easy to believe, as some folks tell us, that they
mistake the cuckoo for a hawk. Even the human eye, though slower to take
note of such differences, can distinguish between the two, and the
cuckoo's note would still further undeceive them. The most satisfactory
explanation of all perhaps is that the nest memories do in truth
survive, not, however, investing the cuckoo with a halo of romance, but
rather branding it as an object of suspicion, an interloper, to be
driven out of the neighbourhood at all costs ere it has time to billet
its offspring on the hard-working residents. All of which is, needless
to say, the merest guesswork, since any attempt to interpret the
simplest actions of birds is likely to lead us into erroneous
conclusions. Yet, of the two, it certainly seems more reasonable to
regard the smaller birds as resenting the parasitic habit in the cuckoo
than to admit that they can actually welcome the murder of their own
offspring to make room in the nest for the ugly changeling foisted on
them by this fly-by-night.

On the _lucus a non lucendo_ principle, the cuckoo is chiefly
interesting as a parent. The bare fact is that our British kind builds
no nest of its own, but puts its eggs out to hatch, choosing for the
purpose the nests of numerous small birds which it knows to be suitable.
Further investigation of the habits of this not very secretive bird,
shows that she first lays her egg on the ground and then carries it in
her bill to a neighbouring nest. Whether she first chooses the nest and
then lays the egg destined to be hatched in it, or whether she lays each
egg when so moved and then hunts about for a home for it, has never been
ascertained. The former method seems the more practical of the two. On
the other hand, little nests of the right sort are so plentiful in May
that, with her mother-instinct to guide her, she could always find one
at a few moments' notice. Some people, who are never so happy as when
making the wonders of Nature seem still more wonderful than they really
are, have declared that the cuckoo lays eggs to match those among which
she deposits them, or that, at any rate, she chooses the nests of birds
whose eggs approximately resemble her own. I should have liked to
believe this, but am unfortunately debarred by the memory of about forty
cuckoo's eggs that I took, seven-and-twenty summers ago, in the woods
round Dartford Heath. The majority of these were found in hedgesparrows'
nests, and the absolute dissimilarity between the great spotted egg of
the cuckoo and the little blue egg of its so-called dupe would have
impressed even a colour-blind animal. Occasionally, I believe, a blue
cuckoo's egg has been found, but such a freak could hardly be the result
of design. As a matter of fact, there is no need for any such elaborate
deception. Up to the moment of hatching, the little foster-parents have
in all probability no suspicion of the trick that has been played on
them. Birds do not take deliberate notice of the size or colour of
their own eggs. Kearton somewhere relates how he once induced a
blackbird to sit on the eggs of a thrush, and a lapwing on those of a
redshank. So, too, farmyard hens will hatch the eggs of ducks or game
birds and wild birds can even be persuaded to sit on eggs made of
painted wood. Why then, since they are so careless of appearances,
should the cuckoo go to all manner of trouble to match the eggs of
hedgesparrow, robin or warbler? The bird would not notice the
difference, and, even if she did, she would probably sit quite as close,
if only for the sake of the other eggs of her own laying. Once the ugly
nestling is hatched, there comes swift awakening. Yet there is no
thought of reprisal or desertion. It looks rather as if the little
foster-parents are hypnotised by the uncouth guest, for they see their
own young ones elbowed out of the home and continue, with unflagging
devotion, to minister to the insatiable appetite of the greedy little
murderer. A bird so imbued as the parasitic cuckoo with the _Wanderlust_
would make a very careless parent, and we must therefore perhaps revise
our unflattering estimate of its attitude and admit that it does the
best it can by its offspring in putting them out to nurse. This habit,
unique among British birds, is practised by many others elsewhere, and
in particular by the American troupials, or cattle-starlings. One of
these indeed goes even farther, since it entrusts its eggs to the care
of a nest-building cousin. There are also American cuckoos that build
their own nest and incubate their own eggs.

On the whole, our cuckoo is a friend to the farmer, for it destroys vast
quantities of hairy caterpillars that no other bird, resident or
migratory, would touch. On the other hand, no doubt, the numbers of
other small useful birds must suffer, not alone because the cuckoo sucks
their eggs, but also because, as has been shown, the rearing of every
young cuckoo means the destruction of the legitimate occupants of the
nest. So far however as the farmer is concerned, this is probably
balanced by the reflection that a single young cuckoo is so rapacious as
to need all the insect food available.

The cuckoo, like the woodcock, is supposed to have its forerunner. Just
as the small horned owl, which reaches our shores a little in advance
of the latter, is popularly known as the "woodcock owl," so also the
wryneck, which comes to us about the same time as the first of the
cuckoos, goes by the name of "cuckoo-leader." It is never a very
conspicuous bird, and appears to be rarer nowadays than formerly.
Schoolboys know it best from its habit of hissing like a snake and
giving them a rare fright when they cautiously insert a predatory hand
in some hollow tree in search of a possible nest. It is in such
situations that, along with titmice and some other birds, the wryneck
rears its young; and it doubtless owes many an escape to this habit of
hissing, accompanied by a vigorous twisting of its neck and the
infliction of a sufficient peck, easily mistaken in a moment of panic
for the bite of an angry adder. Thus does Nature protect her weaklings.



JUNE

VOICES OF THE NIGHT



VOICES OF THE NIGHT


The majority of nocturnal animals, more particularly those bent on
spoliation, are strangely silent. True, frogs croak in the marshes, bats
shrill overhead at so high a pitch that some folks cannot hear them, and
owls hoot from their ruins in a fashion that some vote melodious and
romantic, while others associate the sound rather with midnight crime
and dislike it accordingly. The badger, on the other hand, with the
otter and fox--all of them sad thieves from our point of view--have
learnt, whatever their primeval habits, to go about their marauding in
stealthy silence; and it is only in less settled regions that one hears
the jackals barking, the hyænas howling, and the browsing deer whistling
through the night watches.

There are, however, two of our native birds, or rather summer visitors,
since they leave us in autumn, closely associated with these warm June
nights, the stillness of which they break in very different fashion, and
these are the nightingale and nightjar. Each is of considerable
interest in its own way. It is not to be denied that the churring note
of the nightjar is, to ordinary ears, the reverse of attractive, and the
bird is not much more pleasing to the eye than to the ear; while the
nightingale, on the contrary, produces such sweet sounds as made Izaak
Walton marvel what music God could provide for His saints in heaven when
He gave such as this to sinners on earth. The suggestion was not wholly
his own, since the father of angling borrowed it from a French writer;
but he vastly improved on the original, and the passage will long live
in the hearts of thousands who care not a jot for his instructions in
respect of worms. At the same time, the nightjar, though the less
attractive bird of the two, is fully as interesting as its comrade of
the summer darkness, and there should be no difficulty in indicating the
little that they have in common, as well as much wherein they differ, in
both habits and appearance.

Both, then, are birds of sober attire. Indeed of the two, the nightjar,
with its soft and delicately pencilled plumage and the conspicuous white
spots, is perhaps the handsomer, though, as it is seen only in the
gloaming, its quiet beauty is but little appreciated. The unobtrusive
dress of the nightingale, on the other hand, is familiar in districts in
which the bird abounds, and is commonly quoted, by contrast with its
unrivalled voice, as the converse of the gaudy colouring of raucous
macaws and parrakeets. As has been said, both these birds are summer
migrants, the nightingale arriving on our shores about the middle of
April, the nightjar perhaps a fortnight later. Thenceforth, however,
their programmes are wholly divergent, for, whereas the nightjars
proceed to scatter over the length and breadth of Britain, penetrating
even to Ireland in the west and as far north as the Hebrides, the
nightingale stops far short of these extremes and leaves whole counties
of England, as well as probably the whole of Scotland, and certainly the
whole of Ireland, out of its calculations. It is however well known that
its range is slowly but surely extending towards the west.

This curiously restricted distribution of the nightingale, indeed,
within the limits of its summer home is among the most remarkable of
the many problems confronting the student of distribution, and
successive ingenious but unconvincing attempts to explain its seeming
eccentricity, or at any rate caprice, in the choice of its nesting range
only make the confusion worse. Briefly, in spite of a number of doubtful
and even suspicious reports of the bird's occurrence outside of these
boundaries, it is generally agreed by the soundest observers that its
travels do not extend much north of the city of York, or much west of a
line drawn through Exeter and Birmingham. By way of complicating the
argument, we know, on good authority, that the nightingale's range is
equally peculiar elsewhere; and that, whereas it likewise shuns the
departments in the extreme west of France, it occurs all over the
Peninsula, a region extending considerably farther into the sunset than
either Brittany or Cornwall, in both of which it is unknown. No
satisfactory explanation of the little visitor's objection to Wild Wales
or Cornwall has been found, and it may at once be stated that its
capricious distribution cannot be accounted for by any known facts of
soil, climate, or vegetation, since the surroundings which it finds
suitable in Kent and Sussex are equally to be found down in the West
Country, but fail to attract their share of nightingales.

The song of the nightingale, in praise of which volumes have been
written, is perhaps more beautiful than that of any other bird, though I
have heard wonderful efforts from the mocking-bird in the United States
and from the bulbuls along the banks of the Jordan. The latter are
sometimes, more especially in poetry, regarded as identical with the
nightingale; and, indeed, some ornithologists hold the two to be closely
related. What a gap there is between the sobbing cadences of the
nightingale and the rasping note of the nightjar, which, with specific
reference to a Colonial cousin of that bird Tasmanians ingeniously
render as "more pork"! It seems almost ludicrous to include under the
head of birdsong not only the music of the nightingale, but also the
croak of the raven and the booming note of the ostrich. Yet these also
are the love-songs of their kind, and the hen ostrich doubtless finds
more music in the thunderous note of her lord than in the faint melody
of such song-birds as her native Africa provides. The nightingale sings
to his mate while she is sitting on her olive-green eggs perching on a
low branch of the tree, at foot of which the slender nest is hidden in
the undergrowth. So much is known to every schoolboy who is too often
guided by the sound on his errand of plunder; and why the song of this
particular warbler should have been described by so many writers as one
of sadness, seeing that it is associated with the most joyous days in
the bird's year, passes comprehension. So obviously is its object to
hearten the female in her long and patient vigil that as soon as the
young are hatched the male's voice breaks like that of other choristers
to a guttural croak. It is said, indeed--though so cruel an experiment
would not appeal to many--that if the nest be destroyed just as the
young are hatched the bird recovers all his sweetness of voice and sings
anew while another home is built.

Although poetic licence has ascribed the song to the female, it is the
male nightingale only that sings, and for the purpose aforementioned.
The note of the nightjar, on the other hand, is equally uttered by both
sexes, and both also have the curious habit of repeatedly clapping the
wings for several minutes together. They moreover share the business of
incubation, taking day and night duty on the eggs, which, two in number,
are laid on the bare ground without any pretence of a nest, and
generally on open commons in the neighbourhood of patches of fern-brake.
Like the owls, these birds sleep during the day and are active only when
the sun goes down. It is this habit of seeking their insect food only in
the gloaming which makes nightjars among the most difficult of birds to
study from life, and all accounts of their feeding habits must therefore
be received with caution, particularly that which compares the bristles
on the mouth with baleen in whales, serving as a sort of strainer for
the capture of minute flying prey. This is an interesting suggestion,
and may even be sober fact; but its adoption would necessitate the bird
flying open-mouthed among the oaks and other trees beneath which it
finds the yellow underwings and cockchafers on which it feeds, and I
have more than once watched it hunting its victims with the beak closed.
I noticed this particularly when camping in the backwoods of Eastern
Canada where the bird goes by the name of nighthawk.

In all probability its food consists exclusively of insects, though
exceptional cases have been noted in which the young birds had evidently
been fed on seeds. The popular error which charges it with stealing the
milk of ewes and goats, from which it derives the undeserved name of
"goat-sucker," with its equivalent in several Continental languages, is
another result of the imperfect light in which it is commonly observed.
Needless to say, there is no truth whatever in the accusation, for the
nightjar would find no more pleasure in drinking milk than we should in
eating moths.

Here, then, are two night-voices of very different calibre. These are
not our only birds that break the silence on moonlight nights in June.
The common thrush often sings far into the night, and the sedge-warbler
is a persistent caroller that has often been mistaken for the
nightingale. The difference in this respect between the two subjects of
these remarks is that the nightjar is invariably silent all through the
day, whereas the nightingale sings joyously at all hours. It is only
because his splendid music is more marked in the comparative silence of
the night, with little or no competition, that his daylight concert is
often overlooked.



JULY

SWIFTS, SWALLOWS AND MARTINS



SWIFTS, SWALLOWS AND MARTINS


When the trout-fisherman sees the first martins and swallows dipping
over the sward of the water-meadows and skimming the surface of the
stream in hot pursuit of such harried water-insects as have escaped the
jaws of greedy fish, he knows that summer is coming in. The signs of
spring have been evident in the budding hedgerows for some weeks. The
rooks are cawing in the elms, the cuckoo's note has been heard in the
spinney for some time before these little visitors pass in jerky flight
up and down the valley. Then, a little later, come the swifts--the black
and screaming swifts--which, though learned folk may be right in
sundering them utterly from their smaller travelling companions from the
sunny south, will always in the popular fancy be associated with the
rest. Colonies of swifts, swallows, and martins are a dominant feature
of English village life during the warm months; and though there are
fastidious folk who take not wholly culpable exception to their little
visitors on the score of cleanliness, most of us welcome them back each
year, if only for the sake of the glad season of their stay. If,
moreover, it is a question of choice between these untiring travellers
resting in our eaves and the stay-at-home starling or sparrow, the
choice will surely fall on the first every time.

The swift is the largest and most rapid in its flight, and its voice has
a penetrating quality lacking in the notes of the rest. Swifts screaming
in headlong flight about a belfry or up and down a country lane are the
embodiment of that sheer joy of life which, in some cases with slender
reason, we associate peculiarly with the bird-world. Probably, however,
these summer migrants are as happy as most of their class. On the wing
they can have few natural enemies, though one may now and again be
struck down by a hawk; and they alight on the ground so rarely as to run
little risk from cats or weasels, while the structure and position of
their nests alike afford effectual protection for the eggs and young.
Compared with that of the majority of small birds, therefore, their
existence should be singularly happy and free from care; and though
that of the swift can scarcely, perhaps, when we remember its shrill
voice, be described as one grand sweet song, it should not be chequered
by many troubles. The greatest risk is no doubt that of being snapped up
by some watchful pike if the bird skims too close to the surface of
either still or running water, and I have even heard of their being
seized in this way by hungry mahseer, those great barbel which gladden
the heart of exiled anglers whose lot is cast on the banks of Himalayan
rivers.

It is, however, the sparrows and starlings, rivals for the nesting
sites, who show themselves the irreconcilable enemies of the returned
prodigals. Terrific battles are continually enacted between them with
varying fortunes, and the anecdotes of these frays would fill a volume.
Jesse tells of a feud at Hampton Court, in the course of which the
swallows, having only then completed their nest, were evicted by
sparrows, who forthwith took possession and hatched out their eggs. Then
came Nemesis, for the sparrows were compelled to go foraging for food
with which to fill the greedy beaks, and during their enforced absence
the swallows returned in force, threw the nestlings out, and demolished
the home. The sparrows sought other quarters, and the swallows
triumphantly built a new nest on the ruins of the old. A German writer
relates a case of revolting reprisal on the part of some swallows
against a sparrow that appropriated their nest and refused to quit.
After repeated failure to evict the intruder, the swallows, helped by
other members of the colony, calmly plastered up the front door so
effectually that the unfortunate sparrow was walled up alive and died of
hunger. This refined mode of torture is not unknown in the history of
mankind, but seems singularly unsuited to creatures so fragile.

The nests of these birds show, as a rule, little departure from the
conventional plan, but they do adapt their architecture to
circumstances, and I remember being much struck on one occasion by the
absence of any dome or roof. It was in Asia Minor, on the seashore, that
I came upon a cottage long deserted, its door hanging by one hinge, and
all the glass gone from the windows. In the empty rooms numerous
swallows were rearing twittering broods in roofless nests. No doubt the
birds realised that they had nothing to fear from rain, and were
reluctant to waste time and labour in covering their homes with
unnecessary roofs.

Most birds are careful in the education of their young, and indeed
thorough training at an early stage must be essential in the case of
creatures that are left to protect themselves and to find their own food
when only a few weeks old. Fortunately they develop with a rapidity that
puts man and other mammals to shame, and the helpless bald little swift
lying agape in the nest will in another fortnight be able to fly across
Europe. One of the most favoured observers of the early teaching given
by the mother-swallow to her brood was an angler who told me how, one
evening when he was fishing in some ponds at no great distance from
London, a number of baby swallows alighted on his rod. He kept as still
as possible, fearful of alarming his interesting visitors, but he must
at last have moved, for, with one accord, they all fell off his rod
together, skimmed over the surface of the water and disappeared in the
direction from which they had come a few moments earlier.

Swifts fly to an immense height these July evenings, mounting to such an
altitude as eventually to disappear out of sight altogether. This
curious habit, which is but imperfectly understood, has led to the
belief that, instead of roosting in the nest or among the reeds like the
swallows, the males, at any rate, spend the night flying about under the
stars. This fantastic notion is not, however, likely to commend itself
to those who pause to reflect on the incessant activity displayed by
these birds the livelong day. So rarely indeed do they alight that
country folk gravely deny them the possession of feet, and it is in the
last degree improbable that a bird of such feverish alertness could
dispense with its night's rest. No one who has watched swifts, swallows
and martins on the wing can fail to be struck by the extraordinary
judgment with which these untiring birds seem to shave the arches of
bridges, gateposts, and other obstacles in the way of their flight by so
narrow a margin as continually to give the impression of catastrophe
imminent and inevitable. Their escapes from collision are marvellous;
but the birds are not infallible, as is shown by the untoward fate of a
swallow in Sussex. In an old garden in that county there had for many
years been an open doorway with no door, and through the open space the
swallows had been wont, year after year, to fly to and fro on their
hunting trips. Then came a fateful winter during which a new owner took
it into his head to put up a fresh gate and to keep it locked, and, as
ill luck would have it, he painted it blue, which, in the season of fine
weather, probably heightened the illusion. Back came the happy swallows
to their old playground, and one of the pioneers flew headlong at the
closed gate and fell stunned and dying on the ground, a minor tragedy
that may possibly come as a surprise to those who regard the instincts
of wild birds as unerring.

That the young swallows leave our shores before their elders--late in
August or early in September--is an established fact, and the instinct
which guides them aright over land and sea, without assistance from
those more experienced, is nothing short of amazing. The swifts, last
to come, are also first to go, spending less time in the land of their
birth than either swallows or martins. The fact that an occasional
swallow has been seen in this country during the winter months finds
expression in the adage that "one swallow does not make a summer," and
it was no doubt this occasional apparition that in a less enlightened
age seemed to warrant the extraordinary belief, which still ekes out a
precarious existence in misinformed circles, that these birds, instead
of wintering abroad, retire in a torpid condition to the bottom of lakes
and ponds. It cannot be denied that these waters have occasionally, when
dredged or drained, yielded a stray skeleton of a swallow, but it should
be evident to the most homely intelligence that such débris merely
indicates careless individuals that, in passing over the water, got
their plumage waterlogged and were then drowned. It seems strange that
Gilbert White, so accurate an observer of birds, should actually have
toyed with this curious belief, though he leant rather to the more
reasonable version of occasional hybernation in caves or other
sheltered hiding-places. The rustic mind, however, preferred, and in
some unsophisticated districts still prefers, the ancient belief in
diving swallows, and no weight of evidence, however carefully presented,
would shake it in its creed. Fortunately this eccentric view of the
swallow's habits brings no harm to the bird itself, and may thus be
tolerated as an innocuous indulgence on the part of those who prefer
this fiction to the even stranger truth.



AUGUST

THE SEAGULL



THE SEAGULL


So glorious is the flight of the seagull that it tempts us to fling
aside the dry-as-dust theories of mechanism of flexed wings, coefficient
of air resistance, and all the abracadabra of the mathematical
biologist, and just to give thanks for a sight so inspiring as that of
gulls ringing high in the eye of the wind over hissing combers that
break on sloping beaches or around jagged rocks. These birds are one
with the sea, knowing no fear of that protean monster which, since
earth's beginning, has always, with its unfathomable mystery, its
insatiable cruelty, its tremendous strength, been a source of terror to
the land animals that dwell in sight of it. Yet the gulls sit on the
curling rollers as much at their ease as swimmers in a pond, and give an
impression of unconscious courage very remarkable in creatures that seem
so frail. Hunger may drive them inland, or instincts equally
irresistible at the breeding season, but never the worst gale that
lashes the sea to fury, for they dread it in its hour of rage as little
as on still summer nights when, in their hundreds, they fly off the land
to roost on the water outside the headlands.

It is curious that there should be no mention of them in the sacred
writings. We read of quails coming in from the sea, likewise of "four
great beasts," but of seafowl never a word, though one sees them in
abundance on the coast near Jaffa, and the Hebrew writers might have
been expected to weave them into the rich fabrics of their poetic
imagery as they did the pelican, the eagle and other birds less
familiar. Although seagulls have of late years been increasingly in
evidence beside the bridges of London, they are still, to the majority
of folk living far inland, symbolical of the August holiday at the
coast, and their splendid flight and raucous cries are among the most
enduring memories of that yearly escape from the smoke of cities.

The voice of gulls can with difficulty be regarded as musical, yet those
of us who live the year round by the sea find their plaintive mewing as
nicely tuned to that wild environment as the amorous gurgling of
nightingales to moonlit woods in May. Their voice may have no great
range, but at any rate it is not lacking in variety, suggesting to the
playful imagination laughter, tears, and other human moods to which they
are in all probability strangers. The curious similarity between the
note of a seagull and the whining of a cat bereft of her kittens is very
striking, and was on one occasion the cause of my being taken in by one
of these birds in a deep and beautiful backwater of the Sea of Marmora,
beside which I spent one pleasant summer. In this particular gulf, at
the head of which stands the ancient town of Ismidt, gulls, though
plentiful in the open sea, are rarely in evidence, being replaced by
herons and pelicans. I had not therefore set eyes on a seagull for many
weeks, when early one morning I heard, from the farther side of a wooded
headland, a new note suggestive of a wild cat or possibly a lynx. My
Greek servant tried in his patois to explain the unseen owner of the
mysterious voice, but it was only when a small gull suddenly came
paddling round the corner that I realised my mistake.

In addition to being at home on the seashore, and particularly in
estuaries and where the coast is rocky, gulls are a familiar sight in
the wake of steamers at the beginning and ending of the voyage, as well
as following the plough and nesting in the vicinity of inland meres and
marshes. The black-headed kind is peculiarly given to bringing up its
family far from the sea, just as the salmon ascends our rivers for the
same purpose. It is not perhaps a very loving parent, seeing that the
mortality among young gulls, many of which show signs of rough treatment
by their elders, is unusually great. On most lakes rich in fish these
birds have long established themselves, and they were, I remember, as
familiar at Geneva and Neuchâtel as along the shores of Lake Tahoe in
the Californian Sierras, itself two hundred miles from the Pacific and
more than a mile above sea-level. Gulls also follow the plough in
hordes, not always to the complete satisfaction of the farmer, who is,
not unreasonably, sceptical when told that they seek wireworms only and
have no taste for grain. Unfortunately the ordinary scarecrow has no
terror for them, and I recollect, in the neighbourhood of Maryport,
seeing an immense number of gulls turning up the soil in close proximity
to several crows that, dangling from gibbets, effectually kept all black
marauders away.

Young gulls are, to the careless eye, apt to look larger than their
parents, an illusion possibly due to the optical effect of their dappled
plumage, and few people unfamiliar with these birds in their succeeding
moults readily believe that the dark birds are younger than the white.
Down in little Cornish harbours I have sometimes watched these young
birds turned to good account by their lazy elders, who call them to the
feast whenever the ebbing tide uncovers a heap of dead pilchards lying
in three or four feet of water, and then pounce on them the moment they
come to the surface with their booty. The fact is that gulls are not
expert divers. The cormorant and puffin and guillemot can vanish at the
flash of a gun, reappearing far from where they were last seen, and can
pursue and catch some of the swiftest fishes under water. Some gulls,
however, are able to plunge farther below the surface than others, and
the little kittiwake is perhaps the most expert diver of them all,
though in no sense at home under water like the shag. I have often, when
at anchor ten or fifteen miles from the land, and attended by the usual
convoy of seabirds that invariably gather round fishing-boats, amused
myself by throwing scraps of fish to them and watching the gulls do
their best to plunge below the surface when some coveted morsel was
going down into the depths, and now and again a little Roman-nose puffin
would dive headlong and snatch the prize from under the gulls' eyes.
Most of the birds were fearless enough; only an occasional
"saddleback"--the greater black-backed gull of the text-books--knowing
the hand of man to be against it for its raids on game and poultry,
would keep at a respectful distance.

Considered economically, the smaller gulls at any rate have more friends
than enemies, and they owe most of the latter not so much to their
appetites, which set more store by offal and carrion than by anything of
greater value, as to their exceedingly dirty habits. These unclean fowl
are in fact anything but welcome in harbours given over in summer to
smart yachting craft; and I remember how at Avalon, the port of Santa
Catalina Island (Cal.), various devices were employed to prevent them
alighting. Boats at their moorings were festooned with strips of
bunting, which apparently had the requisite effect, and the railings of
the club were protected by a formidable armour of nails. On the credit
side of their account with ourselves, seagulls are admittedly assiduous
scavengers, and their services in keeping little tidal harbours clear of
decaying fish which, if left to accumulate, would speedily breed a
pestilence, cannot well be overrated. The fishermen, though they rarely
molest them, do not always refer to the birds with the gratitude that
might be expected, yet they are still further in their debt, being often
apprised by their movement of the whereabouts of mackerel and pilchard
shoals, and, in thick weather, getting many a friendly warning of the
whereabouts of outlying rocks from the hoarse cries of the gulls that
have their haunts on these menaces to inshore navigation.

Seagulls are not commonly made pets of, the nearest approach to such
adoption being an occasional pinioned individual enjoying qualified
liberty in a backyard. Their want of popularity is easily understood,
since they lack the music of the canary and the mimicry of parrots. That
they are, however, capable of appreciating kindness has been
demonstrated by many anecdotes. The Rev. H. A. Macpherson used to tell a
story of how a young gull, found with a broken wing by the children of
some Milovaig crofters, was nursed back to health by them until it
eventually flew away. Not long after it had gone, one of the children
was lost on the hillside, and the gull, flying overhead, recognised one
of its old playmates and hovered so as to attract the attention of the
child. Then, on being called, the bird settled and roosted on the ground
beside him. An even more remarkable story is told of a gull taken from
the nest, on the coast of county Cork, and brought up by hand until, in
the following spring, it flew away in the company of some others of its
kind that passed over the garden in which it had its liberty. The bird's
owner reasonably concluded that he had seen the last of his protégée,
and great was his astonishment when, in the first October gale, not
only did the visitor return, tapping at the dining-room window for
admission, as it had always done, but actually brought with it a young
gull, and the two paid him a visit every autumn for a number of years.

On either side of the gulls, and closely associated with them in habits
and in structure, is a group of birds equally characteristic of the open
coast, the skuas and terns. The skuas, darker and more courageous birds,
are familiar to those who spend their August holiday sea-fishing near
the Land's End, where, particularly on days when the east wind brings
the gannets and porpoises close inshore, the great skua may be seen at
its favourite game of swooping on the gulls and making them disgorge or
drop their launce or pilchard, which the bird usually retrieves before
it reaches the water. This act of piracy has earned for the skua its
West Country sobriquet of "Jack Harry," and against so fierce an
onslaught even the largest gull, though actually of heavier build than
its tyrant, has no chance and seldom indeed seems to offer the feeblest
resistance. These skuas rob their neighbours in every latitude; and
even in the Antarctic one kind, closely related to our own, makes havoc
among the penguins, an episode described by the late Dr. Wilson, one of
the heroes of the ill-fated Scott expedition.

Far more pleasing to the eye are the graceful little terns, or
"sea-swallows," fairylike creatures with red legs and bill, long pointed
wings and deeply forked tail, which skim the surface of the sea or hawk
over the shallows of trout streams in search of dragonflies or small
fish. It is not a very rare experience for the trout-fisherman to hook a
swallow which may happen to dash by at the moment of casting; but a much
more unusual occurrence was that of a tern, on a well-known pool of the
Spey, actually mistaking a salmon-fly for a small fish and swooping on
it, only to get firmly hooked by the bill. Fortunately for the too
venturesome tern the fisherman was a lover of birds, and he managed with
some difficulty to reel it in gently, after which it was released none
the worse for its mistake.



SEPTEMBER

BIRDS IN THE CORN



BIRDS IN THE CORN


More than one of our summer visitors, like the nightingale and cuckoo,
are less often seen than heard, but certainly the most secretive hider
of them all is the landrail. This harsh-voiced bird reaches our shores
in May, and it was on the last of that month that I lately heard its
rasping note in a quiet park not a mile out of a busy market town on the
Welsh border, and forgave its monotone because, more emphatically than
even the cuckoo's dissyllable, it announced that, at last, "summer was
icumen in." This feeble-looking but indomitable traveller is closely
associated during its visit with the resident partridge. They nest in
the same situations, hiding in the fields of grass and standing corn,
and eventually being flushed in company by September guns walking
abreast through the clover-bud. Sport is not the theme of these notes,
and it will therefore suffice to remark in passing on the curious manner
in which even good shots, accustomed to bring down partridges with some
approach to certainty, contrive to miss these lazy, flapping fowl when
walking them up. Dispassionately considered, the landrail should be a
bird that a man could scarcely miss on the first occasion of his
handling a gun; in cold fact, it often survives two barrels apparently
untouched. This immunity it owes in all probability to its slow and
heavy flight, since those whose eyes are accustomed to the rapid
movement of partridges are apt to misjudge the allowance necessary for
such a laggard and to fire in front of it. It is difficult to realise
that, whereas the strong-winged partridge is a stay-at-home, the
deliberate landrail has come to us from Africa and will, if spared by
the guns, return there.

Perhaps the most curious and interesting habit recorded of the landrail
is that of feigning death when suddenly discovered, a method of
self-defence which it shares with opossums, spiders, and in fact other
animals of almost every class. It will, if suddenly surprised by a dog,
lie perfectly still and betray no sign of life. There is, however, at
least one authentic case of a landrail actually dying of fright when
suddenly seized, and it is a disputed point whether the so-called
pretence of death should not rather be regarded as a state of trance.
Strict regard for the truth compels the admission that on the only
occasion on which I remember taking hold of a live corncrake the bird,
so far from pretending to be dead, pecked my wrist heartily.

Just as the countryfolk regard the wryneck as leader of the wandering
cuckoos, and the short-eared owl as forerunner of the woodcocks, so the
ancients held that the landrail performed the same service of pioneer to
the quail on its long journeys over land and sea. Save in exceptional
years, England is not visited by quail in sufficient numbers to lend
interest to this aspect of a bird attractive on other grounds, but the
coincidence of their arrival with us is well established.

The voice of the corncrake, easily distinguished from that of any other
bird of our fields, may be approximately reproduced by using a blunt saw
against the grain on hard wood. So loud is it at times that I have heard
it from the open window of an express train, the noise of which drowned
all other birdsong, and it seems remarkable that such a volume of sound
should come from a throat so slender. Yet the rasping note is welcome
during the early days of its arrival, since, just as the cuckoo gave
earlier message of spring, so the corncrake, in sadder vein, heralds the
ripeness of our briefer summer.

The East Anglian name "dakker-hen" comes from an old word descriptive of
the bird's halting flight; and indeed to see a landrail drop, as already
mentioned, after flying a few yards, makes one incredulous when tracing
its long voyages on the map. In the first place, however, it should be
remembered that the bird does not drop back in the grass because it is
tired, but solely because it knows the way to safety by running out of
sight. In the second, the apparent weakness of its wings is not real.
Quails have little round wings that look ill adapted to long journeys. I
have been struck by this times and again when shooting quail in Egypt
and Morocco, yet of the quail's fitness for travel there has never,
since Bible days, been any question.

The landrail is an excellent table bird. Personally I prefer it to the
partridge, but this is perhaps praising it too highly. Legally of
course it is "game," as a game licence must be held by anyone who shoots
it; and, though protected in this country only under the Wild Birds Act,
Irish law extends this by a month, so that it may not be shot in that
country after the last day of January. Like most migratory birds, its
numbers vary locally in different seasons, and its scarcity in
Hampshire, to which White makes reference, has by no means been
maintained of recent years, as large bags have been recorded in every
part of that county.

The common partridge is--at any rate for the naturalist--a less
interesting subject than its red-legged cousin, which seems to have been
first introduced from France (or possibly from the island of Guernsey,
where it no longer exists) in the reign of Charles II. That this early
experiment was not, however, attended by far-reaching results seems
probable, since early in the reign of George III we find the Marquis of
Hertford and other well-known sporting landowners making fresh attempts,
the stock of "Frenchmen" being renewed from time to time during the
next fifty years, chiefly on the east side of England, where they have
always been more in evidence than farther west. In Devon and Cornwall,
indeed, the bird is very rare, and in Ireland almost unknown.

Its red legs stand it in good stead, for it can run like a hare, and in
this way it often baffles the guns. It is not, however, so much its
reluctance to rise that has brought it into disrepute with keepers as
its alleged habit of ousting the native bird, in much the same way as
the "Hanover" rat has superseded the black aboriginal, although far from
the "Frenchman" driving the English partridge off the soil, there
appears to be even no truth in the supposed hostility between the two,
since they do not commonly affect the same type of country; and even
when they meet they nest in close proximity and in comparative harmony.
Nevertheless the males, even of the same species, are apt to be
pugnacious in the breeding season.

Both the partridge and landrail run serious risk from scythe and plough
while sitting on the nest. Landrails have before now been decapitated by
the swing of the scythe, and a case is on record in which a sitting
partridge, seeing that the plough was coming dangerously near her nest,
actually removed the whole clutch of eggs, numbering over a score, to
the shelter of a neighbouring hedge. This was accomplished, probably
with the help of the male, during the short time it took the plough to
get to the end of the field and back, and is a remarkable illustration
of devotion and ingenuity. Not for nothing indeed is the partridge a
game bird, for it has been seen to attack cats, and even foxes, in
defence of the covey; and I have seen, in the MS. notes of the second
Earl of Malmesbury, preserved in the library at Heron Court, mention of
one that drove off a carrion crow that menaced the family. Both
partridge and landrail sit very close, particularly when the time of
hatching is near, and Charles St. John saw a partridge, which his dog,
having taken off the nest, was forced to drop, none the worse for her
adventure, go straight back to her duties; though, as he adds, if it had
not been that she knew that the eggs were already chipping she would in
all probability have deserted her post for good and all.

Whether or not France is to be regarded as the original home of the "red
leg," the fact remains that in that country it is becoming scarcer every
year, its numbers being maintained only in Brittany, Calvados, Orne, and
Sarthe. Its distribution in Italy is equally capricious, for it is
virtually restricted to the rocky slopes of the Apennines, the
Volterrano Hills in Tuscany, and the coast ranges of Elba. It seems
therefore that in Continental countries, as well as with us, the bird
extends its range reluctantly. Game-preservers seem, however, to agree
that partridges and pheasants are, beyond a certain point, incompatible
as, with a limited supply of natural food, the smaller bird goes to the
wall. Like most birds, partridges grow bold when pressed by cold and
hunger, and I recollect hearing of a large covey being encountered ten
or twelve years ago in an open space in the heart of the city of
Frankfort.



OCTOBER

THE MOPING OWL



THE MOPING OWL


Music, vocal or otherwise, is always a matter of taste, and individual
appreciation of birdsong varies like the rest. One man finds the
cuckoo's cry intolerably wearisome. Another sees no romance in the
gargling of doves, while comparatively few care for the piercing scream
of the starling or the rasping note of the corncrake. Yet few birds
perform to a more hostile audience than the owl. I say advisedly "the
owl," since the vast majority of people make no distinction whatever
between our three resident kinds of owl, not to mention at least half a
dozen more visitors. Some excuse for such carelessness might perhaps be
found in the similar flight and habits of different owls, but it might
have been thought that greater measure of individual recognition on
their own merits would have been conceded to birds that range in size
from the dimensions of a sparrow to those of a duck. But no; an owl is
just an owl. Why the soft and haunting cry of these birds should not
merely displease, but actually alarm, so many people unaccustomed to
such sounds of the gloaming and darkness it would be difficult to say;
but the voice of owls may possibly owe some of its disturbing effect to
contrast with their silent flight, which, thanks to their fluffy
plumage, with its broad quills and long barbs, prevents their making
much more noise than ghosts when hunting rats and mice in moonlit
fields. Only one other English bird has so quiet a flight, and that is
the nightjar, another creature of the darkness, which, though no cousin
to these nocturnal birds of prey, is known in some parts of the country
as the "fern-owl." Visitors unprepared for the eerie woodland music of
these autumn nights shudder when they hear the cry of the owl, as if it
suggested midnight crime. For myself I have more agreeable associations,
since I never hear one of these birds without recalling a gallant fight
I once had with a big Tweed salmon in the weak light of a young moon,
while three owls hooted amid the ghostly ruins of Norham Castle. Yet,
even apart from this wholly agreeable memory, I find nothing unpleasant
in their music, and can readily conceive that the moping owl may sing to
his mate as passionately as Philomel.

Not only is there the popular lack of distinction between one owl and
another already referred to, but scientific ornithologists have
displayed similar want of finality in classifying these birds. There are
(as in seals) eared and earless owls, though the so-called "ears" in the
birds are not actually ears at all, but tufts of feathers that give
rather the impression of horns. There are bare-legged owls and owls with
feather stockings. There are owls that fly by day and owls that fly by
night, though this is a less satisfactory distinction than that between
the diurnal butterflies and nocturnal moths. Any reliable classification
of owls must, in short, rest on certain structural bony differences of
interest only to the student of anatomy. Nearly all these birds are able
to turn the outer toe completely round, and most of them, also, have
very keen hearing, which must be an invaluable aid when hunting small
animals in the dark.

Did the ancients actually regard the owl as a wise bird, or was the
fashion of depicting it in the following of Minerva merely dictated by
the presence of these birds on the Akropolis? It seems hardly
conceivable that they could so have blundered as to call the owls that
we know clever birds; and the alternative assumption that owlish
intellect can have appreciably changed in the interval is even less
acceptable. It is probable that too much significance need not be
attached to such association between the Greek goddess of wisdom and her
attendant owls, for Hindu symbolism represented Ganesa, god of wisdom,
with the head of an elephant, yet that animal, which the natives of
India know better than the men of any other race, has never figured in
their folklore as a type noted for its cunning. About the owl as we know
it to-day, with its spectacled face and blinking eyes, there is nothing
strikingly intelligent, and schoolboy slang, in which the word does duty
as synonymous with foolishness, discovers a more accurate appreciation
of these birds.

Seen at its worst, when surprised in the glare of daylight and mobbed by
a furious rabble of little birds, an owl looks a helpless fool indeed,
though this is not the proper moment to judge of the bird's
possibilities under happier circumstances. Why these small fowl should
bully it at all is one of those woodland problems that no one has yet
solved. The first, and obvious, explanation is that they know it for
their enemy, and it may be indeed that owls commit depredations on the
nests of wild birds of which we, who academically regard their food as
consisting of rats, bats and mice--or, in the case of larger species, of
young game and leverets--have no inkling. If however such is the case,
it is strange that the habit should have been overlooked by those who
have paid close attention to this curious and interesting group.
Bird-catchers, at any rate, without troubling to inquire into the
reason, turn the instinct to profitable account, and in some parts of
the country a stuffed owl is an important item of their stock-in-trade.

The majority of owls that either reside in or visit these islands are
benefactors of the farmer, and should be spared. The larger eagle-owl,
and snowy owl eat more expensive food, though, seeing that they come to
us--at any rate in the south country--only in winter, and even then
irregularly, they can do no damage to young game birds, and are probably
incapable of capturing old. The worst offender among the residents is
the tawny owl, to which I find the following reference in the famous
Malmesbury MSS.: "Common here ... a great destroyer of young game and
leverets ... they sit in ivy bushes during the day, and I have known one
remain, altho' its mate was killed, in the same tree, in such a state of
torpor did it appear to be...." The screech owl is a harmless bird and a
terror to mice, and any doubt as to its claim on the farmer's
hospitality would at once be removed by cursory examination of the
undigested pellets which, in common with hawks, these birds cast up
after their meals.

On the other hand, there is sometimes good reason for modifying any plea
for kindness to owls. Handsome is as handsome does, and many of these
birds are, during the nesting season, not only savage in defence of
their young, but actually so aggressive as to make unprovoked attack on
all and sundry who unwittingly approach closer to the tree than these
devoted householders think desirable. Accounts of this troublesome mood
in nesting owls come from several parts of the country, and notably from
Wales. In one case on record a pair of barn owls had their home in a
tree overlooking Milford Haven, and the vicinity of the nest soon became
dangerous. The male owl tore a boy's ear, knocked a man down, and
attacked numerous human beings and dogs that made use of a path leading
past the tree; and these episodes were in fact of daily occurrence until
some one shot the bird. Another pair of barn owls nested in a wood on
the shore of Menai Strait, and in this case the young birds managed to
fall out of the nest, and lay on the ground in full view of a public
right of way. Why the old birds did not put their offspring back in the
nest no one knew. Possibly they realised that the talons, which so
efficiently gripped rats, might not prove gentle enough for the
transport of owlets. At any rate, whatever their reason, they left the
young birds on the ground, feeding them in that position, and flew at
everyone who passed that way, clawing face and ears, and eventually
establishing a reign of terror. Another owl behaved in somewhat similar
fashion in a spinney close to Axmouth, South Devon, punishing a
coastguard so severely that the man took to his heels. Such determined
tactics in defence of the young are the more singular when we remember
that owls are, in normal circumstances, shy and retiring birds. Yet they
occasionally seem to be possessed by more sociable instincts, in proof
of which one of the long-eared kind has been seen feeding in the company
of tame hawks; a pair of owls once nested in a dovecote close to a
keeper's lodge in the Highlands; and wild owls have been known to pay
nightly visits to a cage in the Botanic Gardens at Launceston
(Tasmania), in order to bring food to their captive friends.

Even apart from these rigorous measures of defence, the nesting habits
of owls are not without interest. The majority lay their eggs in either
hollow trees or ruins, and it is worth remark that these nocturnal
birds bring up their young in darkness, whereas the hawks--birds of
daylight--rear theirs in open nests, high up in trees or on rocky
ledges, in the full glare of the sun. One owl indeed habitually burrows
in the prairies and pampas, in the curious company of marmots and
rattlesnakes, and this burrowing habit is also, in some parts of the
United States, adopted by the common barn owl. Owls generally brood from
the laying of the first egg, with the obvious result that young birds in
various stages of plumage are found together in the nest. It has been
suggested that the body of the first to leave the egg helps to keep the
unhatched eggs warm while the parents are away foraging, else its
presence would be a serious handicap. The first little owl to hatch out
is usually ready to leave the nest soon after the arrival of the last,
though these chicks come into the world more helpless even than the
majority of birds.



NOVEMBER

WATERFOWL



WATERFOWL


Had these notes been written from the standpoint of sport, the three
familiar groups of birds, which together make up this world-wide aquatic
family, might better have borne their alternative title "wildfowl" with
its covert sneer at the hand-reared pheasant and artificially encouraged
partridge that, between them, furnish so much comfortable sport to those
with no fancy for the arduous business of the mudflats. It is true that,
of late years, the mallard has, in experienced hands, made a welcome
addition to the bag in covert shooting, as those will remember who have
shot the Lockwood Beat on the last day of the shoot at Nuneham; and
there is historic evidence of "wild" duck having been reared for
purposes of sport with hawks in the reign of Charles I. Yet such
armchair shooting of wildfowl was ignored by Colonel Hawker and the
second Earl of Malmesbury, both of whom, gunning in the creeks and
estuaries of the south coast, made immense bags of ducks and geese,
working hard for every bird and displaying Spartan indifference to the
rigours of wintry weather. To hardy sportsmen of their type, wildfowl
offer red-letter days with punt or shoulder guns, not to be dreamt of
under the ægis of the gamekeeper.

In this country, at any rate, we associate the V-shaped companies of
wigeon and gaggles of geese with an ice-bound landscape, though in
exceptional years, even where they no longer stay to breed, these
night-flying northerners linger to the coming of spring, and Hawker
noticed the curious apparition of grey geese and swallows in company on
the first day of April, 1839. This wedge formation of flight over land
and sea is not only peculiar to these waterfowl, but is not apparently
adopted by any other long distance migrants. No satisfactory explanation
of their preference for flying in this order has been found, but it is
thought to lessen the air resistance, which must be a consideration for
these short-pinioned fowl that weigh heavy in proportion to their
displacement and at the same time lack the tremendous spread of wing
that enables the wandering albatross to soar for days together over the
illimitable ocean. With one noticeable exception, these waterfowl
exhibit a more extraordinary range of size and weight than any other
family of birds, from the whooper swan, five feet long and twenty-five
pounds on the scales, down to the little teal, with an overall
measurement of only fourteen inches and a weight that does not exceed as
many ounces. The only other family of birds running to such extremes is
that of the birds of prey, which include at once the stately condor of
the Andes with its wing-spread of fifteen feet, and the miniature
red-legged falconet of India and adjoining countries, in which the same
measurement would scarcely reach as many inches.

Since even game birds are derisively referred to as "tame" only by those
ignorant of the facts, the birds now under notice differ in this respect
from all those previously dealt with; and they are geographically apart,
again, from our other domesticated animals, since they are not, like the
barndoor fowl and most of the rest, of Asiatic origin, but must often,
in the grey of a winter morning, be conscious of their near relations
flying at liberty across the sky. The geese and ducks have been
remarkably transformed by the process of domestication, and a comparison
between those of the farmyard and their kindred in the marshes should
illustrate not only the relative value of most virtues, but also the
all-importance of Aristotle's how, when and where. Strictly speaking, no
doubt, the tame birds have degenerated, both mentally and physically, as
surely as the tame ass. They have lost the acute perceptions and swift
flight of their wild relations. Economically, on the other hand, they
are immeasurably improved, since the farmer, indifferent to the more
inspiring personality of the grey goose and the mallard, merely wants
his poultry to be greedy and stupid, fattening themselves incessantly
for Leadenhall and easily captured when required.

Between swans, geese and ducks there is little anatomical difference,
save in the matter of size. The swans are the giants of the race, and
the swans of three continents are white. It was left for Australia, land
of topsy-turveydom, to produce a black swan (I spare the reader the
obvious classical tag), and this remarkable bird, first observed by
Europeans in the early days of 1697, was quickly brought to Europe and
figures in the earliest list of animals shown in the London Zoological
Gardens. All these birds have a curious trick of hissing when angry, and
this habit, perhaps because it is usually accompanied by a deliberate
stretching of the neck to its full length, is seriously regarded by some
as conscious mimicry of snakes, a proposition that must be left to
individual taste, but that strikes me as somewhat far-fetched. At any
rate, it gives to these birds a formidable air, and, though the current
belief in its power of breaking a man's arm with a blow from its wing is
probably unwarranted, an angry swan, disturbed on its nest, is an
awesome apparition of which I have twice taken hurried leave. On the
first occasion, I had nothing but a valuable camera with me, and it was,
in fact, after a futile attempt to photograph the bird on the nest that
I was moved to seek the boat and push off from the little island in the
Upper Thames on which it had its home. The other encounter was on a
Devonshire trout stream, and my only weapon was a fragile trout rod. The
certainty that discretion is, under these circumstances, the better part
of valour is emphasised by the knowledge that any violence to the bird
would probably lead to a prosecution. Even the smaller geese can inspire
fear when they dash hissing at intruders; hence, no doubt, the
nursemaid's favourite reproach of children too frightened to "say bo to
a goose," an expression made classical by Swift.

The majority of these waterfowl are insectivorous in the nursery stage
and vegetarian when full grown. Fish forms an inappreciable portion of
their food, with the two notorious exceptions of the goosander and
merganser, though anglers are much exercised over the damage, real or
alleged, done by these birds to their favourite roach and dace in the
Thames. These swans belong for the most part to either the Crown or the
Dyers' and Vintners' Companies, and the practice of "uppings," which
consists in marking the beaks of adult birds and pinioning the cygnets,
is still, though shorn of some of its former ceremonial, observed some
time during the month of June.

Swans, like both of the other groups, are distinguished by a separate
name for either sex: pen and cob for the swan, gander and goose, drake
and duck, and the figurative use of some of these terms in such popular
sayings as "making ducks and drakes of money," "sauce for the goose,"
etc., is too familiar to call for more than passing mention.

Nearly all these waterfowl, though seen on dry land to much the same
disadvantage as fish out of water, are exceedingly graceful in either
air or water, though not all ducks are as capable of diving as the name
would imply. The proverbial futility of a wild goose chase recognises
the pace of these birds on the wing, which, though, in common with that
of some other birds, popularly exaggerated, is considerably faster than,
owing to their short wings and heavy build, might appear to the careless
observer.

Ducks have a curious habit of adding down to the nest after the eggs are
laid and before incubation, and this provision of warm packing is turned
to account in Iceland and other breeding places of the eider duck,
commercially the most valuable of all ducks. The nest is robbed of this
down once before the eggs hatch out, with the result that the female
plucks another store from her own breast, supplemented if necessary from
the body of the drake. The sitting bird is then left in peace till the
nest has fulfilled its purpose, when the remaining down is likewise
removed. This down, which combines warmth and lightness, gives a high
market value to the eider, which, throughout Scandinavian countries is
strictly protected by law and even more effectually by public opinion.

The majority of ornamental ducks interbreed freely in captivity. Those
who, apparently on reliable evidence, distinguish between the polygamous
habit in tame ducks and the constancy of the mallard and other wild
kinds to a single mate have hastily assumed that such hybrids are
unknown in the natural state. This, however, is incorrect, as there have
been authentic cases of crosses between mallard and teal, pochard and
scaup and other species, such hybrids having at different times been
erroneously accepted as distinct species and named accordingly.

The wild duck's nest is usually placed on the ground in some sheltered
spot close to still or running water, and the ducklings swim like corks,
soon learning the proper use of their flat little bills in gobbling up
floating insects and other waterlogged food. Occasionally ducks nest in
trees and they have been known to take possession of a deserted rook's
nest. There has been some discussion as to whether, in this case, the
mother conveys her ducklings to the water in her bill, but this has not
actually been witnessed. In cases where, as is often observed, the nest
overhangs the water, it has been suggested that the young birds may
simply be pushed over the edge and allowed to parachute down to the
surface, as they might easily do without risk.

Tame ducks are among the most sociable of birds and can even display
bravery when threatened by a common enemy. The naturalist Houssay once
learnt this as the result of a somewhat cruel experiment that he made in
order to ascertain whether ducks invariably, as alleged, fall upon a
wounded comrade and destroy it. Wishing to satisfy himself on the point,
Houssay, having come upon some ducks in a small pond, deliberately
pelted them with stones till he had wounded one of their number.
Instead, however, of behaving as he had been led to expect, the rest of
the ducks formed close order round the wounded bird and sheltered it
from further harm.

Few domestic animals--none, possibly, with the single exception of the
camel--are less suggestive of "pets" than such gross poultry, yet even a
gander, the most vicious tempered of them all, has been known to show
lasting gratitude for an act of kindness. The bird, which had long been
the terror of children in the little Devonshire village near which it
lived, managed one day to get wedged in a drain, and there it would
eventually have died unseen if a passing labourer had not seen its
plight and set it at liberty. Down to the day of its death the bird,
though nowise relinquishing its spiteful attitude towards others,
followed its rustic benefactor about the place like a dog.



DECEMBER

THE ROBIN REDBREAST



THE ROBIN REDBREAST


Of all the old proverbs that are open to argument, few offer more
material for criticism than that which has it that a good name is more
easily lost than won; and if ever a living creature served to illustrate
the converse to the proverbial dog with a bad name, that creature is the
companionable little bird that we peculiarly associate with Christmas.
Traditionally, the robin is a gentle little fellow of pious associations
and with a tender fancy for covering the unburied dead with leaves; but
in real life he is a little fire-eater, always ready to pick a quarrel
with his less pugnacious neighbours. Yet so persistently does his good
name cling, that, while ever ready to condemn the aggressive sparrow for
the same fault, all of us have a good word for the robin, and in few of
our wild birds are character and reputation so divergent.

Surely, however, the most interesting aspect of this familiar bird is
its tameness, not to say attachment to ourselves, and so marked is its
complete absence of fear that it is a wild bird in name only, and
indeed few cage birds are ever so bold as to perch on the gardener's
spade on the look-out for the worms as he turns them up from the damp
soil. The robin might, in fact, furnish the text of a lay-sermon on the
fruits of kindness to animals, and those dialectical people who ask
whether we are kind to the robin because it trusts us, or whether, on
the other hand, it trusts us because we are kind to it, ask a foolish
question that raises a wholly unnecessary confusion between cause and
effect. It is a question that those, at any rate, who have seen the bird
in countries where it is treated differently will have no difficulty
whatever in answering. Broadly speaking, the redbreast has the best time
of it in northern lands. This tolerance has not, as has been suggested,
any connection with Protestantism, for such a distinction would exclude
the greater part of Ireland, where, as it happens, the bird is as safe
from persecution as in Britain, since the superstitious peasants firmly
believe that anyone killing a "spiddog" will be punished by a lump
growing on the palm of his hand. The untoward fate of the robin in Latin
countries bordering the Mediterranean has nothing to do with religion,
but is merely the result of a pernicious habit of killing all manner of
small birds for the table. The sight of rows of dead robins laid out on
poulterers' stalls in the markets of Italy and southern France inspires
such righteous indignation in British tourists as to make them forget
for the moment that larks are exposed in the same way in Bond Street and
at Leadenhall. In Italy and Provence, taught by sad experience the robin
is as shy as any other small bird. It has learnt its lesson like the
robins in the north, but the lesson is different. The most friendly
robin I ever remember meeting with, out of England was in a garden
attached to a café in Trebizond, where, hopping round my chair and
picking up crumbs, it made me feel curiously at home. Similar treatment
of other wild birds would in time produce the same result, and even the
suspicious starling and stand-off rook might be taught to forget their
fear of us. The robin, feeding less on fruit and grain than on worms and
insects, has not made an enemy of the farmer or gardener. The common,
too common, sparrow, is another fearless neighbour, but its freedom
from persecution, of late somewhat threatened by Sparrow Clubs, is due
less to affection than to the futility of making any impression on such
hordes as infest our streets.

No act of the robin's more forcibly illustrates its trust in man than
the manner in which, at a season when all animals are abnormally shy and
suspicious, it makes its nest not only near our dwellings, but actually
in many cases under the same roof as ourselves. Letterboxes, flowerpots,
old boots, and bookshelves have all done duty, and I even remember a
pair of robins, many years ago in Kent, bringing up two broods in an old
rat trap which, fortunately too rusty to act, was still set and baited
with a withered piece of bacon. Pages might be filled with the mere
enumeration of curious and eccentric nesting sites chosen by this
fearless bird, but a single proof of its indifference to the presence of
man during the time of incubation may be cited from the MS. notebooks of
the second Earl of Malmesbury, which I have read in the library at Heron
Court. It seems that, while the east wing of that pleasant mansion was
being built, a pair of robins, having successfully brought up one family
in one of the unfinished rooms, actually reared a second brood in a hole
made for a scaffold-pole, though the sitting bird, being immediately
beneath a plank on which the plasterers stood at work, was repeatedly
splashed with mortar! The egg of the robin is subject to considerable
variety of type. I think it was the late Lord Lilford who, speaking on
the subject of a Bill for the protection of wild birds' eggs, then
before the House of Lords, gave it as his belief that no ornithologist
of repute would swear to the name of a single British bird's egg without
positively seeing one or other of the parent birds fly off the nest.
This was, perhaps, a little overstating the difficulty of evidence,
since any schoolboy with a fancy for birds-nesting might without
hesitation identify such pronounced types as those of the chaffinch,
with its purple blotches, the song-thrush with its black spots on a blue
ground, or the nightingale, which resembles a miniature olive. Eggs, on
the other hand, like those of the house sparrow, redshank and some of
the smaller warblers, are so easily confused with those of allied
species that Lord Lilford's caution is by no means superfluous.
Ordinarily speaking, the robin's egg is white, with red spots at one
end, but I remember taking at Bexley, nearly thirty years ago, an
immaculate one of coffee colour. As the robin is a favourite
foster-parent with cuckoos, my first thought was that this might be an
unusually small egg of the parasitic bird, which was very plentiful
thereabouts. It so happened, however, that three days after I had
abstracted the first and only egg I took from that nest, there was a
second of the same type; and, much as I would have liked this also for
my collection, I left it in the nest so as to set all doubts at rest. My
moderation was rewarded, for no one else found the nest, and in due
course the coffee-coloured egg produced a robin like the rest.

The robin is anything but a gregarious bird. Its fighting temper
doubtless leads it to keep its own company, and we rarely see more than
one singing on the same bush, or seeking for food on the same lawn. Yet,
though it is with us all the year, it is known to perform migrations
within these islands, and possibly also overseas, chiefly connected with
commissariat difficulties, and it is probable that on such occasions
many robins may travel in company, though I have not been so fortunate
as to come across them in their pilgrimage. Equally interesting,
however, is the habit which the bird has in Devonshire of occasionally
going down to the rocks on the seashore, as I have often noticed in the
neighbourhood of Teignmouth and Torquay. What manner of food the
redbreast may find in such surroundings is a mystery, but there it
certainly spends some of its time, bobbing at the edge of the rock pools
in much the same fashion as the dipper on inland waters.

Young robins are turned adrift at an early age to look after themselves,
a result of the parent bird always rearing two families in the year, and
in many cases even three, so that they have not too much time to devote
to the upbringing of each. Another consequence of this prolific habit is
that the robin has to make its nest earlier than most of our wild birds,
and its nest has, in fact, been found near Torquay during the first week
of January.

It has long been the pardonable fancy of Englishmen exiled to new homes
under the palms or pines, in the scorching tropical sun or in the biting
northern blast, to misname all manner of conspicuous birds after
well-remembered kinds left at home in the woods and fields of the old
country. As might be expected of a bird so characteristic of English
scenes, and so closely associated with the festival that always brings
nostalgia to the emigrant, the robin has its share of these namesakes,
and several of them bear little likeness to the original. In New South
Wales, I remember being shown a "robin" which, though perhaps a little
smaller, was not unlike our own bird, but the "robin" that was pointed
out to me in the States, from Maine to Carolina, was as big as a thrush.
Yet it had the red breast, by which, particularly conspicuous against a
background of snow, this popular little bird is always recognisable, the
male as well as the female. Indeed, to all outward appearance the sexes
are absolutely alike, a striking contrast to the cock and hen pheasant,
the first bird dealt with in these notes, as this is the last.





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