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Title: Birds in Town & Village
Author: Hudson, W. H. (William Henry), 1841-1922
Language: English
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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.

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This book is more than a mere reprint of _Birds in a Village_ first
published in 1893. That was my first book about bird life, with some
impressions of rural scenes, in England; and, as is often the case with
a first book, its author has continued to cherish a certain affection
for it. On this account it pleased me when its turn came to be reissued,
since this gave me the opportunity of mending some faults in the
portions retained and of throwing out a good deal of matter which
appeared to me not worth keeping.

The first portion, "Birds in a Village," has been mostly rewritten with
some fresh matter added, mainly later observations and incidents
introduced in illustration of the various subjects discussed. For the
concluding portion of the old book, which has been discarded, I have
substituted entirely new matter-the part entitled "Birds in a Cornish

Between these two long parts there are five shorter essays which I have
retained with little alteration, and these in one or two instances are
consequently out of date, especially in what was said with bitterness in
the essay on "Exotic Birds for Britain" anent the feather-wearing
fashion and of the London trade in dead birds and the refusal of women
at that time to help us in trying to save the beautiful wild bird life
of this country and of the world generally from extermination. Happily,
the last twenty years of the life and work of the Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds have changed all that, and it would not now be too
much to say that all right-thinking persons in this country, men and
women, are anxious to see the end of this iniquitous traffic.

W. H. H.

September, 1919.





























About the middle of last May, after a rough and cold period, there came
a spell of brilliant weather, reviving in me the old spring feeling, the
passion for wild nature, the desire for the companionship of birds; and
I betook myself to St. James's Park for the sake of such satisfaction as
may be had from watching and feeding the fowls, wild and semi-wild,
found gathered at that favored spot.

I was glad to observe a couple of those new colonists of the ornamental
water, the dabchicks, and to renew my acquaintance with the familiar,
long-established moorhens. One of them was engaged in building its nest
in an elm-tree growing at the water's edge. I saw it make two journeys
with large wisps of dry grass in its beak, running up the rough,
slanting trunk to a height of sixteen to seventeen feet, and
disappearing within the "brushwood sheaf" that springs from the bole at
that distance from the roots. The wood-pigeons were much more numerous,
also more eager to be fed.  They seemed to understand very quickly that
my bread and grain was for them and not the sparrows; but although they
stationed themselves close to me, the little robbers we were jointly
trying to outwit managed to get some pieces of bread by flying up and
catching them before they touched the sward. This little comedy over, I
visited the water-fowl, ducks of many kinds, sheldrakes, geese from many
lands, swans black, and swans white. To see birds in prison during the
spring mood of which I have spoken is not only no satisfaction but a
positive pain; here--albeit without that large liberty that nature
gives, they are free in a measure; and swimming and diving or dozing in
the sunshine, with the blue sky above them, they are perhaps unconscious
of any restraint.  Walking along the margin I noticed three children
some yards ahead of me; two were quite small, but the third, in whose
charge the others were, was a robust-looking girl, aged about ten or
eleven years. From their dress and appearance I took them to be the
children of a respectable artisan or small tradesman; but what chiefly
attracted my attention was the very great pleasure the elder girl
appeared to take in the birds. She had come well provided with stale
bread to feed them, and after giving moderately of her store to the
wood-pigeons and sparrows, she went on to the others, native and exotic,
that were disporting themselves in the water, or sunning themselves on
the green bank. She did not cast her bread on the water in the manner
usual with visitors, but was anxious to feed all the different species,
or as many as she could attract to her, and appeared satisfied when any
one individual of a particular kind got a fragment of her bread.
Meanwhile she talked eagerly to the little ones, calling their attention
to the different birds. Drawing near, I also became an interested
listener; and then, in answer to my questions, she began telling me what
all these strange fowls were. "This," she said, glad to give
information, "is the Canadian goose, and there is the Egyptian goose;
and here is the king-duck coming towards us; and do you see that large,
beautiful bird standing by itself, that will not come to be fed? That is
the golden duck. But that is not its real name; I don't know them all,
and so I name some for myself. I call that one the golden duck because
in the sun its feathers sometimes shine like gold." It was a rare
pleasure to listen to her, and seeing what sort of a girl she was, and
how much in love with her subject, I in my turn told her a great deal
about the birds before us, also of other birds she had never seen nor
heard of, in other and distant lands that have a nobler bird life than
ours; and after she had listened eagerly for some minutes, and had then
been silent a little while, she all at once pressed her two hands
together, and exclaimed rapturously, "Oh, I do so love the birds!"

I replied that that was not strange, since it is impossible for us not
to love whatever is lovely, and of all living things birds were made
most beautiful.

Then I walked away, but could not forget the words she had exclaimed,
her whole appearance, the face flushed with color, the eloquent brown
eyes sparkling, the pressed palms, the sudden spontaneous passion of
delight and desire in her tone. The picture was in my mind all that day,
and lived through the next, and so wrought on me that I could not longer
keep away from the birds, which I, too, loved; for now all at once it
seemed to me that life was not life without them; that I was grown sick,
and all my senses dim; that only the wished sight of wild birds could
medicine my vision; that only by drenching it in their wild melody could
my tired brain recover its lost vigour.


After wandering somewhat aimlessly about the country for a couple of
days, I stumbled by chance on just such a spot as I had been wishing to
find--a rustic village not too far away. It was not more than
twenty-five minutes' walk from a small station, less than one hour by
rail from London.

The way to the village was through cornfields, bordered by hedges and
rows of majestic elms. Beyond it, but quite near, there was a wood,
principally of beech, over a mile in length, with a public path running
through it. On the right hand, ten minutes' walk from the village, there
was a long green hill, the ascent to which was gentle; but on the
further side it sloped abruptly down to the Thames.

On the left hand there was another hill, with cottages and orchards,
with small fields interspersed on the slope and summit, so that the
middle part, where I lodged, was in a pretty deep hollow. There was no
sound of traffic there, and few farmers' carts came that way, as it was
well away from the roads, and the deep, narrow, winding lanes were
exceedingly rough, like the stony beds of dried-up streams.

In the deepest part of the coombe, in the middle of the village, there
was a well where the cottagers drew their water; and in the summer
evenings the youths and maidens came there, with or without jugs and
buckets, to indulge in conversation, which was mostly of the rustic,
bantering kind, mixed with a good deal of loud laughter. Close by was
the inn, where the men sat on benches in the tap-room in grave discourse
over their pipes and beer.

Wishing to make their acquaintance, I went in and sat down among them,
and found them a little shy--not to say stand-offish, at first. Rustics
are often suspicious of the stranger within their gates; but after
paying for beer all round, the frost melted and we were soon deep in
talk about the wild life of the place; always a safe and pleasant
subject in a village. One rough-looking, brown-faced man, with iron-grey
hair, became a sort of spokesman for the company, and replied to most of
my questions.

"And what about badgers?" I asked. "In such a rough-looking spot with
woods and all, it strikes me as just the sort of place where one would
find that animal."

A long dead silence followed. I caught the eye of the man nearest me and
repeated the question, "Are there no badgers here?" His eyes fell, then
he exchanged glances with some of the others, all very serious; and at
length my man, addressing the person who had acted as spokesman before,
said, "Perhaps you'll tell the gentleman if there are any badgers here."

At that the rough man looked at me very sharply, and answered stiffly,
"Not as I know of."

A few weeks later, at a small town in the neighbourhood, I got into
conversation with a hotel keeper, an intelligent man, who gave me a good
deal of information about the country. He asked me where I was staying,
and, on my telling him, said "Ah, I know it well--that village in a
hole; and a very nasty hole to get in, too--at any rate it was so,
formerly. They are getting a bit civilized now, but I remember the time
when a stranger couldn't show himself in the place without being jeered
at and insulted. Yes, they were a rough lot down in that hole--the
Badgers, they were called, and that's what they are called still."

The pity of it was that I didn't know this before I went among them! But
it was not remembered against me that I had wounded their
susceptibilities; they soon found that I was nothing but a harmless
field naturalist, and I had friendly relations with many of them.

At the extremity of the straggling village was the beginning of an
extensive common, where it was always possible to spend an hour or two
without seeing a human creature. A few sheep grazed and browsed there,
roaming about in twos and threes and half-dozens, tearing their fleeces
for the benefit of nest-building birds, in the great tangled masses of
mingled furze and bramble and briar. Birds were abundant there--all
those kinds that love the common's openness, and the rough, thorny
vegetation that flourishes on it. But the village--or rather, the large
open space occupied by it, formed the headquarters and centre of a
paradise of birds (as I soon began to think it), for the cottages and
houses were widely separated, the meanest having a garden and some
trees, and in most cases there was an old orchard of apple, cherry, and
walnut trees to each habitation, and out of this mass of greenery, which
hid the houses and made the place look more like a wood than a village,
towered the great elms in rows, and in groups.

On first approaching the place I heard, mingled with many other voices,
that of the nightingale; and as it was for the medicine of its pure,
fresh melody that I particularly craved, I was glad to find a lodging in
one of the cottages, and to remain there for several weeks.

The small care which the nightingale took to live up to his reputation
in this place surprised me a little. Here he could always be heard in
the daytime--not one bird, but a dozen--in different parts of the
village; but he sang not at night. This I set down to the fact that the
nights were dark and the weather unsettled. But later, when the weather
grew warmer, and there were brilliant moonlight nights, he was still a
silent bird except by day.

I was also a little surprised at his tameness.

On first coming to the village, when I ran after every nightingale I
heard, to get as near him as possible, I was occasionally led by the
sound to a cottage, and in some instances I found the singer perched
within three or four yards of an open window or door. At my own cottage,
when the woman who waited on me shook the breakfast cloth at the front
door, the bird that came to pick up the crumbs was the nightingale--not
the robin. When by chance he met a sparrow there, he attacked and chased
it away. It was a feast of nightingales. An elderly woman of the village
explained to me that the nightingales and other small birds were common
and tame in the village, because no person disturbed them. I smile now
when recording the good old dame's words.

On my second day at the village it happened to be raining--a warm,
mizzling rain without wind--ind the nightingales were as vocal as in
fine bright weather. I heard one in a narrow lane, and went towards it,
treading softly, in order not to scare it away, until I got within eight
or ten yards of it, as it sat on a dead projecting twig. This was a twig
of a low thorn tree growing up from the hedge, projecting through the
foliage, and the bird, perched near its end, sat only about five feet
above the bare ground of the lane. Now, I owe my best thanks to this
individual nightingale, for sharply calling to my mind a common
pestilent delusion, which I have always hated, but had never yet raised
my voice against--namely, that all wild creatures exist in constant fear
of an attack from the numberless subtle or powerful enemies that are
always waiting and watching for an opportunity to spring upon and
destroy them.  The truth is, that although their enemies be legion, and
that every day, and even several times on each day, they may be
threatened with destruction, they are absolutely free from apprehension,
except when in the immediate presence of danger. Suspicious they may be
at times, and the suspicion may cause them to remove themselves to a
greater distance from the object that excites it; but the emotion is so
slight, the action so almost automatic, that the singing bird will fly
to another bush a dozen yards away, and at once resume his interrupted
song. Again, a bird will see the deadliest enemy of its kind, and unless
it be so close as to actually threaten his life, he will regard it with
the greatest indifference or will only be moved to anger at its
presence.  Here was this nightingale singing in the rain, seeing but not
heeding me; while beneath the hedge, almost directly under the twig it
sat on, a black cat was watching it with luminous yellow eyes. I did not
see the cat at first, but have no doubt that the nightingale had seen
and knew that it was there. High up on the tops of the thorn, a couple
of sparrows were silently perched. Perhaps, like myself, they had come
there to listen. After I had been standing motionless, drinking in that
dulcet music for at least five minutes, one of the two sparrows dropped
from the perch straight down, and alighting on the bare wet ground
directly under the nightingale, began busily pecking at something
eatable it had discovered. No sooner had he begun pecking than out
leaped the concealed cat on to him. The sparrow fluttered wildly up from
beneath or between the claws, and escaped, as if by a miracle. The cat
raised itself up, glared round, and, catching sight of me close by,
sprang back into the hedge and was gone. But all this time the exposed
nightingale, perched only five feet above the spot where the attack had
been made and the sparrow had so nearly lost his life, had continued
singing; and he sang on for some minutes after. I suppose that he had
seen the cat before, and knew instinctively that he was beyond its
reach; that it was a terrestrial, not an aerial enemy, and so feared it
not at all; and he would, perhaps, have continued singing if the sparrow
had been caught and instantly killed.

Quite early in June I began to feel just a little cross with the
nightingales, for they almost ceased singing; and considering that the
spring had been a backward one, it seemed to me that their silence was
coming too soon. I was not sufficiently regardful of the fact that their
lays are solitary, as the poet has said; that they ask for no witness of
their song, nor thirst for human praise. They were all nesting now. But
if I heard them less, I saw much more of them, especially of one
individual, the male bird of a couple that had made their nest in a
hedge a stone's throw from the cottage. A favourite morning perch of
this bird was on a small wooden gate four or five yards away from my
window. It was an open, sunny spot, where his restless, bright eyes
could sweep the lane, up and down; and he could there also give vent to
his superfluous energy by lording it over a few sparrows and other small
birds that visited the spot. I greatly admired the fine, alert figure of
the pugnacious little creature, as he perched there so close to me, and
so fearless. His striking resemblance to the robin in form, size, and in
his motions, made his extreme familiarity seem only natural. The robin
is greatly distinguished in a sober-plumaged company by the vivid tint
on his breast. He is like the autumn leaf that catches a ray of sunlight
on its surface, and shines conspicuously among russet leaves. But the
clear brown of the nightingale is beautiful, too.

This same nightingale was keeping a little surprise in store for me.
Although he took no notice of me sitting at the open window, whenever I
went thirty or forty yards from the gate along the narrow lane that
faced it, my presence troubled him and his mate only too much. They
would flit round my head, emitting the two strongly contrasted sounds
with which they express solicitude--the clear, thin, plaintive, or
wailing note, and the low, jarring sound--an alternate lamenting and
girding. One day when I approached the nest, they displayed more anxiety
than usual, fluttering close to me, wailing and croaking more vehemently
than ever, when all at once the male, at the height of his excitement,
burst into singing. Half a dozen notes were uttered rapidly, with great
strength, then a small complaining cry again, and at intervals, a fresh
burst of melody. I have remarked the same thing in other singing birds,
species in which the harsh grating or piercing sounds that properly
express violent emotions of a painful kind, have been nearly or quite
lost. In the nightingale, this part of the bird's language has lost its
original character, and has dwindled to something very small.
Solicitude, fear, anger, are expressed with sounds that are mere
lispings compared with those emitted by the bird when singing. It is
worthy of remark that some of the most highly developed melodists--and I
am now thinking of the mocking-birds--never, in-moments of extreme
agitation, fall into this confusion and use singing notes that express
agreeable emotions, to express such as are painful. But in the
mocking-bird the primitive harsh and grating cries have not been lost
nor softened to sounds hardly to be distinguished from those that are
emitted by way of song.


By this time all the birds were breeding, some already breeding a second
time. And now I began to suspect that they were not quite so undisturbed
as the old dame had led me to believe; that they had not found a
paradise in the village after all. One morning, as I moved softly along
the hedge in my nightingale's lane, all at once I heard, in the old
grassy orchard, to which it formed a boundary, swishing sounds of
scuttling feet and half-suppressed exclamations of alarm; then a
crushing through the hedge, and out, almost at my feet, rushed and
leaped and tumbled half-a-dozen urchins, who had suddenly been
frightened from a bird-nesting raid. Clothes torn, hands and faces
scratched with thorns, hat-less, their tow-coloured hair all disordered
or standing up like a white crest above their brown faces, rounded eyes
staring--what an extraordinarily wild appearance they had! I was back
in very old times, in the Britain of a thousand years before the coming
of the Romans, and these were her young barbarians, learning their
life's business in little things.

No, the birds of the village were not undisturbed while breeding; but
happily the young savages never found my nightingale's nest. One day the
bird came to the gate as usual, and was more alert and pugnacious than
ever; and no wonder, for his mate came too, and with them four young
birds. For a week they were about the cottage every day, when they
dispersed, and one beautiful bright morning the male bird, in his old
place near my window, attempted to sing, beginning with that rich,
melodious throbbing, which is usually called "_jugging_," and following
with half-a-dozen beautiful notes. That was all. It was July, and I
heard no more music from him or from any other of his kind.

* * *

I have perhaps written at too great length of this bird. The nightingale
was after all only one of the fifty-nine species I succeeded in
identifying during my sojourn at the village. There were more. I heard
the calls and cries of others in the wood and various places, but
refused, except in the case of the too elusive crake, to set down any in
my list that I did not see. It was not my ambition to make a long list.
My greatest desire was to see well those that interested me most. But
those who go forth, as I did, to look for birds that are a sight for
sore eyes, must meet with many a disappointment. In all those fruit and
shade trees that covered the village with a cloud of verdure, and in the
neighbouring woods, not once did I catch a glimpse of the green
woodpecker, a beautiful conspicuous bird, supposed to be increasing in
many places in England. Its absence from so promising a locality seemed
strange.  Another species, also said to be increasing in the
country--the turtledove, was extremely abundant. In the tall beech woods
its low, monotonous crooning note was heard all day long from all sides.
In shady places, where the loud, shrill bird-voices are few, one prefers
this sound to the set song of the woodpigeon, being more continuous and
soothing, and of the nature of a lullaby. It sometimes reminded me of
the low monotone I have heard from a Patagonian mother when singing her
"swart papoose" to sleep. Still, I would gladly have spared many of
these woodland crooners for the sake of one magpie--that bird of fine
feathers and a bright mind, which I had not looked on for a whole year,
and now hoped to see again. But he was not there; and after I had looked
for myself, some of the natives assured me that no magpie had been seen
for years in that wood.

For a time I feared that I was to be just as unlucky with regard to the
jay, seeing that the owner of the extensive beech woods adjoining the
village permitted his keeper to kill the most interesting birds in
it--kestrels and sparrowhawks, owls, jays, and magpies. He was a new
man, comparatively, in the place, and wanted to increase his preserves,
but to do this it was necessary first to exclude the villagers--the
Badgers, who were no doubt partial to pheasants' eggs. Now, to close an
ancient right-of-way is a ticklish business, and this was an important
one, seeing that the village women did their Saturday marketing in the
town beyond the wood and river, and with the path closed they would have
two miles further to walk. The new lord wisely took this into
consideration, and set himself to win the goodwill of the people before
attempting any strong measures. He walked in the lanes and was affable
to the cottage women and nice to the children, and by and bye he
exclaimed, "What! No institute! no hall, or any place where you can meet
and spend the long winter evenings? Well, I'll soon see to that." And
soon, to their delight, they had a nice building reared on a piece of
land which he bought for the purpose, furnished with tables, chairs,
bagatelle boards, and all accessories; and he also supplied them with
newspapers and magazines. He was immensely popular, but appeared to
think little of what he had done. When they expressed their gratitude to
him he would move his hand, and answer, "Oh, I'm going to do a great
deal more than that for you!"

A few months went by, then he caused a notice to be put up about the
neighbourhood that the path through the wood was going to be closed "by
order." No one took any notice, and a few weeks later his workmen
appeared on the scene and erected a huge oakwood barrier across the
path; also a notice on a board that the wood was strictly private and
trespassers would be prosecuted. The villagers met in force at the
institute and the inn that evening, and after discussing the matter over
their ale, they armed themselves with axes and went in a body and
demolished the barrier.

The owner was disgusted, but took no action. "This," he said, "is their
gratitude"; and from that day he ceased to subscribe to the local
charities or take his walks in the village. He had given the institute,
and so could not pull it down nor prevent them from using it.

It was refreshing to hear that the Badgers had shown a proper spirit in
the matter, and I was grateful to them for having kept the right-of-way,
as on most days I spent several hours in the beautiful woods.

To return to the jay. In spite of the keeper's persecution, I knew that
he was there; every morning when I got up to look out of the window
between four and five o'clock, I heard from some quarter of the village
that curious subdued, but far-reaching, scolding note he is accustomed
to utter when his suspicions have been aroused.

That was the jay's custom--to come from the woods before even the
earliest risers were up, and forage in the village. By and bye I
discovered that, by lying motionless for an hour or so on the dry moss
in the wood, he would at length grow so bold as to allow himself to be
seen, but high up among the topmost branches. Then, by means of my
binocular, I had the wild thing on my thumb, so to speak, exhibiting
himself to me, inquisitive, perplexed, suspicious, enraged by turns, as
he flirted wings and tail, lifted and lowered his crest, glancing down
with bright, wild eyes. What a beautiful hypocrisy and delightful power
this is which enables us, sitting or lying motionless, feigning sleep
perhaps, thus to fool this wild, elusive creature, and bring all its
cunning to naught! He is so much smaller and keener-sighted, able to
fly, to perch far up above me, to shift his position every minute or
two, masking his small figure with this or that tuft of leaves, while
still keeping his eyes on me--in spite of it all to have him so close,
and without moving or taking any trouble, to see him so much better than
he can see me! But this is a legitimate trickery of science, so innocent
that we can laugh at our dupe when we practise it; nor do we afterwards
despise our superior cunning and feel ashamed, as when we slaughter wild
birds with far-reaching shot, which they cannot escape.

* * *

All these corvine birds, which the gamekeeper pursues so relentlessly,
albeit they were before him, killing when they killed to better purpose;
and, let us hope, will exist after him--all these must greatly surpass
other kinds in sagacity to have escaped extermination. In the present
condition of things, the jay is perhaps the best off, on account of his
smaller size and less conspicuous colouring; but whether more cunning
than the crow or magpie or not, in perpetual alertness and restless
energy or intensity of life, he is without an equal among British birds.
And this quality forms his chief attraction; it is more to the mind than
his lifted crest and bright eyes, his fine vinaceous brown and the patch
of sky-blue on his wings. One would miss him greatly from the woods;
some of the melody may well be spared for the sake of the sudden,
brain-piercing, rasping, rending scream with which he startles us in our
solitary forest walks.

It is this extreme liveliness of the jay which makes it more distressing
to the mind to see it pent in a cage than other birds of its family,
such as the magpie; just as it is more distressing to see a skylark than
a finch in prison, because the lark has an irresistible impulse to rise
when his singing fit is on. Sing he must, in or out of prison, yet there
can be little joy in the performance when the bird is incessantly teased
with the unsatisfied desire to mount and pour out his music at heaven's

Out of the cages, jays make charming and beautiful pets, and some who
have kept them have assured me that they are not mischievous birds. The
late Mark Melford one time when I visited him, had two jays, handsome
birds, in bright, glossy plumage, always free to roam where they liked,
indoors or out. We were sitting talking in his garden when one of the
jays came flying to us and perched on a wooden ledge a few feet from and
above our heads, and after sitting quietly for a little while he
suddenly made a dash at my head, just brushing it with his wings, then
returned to his perch.  At intervals of a few moments he repeated this
action, and when I remarked that he probably resented the presence of a
stranger, Melford exclaimed, "Oh, no, he wants to play with you--that's

His manner of playing was rather startling. So long as I kept my eyes on
him he remained motionless, but the instant my attention wandered, or
when in speaking I looked at my companion, the sudden violent dash at my
head would be made.

I was assured by Melford that his birds never carried off and concealed
bright objects, a habit which it has been said the jay, as well as the
magpie, possesses.

"What would he do with this shilling if I tossed it to him?" I asked.

"Catch it," he returned. "It would simply be play to him, but he
wouldn't carry it off."

I tossed up the shilling, and the bird had perhaps expected me to do so,
as he deftly caught it just as a dog catches a biscuit when you toss one
to him. After keeping it a few moments in his beak, he put it down at
his side. I took out four more shilling pieces and tossed them quickly
one by one, and he caught them without a miss and placed them one by one
with the other, not scattered about, but in a neat pile. Then, seeing
that I had no more shillings he flew off.

After these few playful passages with one of his birds, I could
understand Melford's feeling about his free pet jays, magpies and
jackdaws; they were not merely birds to him, but rather like so many
delightful little children in the beautiful shape of birds.

* * *

There was no rookery in or near the village, but a large flock of rooks
were always to be seen feeding and sunning themselves in some level
meadows near the river. It struck me one day as a very fine sight, when
an old bird, who looked larger and blacker and greyer-faced than the
others, and might have been the father and leader of them all, got up on
a low post, and with wide-open beak poured forth a long series of most
impressive caws. One always wonders at the meaning of such displays. Is
the old bird addressing the others in the rook language on some matter
of great moment; or is he only expressing some feeling in the only
language he has--those long, hoarse, uninflected sounds; and if so, what
feeling? Probably a very common one. The rooks appeared happy and
prosperous, feeding in the meadow grass in that June weather, with the
hot sun shining on their glossy coats. Their days of want were long past
and forgotten; the anxious breeding period was over; the tempest in the
tall trees; the annual slaughter of the young birds--all past and
forgotten. The old rook was simply expressing the old truth, that life
was worth living.

These rooks were usually accompanied by two or three or more crows--a
bird of so ill-repute that the most out-and-out enthusiast for
protection must find it hard to say a word in its favour. At any rate,
the rooks must think, if they think at all, that this frequent visitor
and attendant of theirs is more kin than kind. I have related in a
former work that I once saw a peregrine strike down and kill an owl--a
sight that made me gasp with astonishment. But I am inclined to think of
this act as only a slip, a slight aberration, on the part of the falcon,
so universal is the sense of relationship among the kinds that have the
rapacious habit; or, at the worst, it was merely an isolated act of
deviltry and daring of the sharp-winged pirate of the sky, a sudden
assertion of over-mastering energy and power, and a very slight offence
compared with that of the crow when he carries off and devours his
callow little cousins of the rookery.

* * *

One of the first birds I went out to seek--perhaps the most medicinal of
all birds to see--was the kingfisher; but he was not anywhere on the
river margin, although suitable places were plentiful enough, and
myriads of small fishes were visible in the shallow water, seen at rest
like dim-pointed stripes beneath the surface, and darting away and
scattering outwards, like a flight of arrows, at any person's approach.
Walking along the river bank one day, when the place was still new to
me, I discovered a stream, and following it up arrived at a spot where a
clump of trees overhung the water, casting on it a deep shade. On the
other side of the stream buttercups grew so thickly that the glazed
petals of the flowers were touching; the meadow was one broad expanse of
brilliant yellow. I had not been standing half a minute in the shade
before the bird I had been seeking darted out from the margin, almost
beneath my feet, and then, instead of flying up or down stream, sped
like an arrow across the field of buttercups. It was a very bright day,
and the bird going from me with the sunshine full on it, appeared
entirely of a shining, splendid green.  Never had I seen the kingfisher
in such favourable circumstances; flying so low above the flowery level
that the swiftly vibrating wings must have touched the yellow petals; he
was like a waif from some far tropical land. The bird was tropical, but
I doubt if there exists within the tropics anything to compare with a
field of buttercups--such large and unbroken surfaces of the most
brilliant colour in nature. The first bird's mate appeared a minute
later, flying in the same direction, and producing the same splendid
effect, and also green. These two alone were seen, and only on this
occasion, although I often revisited the spot, hoping to find them

Now, the kingfisher is blue, and I am puzzled to know why, on this one
occasion, it appeared green. I have, in a former work, _Argentine
Ornithology_, described a contrary effect in a small and beautiful
tyrant-bird, _Cyanotis azarae_, variously called, in the vernacular,
"All-colored or Many-colored Kinglet." It has a little blue on its head,
but its entire back, from the nape to the tail, is deep green. It lives
in beds of bulrushes, and when seen flying from the spectator in a very
strong light, at a distance of twenty or thirty yards, its colour in
appearance is bright cerulean blue. It is a sunlight effect, but how
produced is a mystery to me. In the case of the two green kingfishers, I
am inclined to think that the yellow of that shining field of buttercups
in some way produced the illusion.

Why are these exquisite birds so rare, even in situations so favourable
to them as the one I have described? Are they killed by severe frosts?
An ornithological friend from Oxfordshire assures me that it will take
several favourable seasons to make good the losses of the late terrible
winter of 1891-92. But this, as every ornithologist knows, is only a
part of the truth. The large number of stuffed kingfishers under glass
shades that one sees in houses of all descriptions, in town and country,
but most frequently in the parlours of country cottages and inns, tell a
melancholy story. Some time ago a young man showed me three stuffed
kingfishers in a case, and informed me that he had shot them at a place
(which he named) quite close to London. He said that these three birds
were the last of their kind ever seen there; that he had gone, week
after week and watched and waited, until one by one, at long intervals,
he had secured them all; and that two years had passed since the last
one was killed, and no other kingfisher had been seen at the place. He
added that the waterside which these birds had frequented was resorted
to by crowds of London working people on Saturday afternoons, Sundays
and other holidays; the fact that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pairs
of tired eyes would have been freshened and gladdened by the sight of
their rare gem-like beauty only made him prouder of his achievement.
This young man was a cockney of the small shop-keeping class--a
Philistine of the Philistines--hence there was no call to feel surprise
at his self-glorification over such a matter. But what shall we say of
that writer whose masterly works on English rural life are familiar to
everyone, who is regarded as first among "lovers of nature," when he
relates that he invariably carried a gun when out of doors, mainly with
the object of shooting any kingfisher he might chance to see, as the
dead bird always formed an acceptable present to the cottager's wife,
who would get it stuffed and keep it as an ornament on her parlour

Happily for the kingfisher, and for human beings who love nature, the
old idea that beautiful birds were meant to be destroyed for fun by
anyone and everyone, from the small-brained, detestable cockney
sportsman I have mentioned, to the gentlemen who write books about the
beauties of nature, is now gradually giving place to this new one--that
it would be better to preserve the beautiful things we possess. Half a
century before the author of "Wild Life in a Southern Country" amused
himself by carrying a gun to shoot kingfishers, the inhabitants of that
same county of Wiltshire were bathed in tears--so I read in an old
Salisbury newspaper--at the tragic death of a young gentleman of great
distinction, great social charm, great promise. He was out shooting
swallows with a friend who, firing at a passing swallow, had the
misfortune to shoot and kill _him._

At the present time when gentlemen practise a little at flying birds, to
get their hand in before the first of September, they shoot sparrows as
a rule, or if they shoot swallows, which afford them better practice,
they do not say anything about it.


Where the stream broadened and mixed with the river, there existed a
dense and extensive rush-bed--an island of rushes separated by a deep
channel, some twelve or fourteen yards in width from the bank. This was
a favourite nesting-place of the sedge-warblers; occasionally as many as
a dozen birds could be heard singing at the same time, although in no
sense together, and the effect was indeed curious. This is not a song
that spurts and gushes up fountain-like in the manner of the robin's,
and of some other kinds, sprinkling the listener, so to speak, with a
sparkling vocal spray; but it keeps low down, a song that flows along
the surface gurgling and prattling like musical running water, in its
shallow pebbly channel. Listening again, the similitude that seemed
appropriate at first was cast aside for another, and then another still.
The hidden singers scattered all about their rushy island were small,
fantastic, human minstrels, performing on a variety of instruments, some
unknown, others recognizable--bones and castanets, tiny hurdy-gurdies,
piccolos, banjos, tabours, and Pandean pipes--a strange medley!

Interesting as this concert was, it held me less than the solitary
singing of a sedge-warbler that lived by himself, or with only his mate,
higher up where the stream was narrow, so that I could get near him; for
he not only tickled my ears with his rapid, reedy music, but amused my
mind as well with a pretty little problem in bird psychology. I could
sit within a few yards of his tangled haunt without hearing a note; but
if I jumped up and made a noise, or struck the branches with my stick,
he would incontinently burst into song. It is a very well-known habit of
the bird, and on account of it and of the very peculiar character of the
sounds emitted, his song is frequently described by ornithologists as
"mocking, defiant, scolding, angry," etc. It seems clear that at
different times the bird sings from different exciting causes. When,
undisturbed by a strange presence, he bursts spontaneously into singing,
the music, as in other species, is simply an expression of overflowing
gladness; at other times, the bird expressed such feelings as alarm,
suspicion, solicitude, perhaps anger, by singing the same song. How does
this come about?

I have stated, when speaking of the nightingale, that birds in which the
singing faculty is highly developed, sometimes make the mistake of
bursting into song when anxious or distressed or in pain, but that this
is not the case with the mocking-birds. Some species of these brilliant
songsters of the New World, in their passion for variety (to put it that
way), import every harsh and grating cry and sound they know into their
song; but, on the other hand, when anxious for the safety of their
young, or otherwise distressed, they emit only the harsh and grating
sounds--never a musical note. In the sedge-warbler, the harsh, scolding
sounds that express alarm, solicitude, and other painful emotions, have
also been made a part of the musical performance; but this differs from
the songs of most species, the mocking birds included, in the
extraordinary rapidity with which it is enunciated; once the song begins
it goes on swiftly to the finish, harsh and melodious notes seeming to
overlap and mingle, the sound forming, to speak in metaphor, a close
intricate pattern of strongly-contrasted colours. Now the song
invariably begins with the harsh notes--the sounds which, at other
times, express alarm and other more or less painful emotions--and it
strikes me as a probable explanation that when the bird in the singing
season has been startled into uttering these harsh and grating sounds,
as when a stone is flung into the rushes, he is incapable of uttering
them only, but the singing notes they suggest and which he is in the
habit of uttering, follow automatically.

The spot where I observed this wee feathered fantasy, the tantalizing
sprite of the rushes, and where I soon ceased to see, hear, or think
about him, calls for a fuller description. On one side the wooded hill
sloped downward to the stream; on the other side spread the meadows
where the rooks came every day to feed, or to sit and stand about
motionless, looking like birds cut out of jet, scattered over about half
an acre of the grassy, level ground. Stout old pollard willows grew here
and there along the banks and were pleasant to see, this being the one
man-mutilated thing in nature which, to my mind, not infrequently gains
in beauty by the mutilation, so admirably does it fit into and harmonize
with the landscape. At one point there was a deep, nearly stagnant pool,
separated from the stream by a strip of wet, rushy ground, its still
dark surface covered with water-lilies, not yet in bloom. They were just
beginning to show their polished buds, shaped like snake's heads, above
the broad, oily leaves floating like islands on the surface. The stream
itself was, on my side, fringed with bulrushes and other aquatic plants;
on the opposite bank there were some large alders lifting their branches
above great masses of bramble and rose-briar, all together forming as
rich and beautiful a tangle as one could find even in the most luxuriant
of the wild, unkept hedges round the village. The briars especially
flourished wonderfully at this spot, climbing high and dropping their
long, slim branches quite down to the surface of the water, and in some
places forming an arch above the stream. A short distance from this
tangle, so abundantly sprinkled with its pale delicate roses, the water
was spanned by a small wooden bridge, which no person appeared to use,
but which had a use. It formed the one dry clear spot in the midst of
all that moist vegetation, and the birds that came from the wood to
drink and search for worms and small caterpillars first alighted on the
bridge. There they would rest a few moments, take a look round, then fly
to some favourite spot where succulent morsels had been picked up on
previous visits. Thrushes, blackbirds, sparrows, reed-buntings,
chaffinches, tits, wrens, with many other species, succeeded each other
all day long; for now they mostly had young to provide for, and it was
their busiest time.

The unsullied beauty and solitariness of this spot made me wish at first
that I was a boy once more, to climb and to swim, to revel in the
sunshine and flowers, to be nearer in spirit to the birds and dragon
flies and water-rats; then, that I could build a cabin and live there
all the summer long, forgetful of the world and its affairs, with no
human creature to keep me company, and no book to read, or with only one
slim volume, some Spanish poet, let me say Melendez, for
preference--only a small selection from his too voluminous writings; for
he, albeit an eighteenth-century singer, was perhaps the last of that
long, illustrious line of poets who sang as no others have sung of the
pure delight-fulness of a life with nature. Something of this charm is
undoubtedly due to the beauty of the language they wrote in and to the
free, airy grace of assonants. What a hard, artificial sound the rhyme
too often has: the clink that falls at regular intervals as of a
stone-breaker's hammer! In the freer kinds of Spanish poetry there are
numberless verses that make the smoothest lines and lyrics of our
sweetest and most facile singers, from Herrick to Swinburne, seem hard
and mechanical by comparison. But there is something more. I doubt, for
one thing, if we are justified in the boast we sometimes make that the
feeling for Nature is stronger in our poets than in those of other
countries. The most scientific critic may be unable to pick a hole in
Tennyson's botany and zoology; but the passion for, and feeling of
oneness with Nature may exist without this modern minute accuracy. Be
this as it may, it was not Tennyson, nor any other of our poets, that I
would have taken to my dreamed-of solitary cabin for companionship:
Melendez came first to my mind. I think of his lines to a butterfly:

  De donde alegre vienes
  Tan suelta y tan festiva,
  Las valles alegrando
  Veloz mariposilla?*

* May be roughly rendered thus:

  Whence, blithe one, comest thou
  With that airy, happy flight--
  To make the valleys glad,
  O swift-winged butterfly?

and can imagine him--the poet himself--coming to see me through the
woods and down the hill with the careless ease and lightness of heart of
his own purple-winged child of earth and air--_tan suelta y tan
festiva_. Here in these four or five words one may read the whole secret
of his charm--the exquisite delicacy and seeming artlessness in the
form, and the spirit that is in him--the old, simple, healthy, natural
gladness in nature, and feeling of kinship with all the children of
life. But I do not wish to disturb anyone in his prepossessions. It
would greatly trouble me to think that my reader should, for the space
of a page, or even of a single line, find himself in opposition to and
not with me; and I am free to admit that with regard to poetry one's
preferences change according to the mood one happens to be in and to the
conditions generally. At home in murky London on most days I should
probably seek pleasure and forgetfulness in Browning; but in such
surroundings as I have been describing the lighter-hearted, elf-like
Melendez accords best with my spirit, one whose finest songs are without
human interest; who is irresponsible as the wind, and as unstained with
earthly care as the limpid running water he delights in: who is brother
to bird and bee and butterfly, and worships only liberty and sunshine,
and is in love with nothing but a flower.

Nearly midway between the useful little bridge and the rose-blossoming
tangle I have spoken of there were three elm-trees growing in the open
grassy space near the brook; they were not lofty, but had very
wide-spreading horizontal branches, which made them look like oaks. This
was an ideal spot in which to spend the sultry hours, and I had no
sooner cast myself on the short grass in the shade than I noticed that
the end of a projecting branch above my head, and about twenty feet from
the ground, was a favourite perch of a tree-pipit. He sang in the air
and, circling gracefully down, would alight on the branch, where,
sitting near me and plainly visible, he would finish his song and renew
it at intervals; then, leaving the loved perch, he would drop, singing,
to the ground, just a few yards beyond the tree's shadow; thence,
singing again, he would mount up and up above the tree, only to slide
down once more with set, unfluttering wings, with a beautiful swaying
motion to the same old resting-place on the branch, there to sing and
sing and sing.

If Melendez himself had come to me with flushed face and laughing eyes,
and sat down on the grass at my side to recite one of his most
enchanting poems, I should, with finger on lip, have enjoined silence;
for in the mood I was then in at that sequestered spot, with the
landscape outside my shady green pavilion bathed and quivering in the
brilliant sunshine, this small bird had suddenly become to me more than
any other singer, feathered or human. And yet the tree-pipit is not very
highly regarded among British melodists, on account of the little
variety there is in its song. Nevertheless, it is most sweet--perhaps the
sweetest of all. It is true that there are thousands, nay, millions of
things--sights and sounds and perfumes--which are or may be described as
sweet, so common is the metaphor, and this too common use has perhaps
somewhat degraded it; but in this case there is no other word so well
suited to describe the sensation produced.

The tree-pipit has a comparatively short song, repeated, with some
variation in the number and length of the notes, at brief intervals. The
opening notes are thick and throaty, and similar in character to the
throat-notes of many other species in this group, a softer sound than
the throat-notes of the skylark and woodlark, which they somewhat
resemble. The canary-like trills and thin piping notes, long drawn out,
which follow vary greatly in different individuals, and in many cases
the trills are omitted. But the concluding notes of the song I am
considering--which is only one note repeated again and again--are clear
and beautifully inflected, and have that quality of sweetness, of
lusciousness, I have mentioned. The note is uttered with a downward
fall, more slowly and expressively at each repetition, as if the singer
felt overcome at the sweetness of life and of his own expression, and
languished somewhat at the close; its effect is like that of the perfume
of the honeysuckle, infecting the mind with a soft, delicious languor, a
wish to lie perfectly still and drink of the same sweetness again and
again in larger measure.

To some who are familiar with this by no means uncommon little bird, it
may seem that I am overstating the charm of its melody. I can only say
that the mood I was then in made me very keenly appreciative; also that
I have never heard any other individual of this species able to produce
precisely the same effect. We know that there are quite remarkable
differences in the songs of birds of the same species, that among
several that appear to be perfect and to sing alike one will possess a
charm above the other. The truth is they are not alike; they affect us
differently, but the sense is not fine enough or not sufficiently
trained to detect the cause. The poet's words may be used of this
natural melody as well as of the works of art:

  "O the little more and how much it is!"

There were about the village, within a few minutes' walk of the cottage,
not fewer than half-a-dozen tree-pipits, each inhabiting a favourite
spot where I could always count on finding and hearing him at almost any
hour of the day from sunrise to sunset. Yet I cared not for these. To
the one chosen bird I returned daily to spend the hot hours, lying in
the shade and listening to his strain. Finally, I allowed two or three
days to slip by, and when I revisited the old spot the secret charm had
vanished. The bird was there, and rose and fell as formerly, pouring out
his melody; but it was not the same: something was missing from those
last sweet, languishing notes. Perhaps in the interval there had been
some disturbing accident in his little wild life, though I could hardly
believe it, since his mate was still sitting about thirty yards from the
tree on the five little mottled eggs in her nest. Or perhaps his
midsummer's music had reached its highest point, and was now in its
declension. And perhaps the fault was in me. The virtue that draws and
holds us does not hold us always, nor very long; it departs from all
things, and we wonder why. The loss is in ourselves, although we do not
know it. Nature, the chosen mistress of our heart, does not change
towards us, yet she is now, even to-day--

  "Less full of purple colour and hid spice,"

and smiles and sparkles in vain to allure us, and when she touches us
with her warm, caressing touch, there is, compared with yesterday, only
a faint response.


Coming back from the waterside through the wood, after the hottest hours
of the day were over, the crooning of the turtle-doves would be heard
again on every side--that summer beech-wood lullaby that seemed never to
end. The other bird voices were of the willow-wren, the wood-wren, the
coal-tit, and the now somewhat tiresome chiffchaff; from the distance
would come the prolonged rich strain of the blackbird, and occasionally
the lyric of the chaffinch. The song of this bird gains greatly when
heard from a tall tree in the woodland silence; it has then a resonance
and wildness which it appears to lack in the garden and orchard. In the
village I had been glad to find that the chaffinch was not too common,
that in the tangle of minstrelsy one could enjoy there his vigorous
voice was not predominant.

Of all these woodland songsters the wood-wren impressed me the most. He
could always be heard, no matter where I entered the wood, since all
this world of tall beeches was a favoured haunt of the wood-wren, each
pair keeping to its own territory of half-an-acre of trees or so, and
somewhere among those trees the male was always singing, far up,
invisible to eyes beneath, in the topmost sunlit foliage of the tall
trees. On entering the wood I would, stand still for a few minutes to
listen to the various sounds until that one fascinating sound would come
to my ears from some distance away, and to that spot I would go to find
a bed of last year's leaves to sit upon and listen. It was an enchanting
experience to be there in that woodland twilight with the green cloud of
leaves so far above me; to listen to the silence, to the faint whisper
of the wind-touched leaves, then to little prelusive drops of musical
sound, growing louder and falling faster until they ran into one
prolonged trill. And there I would sit listening for half-an-hour or a
whole hour; but the end would not come; the bird is indefatigable and
with his mysterious talk in the leaves would tire the sun himself and send
him down the sky: for not until the sun has set and the wood has grown
dark does the singing cease.

On emerging from the deep shade of the beeches into the wide grassy road
that separated the wood from the orchards and plantations of fruit
trees, and pausing for a minute to look down on the more than
half-hidden village, invariably the first loud sounds that reached my
ear were those of the cuckoo, thrush, and blackbird. At all hours in the
village, from early morning to evening twilight, these three voices
sounded far and near above the others. I considered myself fortunate
that no large tree near the cottage had been made choice of by a
song-thrush as a singing-stand during the early hours. The nearest tree
so favoured was on the further side of a field, so that when I woke at
half-past three or four o'clock, the shrill indefatigable voice came in
at the open window, softened by distance and washed by the dewy
atmosphere to greater purity. Throstle and skylark to be admired must be
heard at a distance. But at that early hour when I sat by the open
window, the cuckoo's call was the commonest sound; the birds were
everywhere, bird answering bird far and near, so persistently repeating
their double note that this sound, which is in character unlike any
other sound in nature, which one so listens and longs to hear in spring,
lost its old mystery and charm, and became of no more account than the
cackle of the poultry-yard. It was the cuckoo's village; sometimes three
or four birds in hot pursuit of each other would dash through the trees
that lined the further side of the lane and alight on that small tree at
the gate which the nightingale was accustomed to visit later in the day.

Other birds that kept themselves very much out of sight during most of
the time also came to the same small tree at that early hour. It was
regularly visited, and its thin bole industriously examined, by the
nuthatch and the quaint little mouse-like creeper. Doubtless they
imagined that five o'clock was too early for heavy human creatures to be
awake, and were either ignorant of my presence or thought proper to
ignore it.

But where, during the days when the vociferous cuckoo, with hoarse
chuckle and dissyllabic call and wild bubbling cry was so much with
us--where, in this period of many pleasant noises was the cuckoo's mate,
or maid, or messenger, the quaint and beautiful wryneck? There are few
British birds, perhaps not one--not even the crafty black and white
magpie, or mysterious moth-like goatsucker, or tropical kingfisher--more
interesting to watch. At twilight I had lingered at the woodside, also
in other likely places, and the goatsucker had failed to appear, gliding
and zig-zagging hither and thither on his dusky-mottled noiseless wings,
and now this still heavier disappointment was mine. I could not find the
wryneck. Those quiet grassy orchards, shut in by straggling hedges,
should have had him as a favoured summer guest. Creeper and nuthatch,
and starling and gem-like blue tit, found holes enough in the old trunks
to breed in. And yet I knew that, albeit not common, he was there; I
could not exactly say where, but somewhere on the other side of the next
hedge or field or orchard; for I heard his unmistakable cry, now on this
hand, now on that. Day after day I followed the voice, sometimes in my
eagerness forcing my way through a brambly hedge to emerge with
scratched hands and clothes torn, like one that had been set upon and
mauled by some savage animal of the cat kind; and still the quaint
figure eluded my vision.

At last I began to have doubts about the creature that emitted that
strange, penetrating call. First heard as a bird-call, and nothing more,
by degrees it grew more and more laugh-like--a long, far-reaching,
ringing laugh; not the laugh I should like to hear from any person I
take an interest in, but a laugh with all the gladness, unction, and
humanity gone out of it--a dry mechanical sound, as if a soulless,
lifeless, wind-instrument had laughed. It was very curious. Listening to
it day by day, something of the strange history of the being once but no
longer human, that uttered it grew up and took shape in my mind; for we
all have in us something of this mysterious faculty. It was no bird, no
wryneck, but a being that once, long, long, long ago, in that same
beautiful place, had been a village boy--a free, careless, glad-hearted
boy, like many another. But to this boy life was more than to others,
since nature appeared immeasurably more vivid on account of his brighter
senses; therefore his love of life and happiness in life greatly
surpassed theirs. Annually the trees shed their leaves, the flowers
perished, the birds flew away to some distant country beyond the
horizon, and the sun grew pale and cold in the sky; but the bright
impression all things made on him gave him a joy that was perennial. The
briony, woodbine, and honeysuckle he had looked on withered in the
hedges, but their presentments flourished untouched by frost, as if his
warmth sustained and gave them perpetual life; in that inner magical
world of memory the birds still twittered and warbled, each after its
kind, and the sun shone everlastingly. But he was living in a fool's
paradise, as he discovered by-and-by, when a boy who had been his
playmate began to grow thin and pale, and at last fell sick and died. He
crept near and watched his dead companion lying motionless, unbreathing,
with a face that was like white clay; and then, more horrible still, he
saw him taken out and put into a grave, and the heavy, cold soil cast
over him.

What did this strange and terrible thing mean? Now for the first time he
was told that life is ours only for a season; that we also, like the
leaves and flowers, flourish for a while then fade and perish, and
mingle with the dust. The sad knowledge had come too suddenly and in too
vivid and dreadful a manner.  He could not endure it. Only for a
season!--only for a season! The earth would be green, and the sky blue,
and the sun shine bright for ever, and he would not see, not know it!
Struck with anguish at the thought, he stole away out of sight of the
others to hide himself in woods and thickets, to brood alone on such a
hateful destiny, and torture himself with vain longings, until he, too,
grew pale and thin and large-eyed, like the boy that had died, and those
who saw him shook their heads and whispered to one another that he was
not long for this world. He knew what they were saying, and it only
served to increase his misery and fear, and made him hate them because
they were insensible to the awful fact that death awaited them, or so
little concerned that they had never taken the trouble to inform him of
it. To eat and drink and sleep was all they cared for, and they regarded
death with indifference, because their dull sight did not recognize the
beauty and glory of the earth, nor their dull hearts respond to Nature's
everlasting gladness. The sight of the villagers, with their solemn
head-shakings and whisperings, even of his nearest kindred, grew
insupportable, and he at length disappeared from among them, and was
seen no more with his white, terror-stricken face. From that time he hid
himself in the close thickets, supporting his miserable existence on
wild fruits and leaves, and spending many hours each day lying in some
sheltered spot, gazing up into that blue sunny sky, which was his to
gaze on only for a season, while the large tears gathered in his eyes
and rolled unheeded down his wasted cheeks.

At length during this period there occurred an event which is the
obscurest part of his history; for I know not who or what it was--my
mind being in a mist about it--that came to or accidentally found him
lying on a bed of grass and dried leaves in his thorny hiding-place. It
may have been a gipsy or a witch--there were witches in those days--who,
suddenly looking on his upturned face and seeing the hunger in his
unfathomable eyes, loved him, in spite of her malignant nature; or a
spirit out of the earth; or only a very wise man, an ancient,
white-haired solitary, whose life had been spent in finding out the
secrets of nature. This being, becoming acquainted with the cause of the
boy's grief and of his solitary, miserable condition, began to comfort
him by telling him that no grief was incurable, no desire that heart
could conceive unattainable. He discoursed of the hidden potent
properties of nature, unknown only to those who seek not to know them;
of the splendid virtue inherent in all things, like the green and violet
flames in the clear colourless raindrops which are seen only on rare
occasions. Of life and death, he said that life was of the spirit which
never dies, that death meant only a passage, a change of abode of the
spirit, and the left body crumbled to dust when the spirit went out of
it to continue its existence elsewhere, but that those who hated the
thought of such change could, by taking thought, prolong life and live
for a thousand years, like the adder and tortoise or for ever. But no,
he would not leave the poor boy to grope alone and blindly after that
hidden knowledge he was burning to possess. He pitied him too much. The
means were simple and near to hand, the earth teemed with the virtue
that would save him from the dissolution which so appalled him. He would
be startled to hear in how small a thing and in how insignificant a
creature resided the principle that could make his body, like his
spirit, immortal. But exceeding great power often existed in small
compass: witness the adder's tooth, which was to our sight no more than
the point of the smallest thorn. Now, in the small ant there exists a
principle of a greater potency than any other in nature; so strong and
penetrating was it that even the dull and brutish kind of men who
enquire not into hidden things know something of its power. But the
greatest of all the many qualities of this acid was unknown to them. The
ants were a small people, but exceedingly wise and powerful. If a little
human child had the strength of an ant he would surpass in power the
mightiest giant that ever lived. In the same way ants surpassed men in
wisdom; and this strength and wisdom was the result of that acid
principle in them. Now, if any person should be able to overcome his
repugnance to so strange a food as to sustain himself on ants and
nothing else, the effect of the acid on him would be to change and
harden his flesh and make it impervious to decay or change of any kind.
He would, so long as he confined himself to this kind of food, be

Not a moment did the wretched boy hesitate to make use of this new and
wonderful knowledge. When he had found and broken open an ant-hill, so
eager was he that, shutting his eyes, he snatched up the maddened
insects by handfuls and swallowed them, dust and ants together, and was
then tortured for hours, feeling and thinking that they were still alive
within him, running about in search of an outlet and frantically biting.
The strange food sickened him, so that he grew thinner and paler, until
at last he could barely crawl on hands and feet, and was like a skeleton
except for the great sad eyes that could still see the green earth and
blue sky, and still reflected in their depths one fear and one desire.
And slowly, day by day, as his system accustomed itself to the new diet,
his strength returned, and he was able once more to walk erect and run,
and to climb a tree, where he could sit concealed among the thick
foliage and survey the village where he had first seen the light and had
passed the careless, happy years of boyhood. But he cherished no tender
memories and regrets; his sole thought was of the ants, and where to
find a sufficiency of them to stay the cravings of hunger; for, after
the first sensations of disgust had been overcome, he had begun to grow
fond of this kind of food, and now consumed it with avidity. And as his
strength increased so did his dexterity in catching the small, active
insect prey. He no longer gathered the ants up in his palm and swallowed
them along with dust and grit, but picked them up deftly, and conveyed
them one by one to his mouth with lightning rapidity. Meanwhile that
"acid principle," about which he had heard such wonderful things, was
having its effect on his system. His skin changed its colour; he grew
shrunken and small, until at length, after very many years, he dwindled
to the grey little manikin of the present time. His mind, too, changed;
he has no thought nor remembrance of his former life and condition and
of his long-dead relations; but he still haunts the village where he
knows so well where to find the small ants, to pick them from off the
ant-hill and from the trunks of trees with his quick little claw-like
hands. Language and song are likewise forgotten with all human things,
all except his laugh; for when hunger is satisfied, and the sun shines
pleasantly as he reposes on the dry leaves on the ground or sits aloft
on a branch, at times a sudden feeling of gladness possesses him, and he
expresses it in that one way--the long, wild, ringing peal of laughter.
Listening to that strange sound, although I could not see I could yet
picture him, as, aware of my cautious approach, he moved shyly behind
the mossy trunk of some tree and waited silently for me to pass. A lean,
grey little man, clad in a quaintly barred and mottled mantle, woven by
his own hands from some soft silky material, and a close-fitting brown
peaked cap on his head with one barred feather in it for ornament, and a
small wizened grey face with a thin sharp nose, puckered lips, and a
pair of round, brilliant, startled eyes.

So distinct was this image to my mind's eye that it became unnecessary
for me to see the creature, and I ceased to look for him; then all at
once came disillusion, when one day, hearing the familiar high-pitched
laugh with its penetrating and somewhat nasal tone, I looked and beheld
the thing that had laughed just leaving its perch on a branch near the
ground and winging its way across the field. It was only a bird after
all--only the wryneck; and that mysterious faculty I spoke of, saying
that we all of us possessed something of it (meaning only some of us)
was nothing after all but the old common faculty of imagination.

Later on I saw it again on half-a-dozen occasions, but never succeeded
in getting what I call a satisfying sight of it, perched woodpecker-wise
on a mossy trunk, busy at its old fascinating occupation of deftly
picking off the running ants.

It is melancholy to think that this quaint and beautiful bird of a
unique type has been growing less and less common in our country during
the last half a century, or for a longer period. In the last fifteen or
twenty years the falling-off has been very marked. The declension is not
attributable to persecution in this case, since the bird is not on the
gamekeeper's black list, nor has it yet become so rare as to cause the
amateur collectors of dead birds throughout the country systematically
to set about its extermination. Doubtless that will come later on when
it will be in the same category with the golden oriole, hoopoe,
furze-wren, and other species that are regarded as always worth killing;
that is to say, it will come--the scramble for the wryneck's
carcass--if nothing is done in the meantime to restrain the enthusiasm
of those who value a bird only when the spirit of life that gave it
flight and grace and beauty has been crushed out of it--when it is no
longer a bird. The cause of its decline up till now cannot be known to
us; we can only say in our ignorance that this type, like innumerable
others that have ceased to exist, has probably run its course and is
dying out. Or it might be imagined that its system is undergoing some
slow change, which tells on the migratory instinct, that it is becoming
more a resident species in its winter home in Africa. But all
conjectures are idle in such a case. It is melancholy, at all events for
the ornithologist, to think of an England without a wryneck; but before
that still distant day arrives let us hope that the love of birds will
have become a common feeling in the mass of the population, and that the
variety of our bird life will have been increased by the addition of
some chance colonists and of many new species introduced from distant

I have lingered long over the wryneck, but have still a story to relate
of this bird--not a fairy tale this time, but true.

On the border of the village adjoining the wood--the side where birds
were more abundant, and which consequently had the greatest attraction
for me--there stands an old picturesque cottage nearly concealed from
sight by the hedge in front and closely planted trees clustering round
it. On one side was a grass field, on the other an orchard of old
cherry, apple, and plum trees, all the property of the old man living in
the cottage, who was a character in his way; at all events, he had not
been fashioned in quite the same mould as the majority of the cottagers
about him. They mostly, when past middle life, wore a heavy, dull and
somewhat depressed look. This man had a twinkle in his dark-grey eyes,
an expression of intelligent curiosity and fellowship; and his full
face, bronzed with sixty or sixty-five years' exposure to the weather,
was genial, as if the sunshine that had so long beaten on it had not
been all used up in painting his skin that rich old-furniture colour,
but had, some of it, filtered through the epidermis into the heart to
make his existence pleasant and sweet. But it was a very rough-cast
face, with shapeless nose and thick lips. He was short and
broad-shouldered, always in the warm weather in his shirt-sleeves, a
shirt of some very coarse material and of an earthen colour, his brown
thick arms bare to the elbows. Waistcoat and trousers looked as if he
had worn them for half his life, and had a marbled or mottled appearance
as if they had taken the various tints of all the objects and materials
he had handled or rubbed against in his life's work--wood, mossy trees,
grass, clay, bricks, stone, rusty iron, and dozens more. He wore the
field-labourer's thick boots; his ancient rusty felt hat had long lost
its original shape; and finally, to complete the portrait, a short black
clay pipe was never out of his lips--never, at all events, when I saw
him, which was often; for every day as I strolled past his domain he
would be on the outside of his hedge, or just coming out of his gate,
invariably with something in his hand--a spade, a fork, or stick of
wood, or an old empty fruit-basket. Although thus having the appearance
of being very much occupied, he would always stop for a few minutes'
talk with me; and by-and-by I began to suspect that he was a very social
sort of person, and that it pleased him to have a little chat, but that
he liked to have me think that he met me by accident while going about
his work.

One sunny morning as I came past his field he came out bearing a huge
bundle of green grass on his head. "What!" he exclaimed, coming to a
stand, "you here to-day? I thought you'd be away to the regatta."

I said that I knew little about regattas and cared less, that a day
spent in watching and listening to the birds gave me more pleasure than
all the regattas in the country. "I suppose you can't understand that?"
I added.

He took the big green bundle from his head and set it down, pulled off
his old hat to flap the dust out of it, then sucked at his short clay.
"Well," he said at length, "some fancies one thing and some another, but
we most of us like a regatta."

During the talk that followed I asked him if he knew the wryneck, and if
it ever nested in his orchard. He did not know the bird; had never heard
its name nor the other names of snake-bird and cuckoo's mate; and when I
had minutely described its appearance, he said that no such bird was
known in the village.

I assured him that he was mistaken, that I had heard the cry of the bird
many times, and had even heard it once at a distance since our
conversation began. Hearing that distant cry had caused me to ask the

All at once he remembered that he knew, or had known formerly, the
wryneck very well, but he had never learnt its name. About twenty or
five-and-twenty years ago, he said, he saw the bird I had just described
in his orchard, and as it appeared day after day and had a strange
appearance as it moved up the tree trunks, he began to be interested in
it. One day he saw it fly into a hole close to the ground in an old
apple tree. "Now I've got you!" he exclaimed, and running to the spot
thrust his hand in as far as he could, but was unable to reach the bird.
Then he conceived the idea of starving it out, and stopped up the hole
with clay. The following day at the same hour he again put in his hand,
and this time succeeded in taking the bird. So strange was it to him
that after showing it to his own family he took it round to exhibit it
to his neighbours, and although some of them were old men, not one among
them had ever seen its like before. They concluded that it was a kind of
nuthatch, but unlike the common nuthatch which they knew. After they had
all seen and handled it and had finished the discussions about it, he
released it and saw it fly away; but, to his astonishment, it was back
in his orchard a few hours later. In a few weeks it brought out its five
or six young from the hole he had caught it in, and for several years it
returned each season to breed in the same hole until the tree was blown
down, after which the bird was seen no more.

What an experience the poor bird had suffered! First plastered up and
left to starve or suffocate in its hollow tree; then captured and passed
round from rough, horny hand to hand, while the villagers were
discussing it in their slow, ponderous fashion--how wildly its little
wild heart must have palpitated!--and, finally, after being released, to
go back at once to its eggs in that dangerous tree. I do not know which
surprised me most, the bird's action in returning to its nest after such
inhospitable treatment, or the ignorance of the villagers concerning it.
The incident seemed to show that the wryneck had been scarce at this
place for a very long period.

The villager, as a rule, is not a good observer, which is not strange,
since no person is, or ever can be, a good observer of the things in
which he is not specially interested; consequently the countryman only
knows the most common and the most conspicuous species. He plods through
life with downcast eyes and a vision somewhat dimmed by indifference;
forgetting, as he progresses, the small scraps of knowledge he acquired
by looking sharply during the period of boyhood, when every living
creature excited his attention. In Italy, notwithstanding the paucity of
bird life, I believe that the peasants know their birds better. The
reason of this is not far to seek; every bird, not excepting even the
"temple-haunting martlet" and nightingale and minute golden-crested
wren, is regarded only as a possible morsel to give a savour to a dish
of polenta, if the shy, little flitting thing can only be enticed within
touching distance of the limed twigs. Thus they take a very strong
interest in, and, in a sense, "love" birds. It is their passion for this
kind of flavouring which has drained rural Italy of its songsters, and
will in time have the same effect on Argentina, the country in which the
withering stream of Italian emigration empties itself.


From the date of my arrival at the village in May, until I left it early
in July, the great annual business of pairing, nest-building, and
rearing the young was going on uninterruptedly. The young of some of the
earliest breeders were already strong on the wing when I took my first
walks along the hedgerows, still in their early, vivid green, frequently
observing my bird through a white and rose-tinted cloud of
apple-blossoms; and when I left some species that breed more than once
in the season were rearing second broods or engaged in making new nests.
On my very first day I discovered a nest full of fully fledged blue tits
in a hole in an apple tree; this struck me as a dangerous place for the
young birds; as the tree leaned over towards the lane, and the hole
could almost be reached by a person standing on the ground. On the next
day I went to look at them, and approaching noiselessly along the lane,
spied two small boys with bright clean faces--it was on a
Sunday--standing within three or four yards of the tree, watching the
tits with intense interest. The parent birds were darting up and down,
careless of their presence, finding food so quickly in the gooseberry
bushes growing near the roots of the tree that they visited the hole
every few moments; while the young birds, ever screaming for more, were
gathered in a dense little cluster at the entrance, their yellow breasts
showing very brightly against the rain-wet wood and the dark interior of
the hole. The instant the two little watchers caught sight of me the
excited look vanished from their faces, and they began to move off,
gazing straight ahead in a somewhat vacant manner. This instantaneous
and instinctive display of hypocrisy was highly entertaining, and would
have made me laugh if it had not been for the serious purpose I had in
my mind. "Now, look here," I said, "I know what you are after, so it's
no use pretending that you are walking about and seeing nothing in
particular. You've been watching the young tits. Well, I've been
watching them, too, and waiting to see them fly. I dare say they will
be out by to-morrow or the next day, and I hope you little fellows won't
try to drag them out before then."

They at once protested that they had no such intention. They said that
they never robbed birds' nests; that there were several nests at home in
the garden and orchard, one of a nightingale with three eggs in it, but
that they never took an egg. But some of the boys they knew, they said,
took all the eggs they found; and there was one boy who got into every
orchard and garden in the place, who was so sharp that few nests escaped
him, and every nest he found he destroyed, breaking the eggs if there
were any, and if there were young birds killing them.

Not, perhaps, without first mutilating them, I thought; for I know
something of this kind of young "human devil," to use the phrase which
Canon Wilberforce has made so famous in another connexion. Later on I
heard much more about the exploits of this champion bird-destroyer of
the village from (strange to say) a bird-catcher by trade, a man of a
rather low type of countenance, and who lived, when at home, in a London
slum. On the common where he spread his nets he had found, he told me,
about thirty nests containing eggs or fledglings; but this boy had gone
over the ground after him, and not many of the nests had escaped his
sharp eyes.

I was satisfied that the young tits were quite safe, so far as these
youngsters were concerned, and only regretted that they were such small
Boys, and that the great nest-destroyer, whose evil deeds they spoke of
with an angry colour in their cheeks, was a very strong boy, otherwise I
should have advised them to "go" for him.

Oddly enough I heard of another boy who exercised the same kind of
cruelty and destructiveness over another common a few miles distant.
Walking across it I spied two boys among the furze bushes, and at the
same moment they saw me, whereupon one ran away and the other remained
standing. A nice little fellow of about eight, he looked as if he had
been crying. I asked him what it was all about, and he then told me that
the bigger boy who had just run away was always on the common searching
for nests, just to destroy them and kill the young birds; that he, my
informant, had come there where he came every day just to have a peep at
a linnet's nest with four eggs in it on which the bird was sitting; that
the other boy, concealed among the bushes had watched him go to the nest
and had then rushed up and pulled the nest out of the bush.

"Why didn't you knock him down?" I asked.

"That's what I tried to do before he pulled the nest out," he said; and
then he added sorrowfully: "He knocked me down."

I am reminded here of a tale of ancient Greece about a boy of this
description--the boy to be found in pretty well every parish in the
land. This was a shepherd boy who followed or led his sheep to a
distance from the village and amused his idle hours by snaring small
birds to put their eyes out with a sharp thorn, then to toss them up
just to see how, and how far, they would fly in the dark. He was seen
doing it and the matter reported to the heads or fathers of the village,
and he was brought before them and, after due consideration of the case,
condemned to death. Such a decision must seem shocking to us and worthy
of a semi-barbarous people. But if cruelty is the worst of all
offences--and this was cruelty in its most horrid form--the offence
which puts men down on a level with the worst of the mythical demons, it
was surely a righteous deed to blot such an existence out lest other
young minds should be contaminated, or even that it should be known that
such a crime was possible.

* * *

All those birds that had finished rearing their young by the sixteenth
of June were fortunate, for on the morning of that day a great and
continuous shouting, with gun-firing, banging on old brass and iron
utensils, with various other loud, unusual noises, were heard at one
extremity of the village, and continued with occasional quiet intervals
until evening. This tempest of rude sounds spread from day to day, until
the entire area of the village and the surrounding orchards was
involved, and the poor birds that were tied to the spots where their
treasures were, must have existed in a state of constant trepidation.
For now the cherries were fast ripening, and the fruit-eating birds,
especially the thrushes and black-birds, were inflamed at the gleam of
crimson colour among the leaves. In the very large orchards men and boys
were stationed all day long yelling and firing off guns to frighten the
marauders. In the smaller orchards the trees were decorated with
whirligigs of coloured paper; ancient hats, among which were some of the
quaintly-shaped chimney-pots of a past generation; old coats and
waistcoats and trousers, and rags of all colours to flutter in the wind;
and these objects were usually considered a sufficient protection. Some
of the birds, wiser than their fellows, were not to be kept back by such
simple means; but so long as they came not in battalions, but singly,
they could have their fill, and no notice was taken of them.

I was surprised to hear that on the large plantations the men employed
were not allowed to use shot, the aim of the fruit grower being only to
scare the birds away. I had a talk with my old friend of the wryneck on
the subject, and told him that I had seen one of the bird-scarers going
home to his cottage very early in the morning, carrying a bunch of about
a dozen blackbirds and thrushes he had just shot.

Yes, he replied, some of the men would buy shot and use it early in the
morning before their master was about; but if the man I had seen had
been detected in the act, he would have been discharged on the spot. It
was not only because the trees would be injured by shot, but this
fruitgrower was friendly to birds.

Most fruit-growers, I said, were dead against the birds, and anxious
only to kill as many of them as possible.

It might be so in some places, he answered, but not in the village. He
himself and most of the villagers depended, in a great measure, on the
fruit they produced for a living, and their belief was that, taking one
bird with another all the year round, the birds did them more good than

I then imparted to him the views on this bird subject of a well-known
fruit-grower in the north of England, Mr. Joseph Witherspoon, of
Chester-le-Street. He began by persecuting the birds, as he had been
taught to do by his father, a market-gardener; but after years of
careful observation he completely changed his views, and is now so
convinced of the advantage that birds are to the fruit-grower, that he
does all in his power to attract them, and to tempt them to breed in his
grounds. His main idea is that birds that are fed on the premises, that
live and feed among the trees, search for and attack the gardeners'
enemies at every stage of their existence. At the same time he believes
that it is very bad to grow fruit near woods, as in such a case the
birds that live in the woods and are of no advantage to the garden,
swarm into it as the fruit ripens, and that it is only by liberal use of
nets that any reasonable portion of the fruit can be saved.

He answered that with regard to the last point he did not quite agree
with Mr. Witherspoon. All the gardens and orchards in the village were
raided by the birds from the wood, yet he reckoned they got as much
fruit from their trees as others who had no woods near them. Then there
was the big cherry plantation, one of the biggest in England, so that
people came from all parts in the blossoming time just to look at it,
and a wonderful sight it was. For a quarter of a mile this particular
orchard ran parallel with the wood; with nothing but the green road
between, and when the first fruit was ripening you could see all the big
trees on the edge of the wood swarming with birds--jays, thrushes,
blackbirds, doves, and all sorts of tits and little birds, just waiting
for a chance to pounce down and devour the cherries. The noise kept them
off, but many would dodge in, and even if a gun was fired close to them
the blackbirds would snatch a cherry and carry it off to the wood. That
didn't matter--a few cherries here and there didn't count. The starlings
were the worst robbers: if you didn't scare them they would strip a tree
and even an orchard in a few hours. But they were the easiest birds to
deal with: they went in flocks, and a shout or rattle or report of a gun
sent the lot of them away together.  His way of looking at it was this.
In the fruit season, which lasts only a few weeks, you are bound to
suffer from the attacks of birds, whether they are your own birds only
or your own combined with others from outside, unless you keep them off;
that those who do not keep them off are foolish or indolent, and deserve
to suffer. The fruit season was, he said, always an anxious time.

In conclusion, I remarked that the means used for protecting the fruit,
whether they served their purpose well or not, struck me as being very
unworthy of the times we lived in, and seemed to show that the British
fruit-growers, who were ahead of the world in all other matters
connected with their vocation, had quite neglected this one point. A
thousand years ago cultivators of the soil were scaring the birds from
their crops just as we are doing, with methods no better and no worse,
putting up scarecrows and old ragged garments and fluttering rags,
hanging a dead crow to a stick to warn the others off, shouting and
yelling and throwing stones. There appeared to be an opening here for
experiment and invention. Mere noise was not terrifying to birds, and
they soon discovered that an old hat on a stick had no injurious brains
in or under it. But certain sounds and colours and odours had a strong
effect on some animals. Sounds made to stimulate the screams of some
hawks would perhaps prove very terrifying to thrushes and other small
birds, and the effect of scarlet in large masses or long strips might be
tried. It would also be worth while to try the effect of artificial
sparrow-hawks and other birds of prey, perched conspicuously, moving and
perking their tails at intervals by clockwork. In fact, a hundred things
might be tried until something valuable was found, and when it lost its
value, for the birds would in time discover the deception, some new plan

To this dissertation on what might be done, he answered that if any one
could find out or invent any new effective means to keep the birds from
the fruit, the fruit-growers would be very thankful for it; but that no
such invention could be looked for from those who are engaged on the
soil; that it must come from those who do not dig and sweat, but sit
still and work with their brains at new ideas.

This ended our conversation, and I left him more than satisfied at the
information he had given me, and with a higher opinion than ever of his
geniality and good practical sense.

It was a relief when the noisy, bird-scaring business was done with, and
the last market baskets of ripe cherries were carried away to the
station. Very splendid they looked in such large masses of crimson, as
the baskets were brought out and set down in the grassy road; but I
could not help thinking a little sadly that the thrushes and blackbirds
which had been surreptitiously shot, when fallen and fluttering in the
wet grass in the early morning, had shed life-drops of that same
beautiful colour.


After the middle of June the common began to attract me more and more.
It was so extensive that, standing on its border, just beyond the last
straggling cottages and orchards, the further side was seen only as a
line of blue trees, indistinct in the distance. As I grew to know it
better, adding each day to my list from its varied bird life, the woods
and waterside were visited less and less frequently, and after the
bird-scaring noises began in the village, its wildness and quiet became
increasingly grateful. The silence of nature was broken only by bird
sounds, and the most frequent sound was that of the yellow bunting, as,
perched motionless on the summit of a gorse bush, his yellow head
conspicuous at a considerable distance, he emitted his thin monotonous
chant at regular intervals, like a painted toy-bird that sings by
machinery. There, too, sedentary as an owl in the daytime, the corn
bunting was common, discharging his brief song at intervals--a sound as
of shattering glass. The whinchat was rarely seen, but I constantly met
the small, prettily coloured stonechat flitting from bush to bush,
following me, and never ceasing his low, querulous tacking chirp,
anxious for the safety of his nest. Nightingales, blackcaps and
white-throats also nested there, and were louder and more emphatic in
their protests when approached. There were several grasshopper-warblers
on the common, all, very curiously as it seemed to me, clustered at one
spot, so that one could ramble over miles of ground without hearing
their singular note; but on approaching the place they inhabited one
gradually became conscious of a mysterious trilling buzz or whirr, low
at first and growing louder and more stridulous, until the hidden
singers were left behind, when by degrees it sank lower and lower again,
and ceased to be audible at a distance of about one hundred yards from
the points where it had sounded loudest. The birds hid in clumps of
furze and bramble so near together that the area covered by the buzzing
sound measured about two hundred yards across. This most singular sound
(for a warbler to make) is certainly not ventriloquial, although if one
comes to it with the sense of hearing disorganized by town noises or
unpractised, one is at a loss to determine the exact spot it comes from,
or even to know from which side it comes. While emitting its prolonged
sound the bird is so absorbed in its own performance that it is not
easily alarmed, and will sometimes continue singing with a human
listener standing within four or five yards of it. When one is near the
bird, and listens, standing motionless, the effect on the nerves of
hearing is very remarkable, considering the smallness of the sound,
which, without being unpleasant, is somewhat similar to that produced by
the vibration of the brake of a train; it is not powerful enough to jar
the nerves, but appears to pervade the entire system. Lying still, with
eyes closed, and three or four of these birds singing near, so that
their strains overlap and leave no silent intervals, the listener can
imagine that the sound originates within himself; that the numberless
fine cords of his nervous network tremble responsively to it.

There are a number of natural sounds that resemble more or less closely
the most unbirdlike note of this warbler--cicada, rattlesnake, and some
batrachians.  Some grasshoppers perhaps come nearest to it; but the most
sustained current of sound emitted by the insect is short compared to
the warbler's strain, also the vibrations are very much more rapid, and
not heard as vibrations, and the same effect is not produced.

The grasshopper warblers gave me so much pleasure that I was often at
the spot where they had their little colony of about half-a-dozen pairs,
and where I discovered they bred every year. At first I used to go to
any bush where I had caught sight of a bird and sit down within a few
yards of it and wait until the little hideling's shyness wore off, and
he would come out and start reeling. Afterwards I always went straight
to the same bush, because I thought the bird that used it as his
singing-place appeared less shy than the others. One day I spent a long
time listening to this favourite; delightedly watching him, perched on a
low twig on a level with my sight, and not more than five yards from me;
his body perfectly motionless, but the head and wide-open beak jerked
from side to side in a measured, mechanical way. I had a side view of
the bird, but every three seconds the head would be jerked towards me,
showing the bright yellow colour of the open mouth. The reeling would
last about three minutes, then the bird would unbend or unstiffen and
take a few hops about the bush, then stiffen and begin again. While thus
gazing and listening I, by chance, met with an experience of that rare
kind which invariably strikes the observer of birds as strange and
almost incredible--an example of the most perfect mimicry in a species
which has its own distinctive song and is not a mimic except once in a
while, and as it were by chance. The marsh warbler is our perfect
mocking-bird, our one professional mimic; while the starling in
comparison is but an amateur. We all know the starling's ever varying
performance in which he attempts a hundred things and occasionally
succeeds; but even the starling sometimes affects us with a mild
astonishment, and I will here give one instance.

I was staying at a village in the Wiltshire downs, and at intervals,
while sitting at work in my room on the ground floor, I heard the
cackling of a fowl at the cottage opposite. I heard, but paid no
attention to that familiar sound; but after three days it all at once
struck me that no fowl could lay an egg about every ten or twelve
minutes, and go on at this rate day after day, and, getting up, I went
out to look for the cackler. A few hens were moving quietly about the
open ground surrounding the cottage where the sound came from, but I
heard nothing. By and by, when I was back in my room, the cackling
sounded again, but when I got out the sound had ceased and the fowls, as
before, appeared quite unexcited. The only way to solve the mystery was
to stand there, out of doors, for ten minutes, and before that time was
over a starling with a white grub in his beak, flew down and perched on
the low garden wall of the cottage, then, with some difficulty, squeezed
himself through a small opening into a cavity under a strip of zinc
which covered the bricks of the wall. It was a queer place for a
starling's nest, on a wall three feet high and within two yards of the
cottage door which stood open all day. Having delivered the grub, the
starling came out again and, hopping on to the zinc, opened his beak and
cackled like a hen, then flew away for more grubs.

I observed the starling a good deal after this, and found that
invariably on leaving the nest, he uttered his imitation of a fowl
cackling, and no other note or sound of any kind. It was as if he was
not merely imitating a sound, but had seen a fowl leaving the nest and
then cackling, and mimicked the whole proceeding, and had kept up the
habit after the young were hatched.

To return to my experience on the common. About fifty yards from the
spot where I was there was a dense thicket of furze and thorn, with a
huge mound in the middle composed of a tangle of whitethorn and bramble
bushes mixed with ivy and clematis. From this spot, at intervals of half
a minute or so, there issued the call of a duck--the prolonged, hoarse
call of a drake, two or three times repeated, evidently emitted in
distress. I conjectured that it came from one of a small flock of ducks
belonging to a cottage near the edge of the common on that side. The
flock, as I had seen, was accustomed to go some distance from home, and
I supposed that one of them, a drake, had got into that brambly thicket
and could not make his way out. For half an hour I heard the calls
without paying much attention, absorbed in watching the quaint little
songster close to me and his curious gestures when emitting his
sustained reeling sounds. In the end the persistent distressed calling
of the drake lost in a brambly labyrinth got a little on my nerves, and
I felt it as a relief when it finally ceased. Then, after a short
silence, another sound came from the same spot--a blackbird sound, known
to everyone, but curiously interesting when uttered in the way I now
heard it. It was the familiar loud chuckle, not emitted in alarm and
soon ended, but the chuckle uttered occasionally by the bird when he is
not disturbed, or when, after uttering it once for some real cause, he
continues repeating it for no reason at all, producing the idea that he
has just made the discovery that it is quite a musical sound and that he
is repeating it, as if singing, just for pleasure. At such times the
long series of notes do not come forth with a rush; he begins
deliberately with a series of musical chirps uttered in a measured
manner, like those of a wood wren, the prelude to its song, the notes
coming faster and faster and swelling and running into the loud
chuckling performance. This performance, like the lost drake's call, was
repeated in the same deliberate or leisurely manner at intervals again
and again, until my curiosity was aroused and I went to the spot to get
a look at the bird who had turned his alarm sound into a song and
appeared to be very much taken with it.  But there was no blackbird at
the spot, and no lost drake, and no bird, except a throstle sitting
motionless on the bush mound. This was the bird I had been listening to,
uttering not his own thrush melody, which he perhaps did not know at
all, but the sounds he had borrowed from two species so wide apart in
their character and language.

The astonishing thing in this case was that the bird never uttered a
note of his own original and exceedingly copious song; and I could only
suppose that he had never learned the thrush melody; that he had,
perhaps, been picked up as a fledgling and put in a cage, where he had
imitated the sounds he heard and liked best, and made them his song, and
that he had finally escaped or had been liberated.

The wild thrush, we know, does introduce certain imitations into his own
song, but the borrowed notes, or even phrases, are, as a rule, few, and
not always to be distinguished from his own.

Sometimes one can pick them out; thus, on the borders of a marsh where
redshanks bred, I have heard the call of that bird distinctly given by
the thrush. And again, where the ring-ouzel is common, the thrush will
get its brief song exactly. When thrushes taken from the nest are reared
in towns, where they never hear the thrush or any other bird sing, they
are often exceedingly vocal, and utter a medley of sounds which are
sometimes distressing to the ear. I have heard many caged thrushes of
this kind in London, but the most remarkable instance I have met with
was at the little seaside town of Seaford. Here, in the main shopping
street, a caged thrush lived for years in a butcher's shop, and poured
out its song continuously, the most distressing throstle performance I
ever heard, composed of a medley of loud, shrill and harsh
sounds--imitations of screams and shouts, boy whistlers, saw filing,
knives sharpened on steels, and numerous other unclassifiable noises;
but all, more or less, painful. The whole street was filled with the
noise, and the owner used to boast that his caged thrush was the most
persistent as well as the loudest singer that had ever been heard. He
had no nerves, and was proud of it! On a recent visit to Seaford I
failed to hear the bird when walking about the town, and after two or
three days went into the shop to enquire about it. They told me it was
dead--that it had been dead over a year; also that many visitors to
Seaford had missed its song and had called at the shop to ask about the
bird. The strangest thing about its end, they said, was its suddenness.
The bird was singing its loudest one morning, and had been at it for
some time, filling the whole place with its noise, when suddenly, in the
middle of its song, it dropped down dead from its perch.

To drop dead while singing is not an unheard of, nor a very rare
occurrence in caged birds, and it probably happens, too, in birds living
their natural life. Listening to a nightingale, pouring out its powerful
music continuously, as the lark sings, one sometimes wonders that
something does not give way to end the vocalist's performance and life
at the same instant. Some such incident was probably the origin of the
old legend of the minstrel and the nightingale on which Strada based his
famous poem, known in many languages. In England Crawshaw's version was
by far the best, and is perhaps the finest bird poem in our literature.

The blackbird, like the thrush, sometimes borrows a note or a phrase,
and, like the thrush again, if reared by hand he may become a nuisance
by mimicking some disagreeable sound, and using it by way of song. I
heard of such a case a short time ago at Sidmouth. The ground floor of
the house where I lodged was occupied by a gentleman who had a fondness
for bird music, and being an invalid confined to his rooms, he kept a
number of birds in cages. He had, besides canaries, the thrush,
chaffinch, linnet, goldfinch and cirl bunting. I remarked that he did
not have the best singer of all--the blackbird. He said that he had
procured one, or that some friend had sent him one, a very beautiful
ouel cock in the blackest plumage and with the orange-tawniest bill,
and he had anticipated great pleasure from hearing its fluting melody.
But alas! no blackbird song did this unnatural blackbird sing. He had
learnt to bark like a dog, and whenever the singing spirit took him he
would bark once or twice or three times, and then, after an interval of
silence of the proper length, about fifteen seconds, he would bark
again, and so on until he had had his fill of music for the time. The
barking got on the invalid's nerves, and he sent the bird away. "It was
either that," he said, "or losing my senses altogether."

* * *

As all or most singing birds learn their songs from the adults of the
same species, it is not strange that there should be a good deal of what
we call mimicry in their performances: we may say, in fact, that pretty
well all the true singers are mimics, but that some mimic more than
others. Thus, the starling is more ready to borrow other birds' notes
than the thrush, while the marsh-warbler borrows so much that his
singing is mainly composed of borrowings. The nightingale is, perhaps,
an exception. His voice excels in power and purity of sound, and what we
may call his artistry is exceptionally perfect; this may account for the
fact that he does not borrow from other birds' songs. I should say, from
my own observation, that all songsters are interested in the singing of
other species, or at all events, in certain notes, especially the most
striking in power, beauty, and strangeness. Thus, when the cuckoo starts
calling, you will see other small birds fly straight to the tree and
perch near him, apparently to listen. And among the listeners you will
find the sparrow and tits of various species--birds which are never
victimized by the cuckoo, and do not take him for a hawk since they take
no notice of him until the calling begins. The reason that the double
fluting call of the cuckoo is not mimicked by other birds is that they
can't; because that peculiar sound is not in their register. The
bubbling cry is reproduced by both the marsh warbler and the starling.
Again, it is my experience that when a nightingale starts singing, the
small birds near immediately become attentive, often suspending their
own songs and some flying to perch near him, and listen, just as they
listen to the cuckoo. Birds imitate the note or phrase that strikes them
most, and is easiest to imitate, as when the thrush copies the piping
and trilling of the redshank and the easy song of the ring-ouzel, which,
when incorporated into his own music, harmonizes with it perfectly. But
he cannot flute, and so never mimics the blackbird's song, although he
can and does, as we have seen, imitate its chuckling cry.

There is another thing to be considered. I believe that the bird, like
creatures in other classes, has his receptive period, his time to learn,
and that, like some mammals, he learns everything he needs to know in
his first year or two; and that, having acquired his proper song, he
adds little or nothing to it thereafter, although the song may increase
in power and brilliance when the bird comes to full maturity. This, I
think, holds true of all birds, like the nightingale, which have a
singing period of two or three months and are songless for the rest of
the year. That long, silent period cannot, so far as sounds go, be a
receptive one; the song early in life has become crystallized in the
form it will keep through life, and is like an intuitive act. This is
not the case with birds like the starling, that sing all the year
round--birds that are naturally loquacious and sing instead of screaming
and chirping like others. They are always borrowing new sounds and
always forgetting.

The most curious example of mimicry I have yet met with is that of a
true mocking-bird, Mimus patachonicus, a common resident species in
northern Patagonia, on the Atlantic side, very abundant in places. He is
a true mocking-bird because he belongs to the genus Mimus, a branch of
the thrush family, and not because he mocks or mimics the songs of other
species, like others of his kindred. He does not, in fact, mimic the set
songs of others, although he often introduces notes and phrases borrowed
from other species into his own performance. He sings in a sketchy way
all the year round, but in spring has a fuller unbroken song, emitted
with more power and passion. For the rest of the time he sings to amuse
himself, as it seems, in a peculiarly leisurely, and one may say,
indolent manner, perched on a bush, from time to time emitting a note or
two, then a phrase which, if it pleases him, he will repeat two or
three, or half a dozen times. Then, after a pause, other notes and
phrases, and so on, pretty well all day long. This manner of singing is
irritating, like the staccato song of our throstle, to a listener who
wants a continuous stream of song; but it becomes exceedingly
interesting when one discovers that the bird is thinking very much about
his own music, if one can use such an expression about a bird; that he
is all the time experimenting, trying to get a new phrase, a new
combination of the notes he knows and new notes. Also, that when sitting
on his bush and uttering these careless chance sounds, he is, at the
same time, intently listening to the others, all engaged in the same
way, singing and listening. You will see them all about the place, each
bird sitting motionless, like a grey and white image of a bird, on the
summit of his own bush. For, although he is not gregarious as a rule, a
number of pairs live near each other, and form a sort of loose
community. The bond that unites them is their music, for not only do
they sit within hearing distance, but they are perpetually mimicking
each other. One may say that they are accomplished mimics but prefer
mimicking their own to other species. But they only imitate the notes
that take their fancy, so to speak. Thus, occasionally, one strikes out
a phrase, a new expression, which appears to please him, and after a few
moments he repeats it again, then again, and so on and on, and if you
remain an hour within hearing he will perhaps be still repeating it at
short intervals. Now, if by chance there is something in the new phrase
which pleases the listeners too, you will note that they instantly
suspend their own singing, and for some little time they do nothing but
listen. By and by the new note or phrase will be exactly reproduced from
a bird on another bush; and he, too, will begin repeating it at short
intervals. Then a second one will get it, then a third, and eventually
all the birds in that thicket will have it. The constant repeating of
the new note may then go on for hours, and it may last longer. You may
return to the spot on the second day and sit for an hour or longer,
listening, and still hear that same note constantly repeated until you
are sick and tired of it, or it may even get on your nerves. I remember
that on one occasion I avoided a certain thicket, one of my favourite
daily haunts for three whole days, not to hear that one everlasting
sound; then I returned and to my great relief the birds were all at
their old game of composing, and not one uttered--perhaps he didn't
dare--the too hackneyed phrase. I was sharply reminded one day by an
incident in the village of this old Patagonian experience, and of the
strange human-like weakness or passion for something new and arresting
in music or song, something "tuney" or "catchy."

It chanced that when I left London a new popular song had come out and
was "all the rage," a tune and words invented or first produced in the
music-halls by a woman named Lottie Collins, with a chorus to
it--_Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay_, repeated several times. First caught up in
the music-halls it spread to the streets, and in ever-widening circles
over all London, and over all the land. In London people were getting
tired of hearing it, but when I arrived at my village "in a hole," and
settled down among the Badgers, I heard it on every hand--in cottages,
in the streets, in the fields, men, women and children were singing,
whistling, and humming it, and in the evening at the inn roaring it out
with as much zest as if they had been singing _Rule Britannia._

This state of things lasted from May to the middle of June; then, one
very hot, still day, about three o'clock, I was sitting at my cottage
window when I caught the sound of a rumbling cart and a man singing. As
the noise grew louder my interest in the approaching man and cart was
excited to an extraordinary degree; never had I heard such a noise! And
no wonder, since the man was driving a heavy, springless farm cart in
the most reckless manner, urging his two huge horses to a fast trot,
then a gallop, up and down hill along those rough gully-like roads, he
standing up in his cart and roaring out "Auld Lang Syne," at the top of
a voice of tremendous power. He was probably tipsy, but it was not a bad
voice, and the old familiar tune and words had an extraordinary effect
in that still atmosphere. He passed my cottage, standing up, his legs
wide apart, his cap on the back of his head, a big broad-chested young
man, lashing his horses, and then for about two minutes or longer the
thunder of the cart and the roaring song came back fainter, until it
faded away in the distance. At that still hour of the day the children
were all at school on the further side of the village; the men away in
the fields; the women shut up in their cottages, perhaps sleeping. It
seemed to me that I was the only person in the village who had witnessed
and heard the passing of the big-voiced man and cart. But it was not so.
At all events, next day, the whole village, men, women and children,
were singing, humming and whistling "Auld Lang Syne," and "Auld Lang
Syne" lasted for several days, and from that day "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay"
was heard no more. It had lost its charm.


Just out of hearing of the grasshopper warblers, there was a good-sized
pool of water on the common, probably an old gravel-pit, its bottom now
overgrown with rushes. A sedge warbler, the only one on the common,
lived in the masses of bramble and gorse on its banks; and birds of so
many kinds came to it to drink and bathe that the pool became a
favourite spot with me. One evening, just before sunset, as I lingered
near it, a pied wagtail darted out of some low scrub at my feet and
fluttered, as if wounded, over the turf for a space of ten or twelve
yards before flying away. Not many minutes after seeing the wagtail, a
reed-bunting--a bird which I had not previously observed on the
common--flew down and alighted on a bush a few yards from me, holding a
white crescent-shaped grub in its beak. I stood still to watch it,
certainly not expecting to see its nest and young; for, as a rule, a
bird with food in its beak will sit quietly until the watcher loses
patience and moves away; but on this occasion I had not been standing
more than ten seconds before the bunting flew down to a small tuft of
furze and was there greeted by the shrill, welcoming cries of its young.
I went up softly to the spot, when out sprang the old bird I had seen,
but only to drop to the ground just as the wagtail had done, to beat the
turf with its wings, then to lie gasping for breath, then to flutter on
a little further, until at last it rose up and flew to a bush.

After admiring the reed-bunting's action, I turned to the dwarf bush
near my feet, and saw, perched on a twig in its centre, a solitary young
bird, fully fledged but not yet capable of sustained flight. He did not
recognise an enemy in me; on the contrary, when I approached my hand to
him, he opened his yellow mouth wide, in expectation of being fed,
although his throat was crammed with caterpillars, and the white
crescent-shaped larva I had seen in the parent's bill was still lying in
his mouth unswallowed. The wonder is that when a young bird had been
stuffed with food to such an extent just before sleeping time, he can
still find it in him to open his mouth and call for more.

* * *

How wonderful it is that this parental instinct, so beautiful in its
perfect simulation of the action of the bird that has lost the power of
flight, should be found in so large a number of species! But when we
find that it is not universal; that in two closely-allied species one
will possess it and the other not; and that it is common in such
widely-separated orders as gallinaceous and passerine birds, in pigeons,
ducks, and waders, it becomes plain that it is not assignable to
community of descent, but has originated independently all over the
globe, in a vast number of species. Something of the beginnings and
progressive development of this instinct may be learnt, I think, by
noticing the behaviour of various passerine birds in the presence of
danger, to their nests and young. Their actions and cries show that they
are greatly agitated, and in a majority of species the parent bird flits
and flutters round the intruder, uttering sounds of distress. Frequently
the bird exhibits its agitation, not only by these cries and restless
motions, but by the drooping of the wings and tail--the action observed
in a bird when hurt or sick, or oppressed with heat. These languishing
signs are common to a great many species after the young have been
hatched; the period when the parental solicitude is most intense. In
several species which I have observed in South America, the languishing
is more marked. There are no sorrowful cries and restless movements; the
bird sits with hanging wings and tail, gasping for breath with open bill
--in appearance a greatly suffering bird. In some cases of this
description, the bird, if it moves at all, hops or flutters from a
higher to a lower branch, and, as if sick or wounded, seems about to
sink to the ground. In still others, the bird actually does drop to the
ground, then, feebly flapping its wings, rises again with great effort.
From this last form it is but a step to the more highly developed
complex instinct of the bird that sinks to the earth and flutters
painfully away, gasping, and seemingly incapable of flight.

It would be a great mistake to suppose that the bird when fluttering on
the ground to lead an enemy from the neighbourhood of its nest is in
full possession of all its faculties, acting consciously, and itself in
as little danger of capture as when on its perch or flying through the
air. We have seen that the action has its root in the bird's passion for
its young, and intense solicitude in the presence of any danger
threatening them, which is so universal in this class of creatures, and
which expresses itself so variously in different kinds. This must be in
all cases a painful and debilitating emotion, and when the bird drops
down to the earth its pain has caused it to fall as surely as if it had
received a wound or had been suddenly attacked by some grievous malady;
and when it flutters on the ground it is for the moment incapable of
flight, and its efforts to recover flight and safety cause it to beat
its wings, and tremble, and gasp with open mouth. The object of the
action is to deceive an enemy, or, to speak more correctly, the result
is to deceive, and there is nothing that will more inflame and carry
away any rapacious mammal than the sight of a fluttering bird. But in
thus drawing upon itself the attention of an enemy threatening the
safety of its eggs or young, to what a terrible danger does the parent
expose itself, and how often, in those moments of agitation and
debility, must its own life fall a sacrifice! The sudden spring and rush
of a feline enemy must have proved fatal in myriads of instances. From
its inception to its most perfect stage, in the various species that
possess it, this perilous instinct has been washed in blood and made

What I have just said, that the peculiar instinct and deceptive action
we have been considering is made and kept bright by being bathed in
blood, applies to all instinctive acts that tend to the preservation of
life, both of the individual and species. Necessarily so, seeing that,
for one thing, instincts can only arise and grow to perfection in order
to meet cases which commonly occur in the life of a species. The
instinct is not prophetic and does not meet rare or extraordinary
situations. Unless intelligence or some higher faculty comes in to
supplement or to take the place of instinctive action then the creature
must perish on account of the limitation of instinct. Again, the higher
and more complete the instinct the more perilous it is, seeing that its
efficiency depends on the absolutely perfect health and balance of all
the faculties and the entire organism. Thus, the higher instinctive
faculty and action of birds for the preservation of the species, that of
migration, is undoubtedly the most dangerous of all. It is so perfect
that by means of this faculty millions and myriads of birds of an
immense variety of species from cranes, swans, and geese down to minute
goldcrests and firecrests and the smallest feeble-winged-leaf warblers,
are able to inhabit and to distribute themselves evenly over all the
temperate and cold regions of the earth, and even nearer the pole: and
in all these regions they rear their young and spend several months each
year, where they would inevitably perish from cold and lack of food if
they stayed on to meet the winter. We can best realize the perfection of
this instinct when we consider that all these migrants, including the
young which have never hitherto strayed beyond the small area of their
home where every tree and bush and spring and rock is familiar to them,
rush suddenly away as if blown by a wind to unknown lands and continents
beyond the seas to a distance of from a thousand to six or seven
thousand miles; that after long months spent in those distant places,
which in turn have grown familiar to them, they return again to their
natal place, not in a direct but ofttimes by a devious route, now north,
now north-east, now east or west, keeping to the least perilous lines
and crossing the seas where they are narrowest. Thus, when the returning
multitude recrosses the Channel into England, coming by way of France
and Spain from north or south or mid-Africa and from Asia, they at once
proceed to disperse over the entire country from Land's End to Thurso
and the northernmost islands of Scotland, until every wood and hill and
moor and thicket and stream and every village and field and hedgerow and
farmhouse has its own feathered people back in their old places. But
they do not return in their old force. They had increased to twice or
three times their original numbers when they left us, and as a result of
that great adventure a half or two-thirds of the vast army has perished.

The instinct which in character comes nearest to that of the parent
simulating the action of a wounded and terrified bird struggling to
escape in order to safeguard its young, is that one, very strong in all
ground-breeding species, of sitting close on the nest in the presence of
danger. Here, too, the instinct is of prime importance to the species,
since the bird by quitting the nest reveals its existence to the
prowling, nest-seeking enemy--dog, cat, fox, stoat, rat, in England;
and in the country where I first observed animals, the skunk, armadillo,
opossum, snake, wild cat, and animals of the weasel family. By leaving
its nest a minute or half a minute too soon the bird sacrifices the eggs
or young; by staying a moment too long it is in imminent danger of being
destroyed itself.  How often the bird stays too long on the nest is seen
in the corn-crake, a species continually decreasing in this country
owing to the destruction caused by the mowing-machine. The parent birds
that escape may breed again in a safer place, but in many cases the bird
clings too long to its nest and is decapitated or fatally injured by the
cutters.  Larks, too, often perish in the same way. To go back to the
ailing or wounded bird simulating action: this is perhaps most perfect
in the gallinaceous birds, all ground-breeders whose nests are most
diligently hunted for by all egg-eating creatures, beast or bird, and
whose tender chicks are a favourite food for all rapacious animals. In
the fowl, pheasants, partridges, quail, and grouse, the instinct is
singularly powerful, the bird making such violent efforts to escape,
with such an outcry, such beating of its wings and struggles on the
ground, that no rapacious beast, however often he may have been deceived
before, can fail to be carried away with the prospect of an immediate
capture. The instinct and action has appeared to me more highly
developed in these birds because, in the first place, the demonstrations
are more violent than in other families, consequently more effective;
and secondly, because the danger once over, the bird's recovery to its
normal quiet, watchful state is quicker. By way of experiment, I have at
various times thrown myself on pheasants, partridges and grouse, when I
have found them with a family of recently-hatched chicks; then on giving
up the chase and turning away from the bird its instantaneous recovery
has seemed like a miracle. It was like a miracle because the creature
did actually suffer from all those violent, debilitating emotions
expressed in its disordered cries and action, and it is the miracle of
Nature's marvellous health. If we, for example, were thrown into these
violent extremes of passion, we should not escape the after-effects. Our
whole system would suffer, a doctor would perhaps have to be called in
and would discourse wisely on metabolism and the development of toxins
in the muscles, and give us a bottle of medicine.

I will conclude this digression and dissertation on a bird's instinct by
relating the action of a hen-pheasant I once witnessed, partly because
it is the most striking one I have met with of that instantaneous
recovery of a bird from an extremity of distress and terror, and partly
for another reason which will appear at the end.

The hen-pheasant was a solitary bird, having strayed away from the
pheasant copses near the Itchen and found a nesting-place a mile away,
on the other side of the valley, among the tall grasses and sedges on its
border. I was the bird's only human neighbour, as I was staying in a
fishing-cottage near the spot where the bird had its nest. Eventually,
it brought off eight chicks and remained with them at the same spot on the
edge of the valley, living like a rail among the sedges and tall valley
herbage. I never went near the bird, but from the cottage caught sight of
it from time to time, and sometimes watched it with my binocular. There
was, I thought, a good chance of its being able to rear its young, unless
the damp proved injurious, as there was no dog or cat at the cottage, and
there were no carrion crows or sparrow-hawks at that spot. One morning
about five o'clock on going out I spied a fox-terrier, a poaching dog
from the neighbouring village, rushing about in an excited state a
hundred yards or so below the cottage. He had scented the birds, and
presently up rose the hen from the tall grass with a mighty noise, then
flopping down she began beating her wings and struggling over the grass,
uttering the most agonizing screams, the dog after her, frantically
grabbing at her tail. I feared that he would catch her, and seizing a
stick flew down to the rescue, yelling at the dog, but he was too excited
to obey or even hear me. At length, thanks to the devious course taken by
the bird, I got near enough to get in a good blow on the dog's back. He
winced and went on as furiously as ever, and then I got in another blow
so well delivered that the rascal yelled, and turning fled back to the
village. Hot and panting from my exertions, I stood still, but sooner
still the pheasant had pulled herself up and stood there, about three
yards from my feet, as if nothing had happened--as if not a ripple had
troubled the quiet surface of her life! The serenity of the bird, just
out of that storm of violence and danger, and her perfect indifference to
my presence, was astonishing to me. For a minute or two I stood still
watching her; then turned to walk back to the cottage, and no sooner did
I start than after me she came at a gentle trot, following me like a dog.
On my way back I came to the very spot where the fox-terrier had found
and attacked the bird, and at once on reaching it she came to a stop and
uttered a call, and instantly from eight different places among the tall
grasses the eight fluffy little chicks popped up and started running to
her. And there she stood, gathering them about her with gentle
chucklings, taking no notice of me, though I was standing still within
two yards of her!

Up to the moment when the dog got his smart blow and fled from her she
had been under the domination of a powerful instinct, and could have
acted in no other way; but what guided her so infallibly in her
subsequent actions? Certainly not instinct, and not reason, which
hesitates between different courses and is slow to arrive at a decision.
One can only say that it was, or was like, intuition, which is as much
as to say that we don't know.


Among the rarer fringilline birds on the common were the cirl bunting,
bullfinch and goldfinch, the last two rarely seen. Linnets, however,
were abundant, now gathered in small flocks composed mainly of young
birds in plain plumage, with here and there an individual showing the
carmine-tinted breast of the adult male. Unhappily, a dreary fate was in
store for many of these blithe twitterers.

On June 24, when walking towards the pool, I spied two recumbent human
figures on a stretch of level turf near its banks, and near them a
something dark on the grass--a pair of clap-nets! "Still another serpent
in my birds' paradise!" said I to myself, and, walking on, I skirted the
nets and sat down on the grass beside the men. One was a rough
brown-faced country lad; the other, who held the strings and wore the
usual cap and comforter, was a man of about five-and-twenty, with pale
blue eyes and yellowish hair, close-cropped, and the unmistakable London
mark in his chalky complexion. He regarded me with cold, suspicious
looks, and, when I talked and questioned, answered briefly and somewhat
surlily. I treated him to tobacco, and he smoked; but it wasn't shag,
and didn't soften him. On mentioning casually that I had seen a stoat an
hour before, he exhibited a sudden interest. It was as if one had said
"rats!" to a terrier. I succeeded after a while in getting him to tell
me the name of the man to whom he sent his captives, and when I told him
that I knew the man well--a bird-seller in a low part of London--he
thawed visibly. Finally I asked him to look at a red-backed shrike,
perched on a bush about fifteen yards from his nets, through my
field-glasses, and from that moment he became as friendly as possible,
and conversed freely about his mystery. "How near it brings him!" he
exclaimed, with a grin of delight, after looking at the bird.  The
shrike had greatly annoyed him; it had been hanging about for some time,
he told me, dashing at the linnets and driving them off when they flew
down to the nets. Two or three times he might have caught it, but would
not draw the nets and have the trouble of resetting them for so
worthless a bird. "But I'll take him the next time," he said
vindictively. "I didn't know he was such a handsome bird."
Unfortunately, the shrike soon flew away, and passing linnets dropped
down, drawn to the spot by the twitterings of their caged fellows, and
were caught; and so it went on for a couple of hours, we conversing
amicably during the waiting intervals. For now he regarded me as a
friend of the bird-catcher. Linnets only were caught, most of them young
birds, which pleased him; for the young linnet after a month or two of
cage life will sing; but the adult males would be silent until the next
spring, consequently they were not worth so much, although the carmine
stain in their breast made them for the time so much more beautiful.

I remarked incidentally that there were some who looked with unfriendly
eyes on his occupation, and that, sooner or later, these people would
try to get an Act of Parliament to make bird-catching in lanes, on
commons and waste lands illegal. "They can't do it!" he exclaimed
excitedly. "And if they can do it, and if they do do it, it will be the
ruination of England. For what would there be, then, to stop the birds
increasing? It stands to reason that the whole country would be eaten

Doubtless the man really believed that but for the laborious days that
bird-catchers spend lying on the grass, the human race would be very
badly off.

Just after he had finished his protest, three or four linnets flew down
and were caught. Taking them from the nets, he showed them to me,
remarking, with a short laugh, that they were all young males. Then he
thrust them down the stocking-leg which served as an entrance to the
covered box he kept his birds in--the black hole in which their captive
life begins, where they were now all vainly fluttering to get out. Going
back to the previous subject, he said that he knew very well that many
persons disliked a bird-catcher, but there was one thing that nobody
could say against him--he wasn't cruel; he caught, but didn't kill. He
only killed when he caught a great number of female linnets, which were
not worth sending up; he pulled their heads off, and took them home to
make a linnet pie. Then, by way of contrast to his own merciful temper,
he told me of the young nest-destroyer I have writ-ten about. It made
him mad to see such things! Something ought to be done, he said, to stop
a boy like that; for by destroying so many nestlings he was taking the
bread out of the bird-catcher's mouth. Passing to other subjects, he
said that so far he had caught nothing but linnets on the common--you
couldn't expect to catch other kinds in June. Later on, in August and
September, there would be a variety. But he had small hopes of catching
goldfinches, they were too scarce now. Greenfinches, yellow-hammers,
common buntings, reed sparrows--all such birds were worth only tuppence
apiece. Oh, yes, he caught them just the same, and sent them up to
London, but that was all they were worth to him. For young male linnets
he got eightpence, sometimes tenpence; for hen birds fourpence, or less.
I dare say that eightpence was what he hoped to get, seeing that young
male linnets are not unfrequently sold by London dealers for sixpence
and even fourpence.  Goldfinches ran to eighteenpence, sometimes as much
as two shillings.  Starlings he had made a lot out of, but that was all
past and over. Why?

Because they were not wanted--because people were such fools that they
now preferred to shoot at pigeons. He hated pigeons! Gentlemen used to
shoot starlings at matches; and if you had the making of a bird to shoot
at, you couldn't get a better than the starling--such a neat bird! He
had caught hundreds--thousands--and had sold them well. But now nothing
but pigeons would they have. Pigeons! Always pigeons! He caught
starlings still, but what was the good of that? The dealers would only
take a few, and they were worth nothing--no more than greenfinches and

My colloquy with my enemy on the common tempts me to a fresh digression
in this place--to have my say on a question about which much has already
been said during the last three or four decades, especially during the
'sixties, when the first practical efforts to save our wild-bird life
from destruction were made.

There is a feeling in the great mass of people that the pursuit of any
wild animal, whether fit for food or not, for pleasure or gain, is a
form of sport, and that sport ought not to be interfered with. So strong
and well-nigh universal is this feeling, which is like a superstition,
that the pursuit is not interfered with, however unsportsmanlike it may
be, and when illegal, and when practised by only a very few persons in
any district, where to others it may be secretly distasteful or even

Even bird-catching on a common is regarded as a form of sport and the
bird-catcher as a sportsman--and a brother.

A striking instance of this tameness and stupidly acquiescent spirit in
people generally was witnessed during the intensely severe frosts of the
early part of the late winter (1882-3), when incalculable numbers of
sea-birds were driven by hunger and cold into bays and inland waters. At
this time thousands of gulls made their appearance in the Thames, but no
sooner did they arrive than those who possessed guns and licences to
shoot began to shoot them. The police interfered and some of these
sportsmen were brought before the magistrates and fined for the offence
of discharging guns to the public danger. For upwards of a fortnight
after the shooting had been put a stop to, the gulls continued to
frequent the river in large numbers, and were perhaps most numerous from
London Bridge to Battersea, and during this time they were watched every
day by thousands of Londoners with keen interest and pleasure. The river
here, flowing through the very centre and heart of the greatest city of
the world, forms at all hours and at all seasons of the year a noble and
magnificent sight; to my eyes it never looked more beautiful and
wonderful than during those intensely cold days of January, when there
was nothing that one could call a mist in a chilly, motionless
atmosphere, but only a faint haze, a pallor as of impalpable frost,
which made the heavens seem more white than blue, and gave a hoariness
and cloud-like remoteness to the arches spanning the water, and the vast
buildings on either side, ending with the sublime dome of the city
cathedral; and when out of the pale motionless haze, singly, in twos and
threes, in dozens and scores, floated the mysterious white bird-figures,
first seen like vague shadows in the sky, then quickly taking shape and
whiteness, and floating serenely past, to be succeeded by others and yet

It was not merely the ornithologist in me that made the sight so
fascinating, since it was found that others--all others, it might almost
be said,--experienced the same kind of delight.  Crowds of people came
down to the river to watch the birds; workmen when released from their
work at mid-day hurried down to the embankment so as to enjoy seeing the
gulls while eating their dinners, and, strangest thing of all, to feed
them with the fragments!

And yet these very men who found so great a pleasure in observing and
feeding their white visitors from the sea, and were exhilarated with the
novel experiences of seeing wild nature face to face at their own
doors--these thousands would have stood by silent and consenting if the
half-a-dozen scoundrels with guns and fish-hooks on lines had been
allowed to have their will and had slaughtered and driven the birds from
the river! And this, in fact, is precisely what happened at a distance
from London, where guns could be discharged without danger to the
public, in numberless bays and rivers in which the birds sought refuge.
They were simply slaughtered wholesale in the most wanton manner; in
Morecambe Bay a hundred and twelve gulls were killed at one discharge,
and no hand and no voice was raised to interfere with the hideous sport.
Not because it was not shocking to the spectators, but because it was

Doubtless it will be said that this wholesale wanton destruction of bird
life, however painful it may be to lovers of nature, however
reprehensible from a moral point of view, is sanctioned by law, and
cannot therefore be prevented. This is not quite so. We see that the
Wild Birds Protection Act is continually being broken with impunity, and
where public opinion is unfavourable to it the guardians of the law
themselves, the police and the magistrates, are found encouraging the
people to break the law. Again, we find that where commons are enclosed,
and the law says nothing, the people are accustomed to assemble together
unlawfully to tear the fences down, and are not punished. For, after
all, if laws do not express or square with public will or opinion, they
have little force; and if, in any locality, the people thought proper to
do so--if they were not restrained by that dull, tame spirit I have
spoken of--they would, lawfully or unlawfully, protect their sea-fowl
from the cockney sportsmen, and sweep the bird-catchers out of their
lanes and waste lands.

One day I paid a visit to Maidenhead, a pleasant town on the Thames,
where the Thames is most beautiful, set in the midst of a rich and
diversified country which should be a bird's paradise. In my walks in
the town, I saw a great many stuffed kingfishers, and, in the shops of
the local taxidermists, some rare and beautiful birds, with others that
are fast becoming rare. But outside of the town I saw no kingfishers and
no rare species at all, and comparatively few birds of any kind. It
might have been a town of Philistine cockneys who at no very distant
period had emigrated thither from the parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields.
I came home with the local guide-book in my pocket. It is now before me,
and this is what its writer says of the Thicket, the extensive and
beautiful common two miles from the town, which belongs to Maidenhead,
or, in other words, to its inhabitants: "The Thicket was formerly much
infested by robbers and highwaymen. The only remains of them to be found
now are the snarers of the little feathered songsters, who imprison them
in tiny cages and carry them off in large numbers to brighten by their
sweet, sad sighs for liberty the dwellers in our smoky cities."

On this point I consulted a bird-catcher, who had spread his nets on the
common for many years, and he complained bitterly of the increasing
scarcity of its bird life. There was no better place than the Thicket
formerly, he said; but now he could hardly make his bread there. I
presume that a dozen men of his trade would be well able to drain the
country in the neighbourhood of the Thicket of the greater portion of
its bird life each year so as to keep the songsters scarce. Will any
person maintain for a moment that the eight or nine thousand inhabitants
of Maidenhead, and the hundreds or thousands inhabiting the surrounding
country could not protect their songbirds from these few men, most of
them out of London slums, if they wished or had the spirit to do so?

It is true that the local authorities in some country towns have made
by-laws to protect the birds in their open spaces. Thus, at Tunbridge
Wells, since 1890, bird-trapping and bird's-nesting have been prohibited
on the large and beautiful common there; but, so far as I know, such
measures have only been taken in boroughs after the birds have been
almost exterminated.

Doubtless the day will come when, law or no law, the bird-catcher will
find it necessary to go warily, lest the people of any place where he
may be tempted to spread his nets should have formed the custom of
treating those of his calling somewhat roughly. That it will come soon
is earnestly to be wished. Nevertheless, it would be irrational to
cherish feelings of animosity and hatred against the bird-catcher
himself, the "man and brother," ready and anxious as we may be to take
the bread out of his mouth. He certainly does not regard himself as an
injurious or disreputable person; on the contrary he looks on himself as
a useful member of the community, and in some cases even more. If anyone
is to be hated or blamed, it is the person who sends the bird-catcher
into the fields; not the dealer, but he who buys trapped birds and keeps
them in cages to be amused by their twitterings. This is not a question
of morality, nor of sentimentality, as some may imagine; but rather of
taste, of the sense of fitness, of that something vaguely described as
the feeling for nature, which is not universal. Thus, one man will dine
with zest on a pheasant, partridge, or quail, but would be choked by a
lark; while another man will eat pheasant and lark with equal pleasure.
Both may be good, honest, moral men; only one has that something which
the other lacks. In one the soul responds to the skylark's music
"singing at heaven's gate," in the other not; to one the roasted lark is
merely a savoury morsel; the other, be he never so hungry, cannot
dissociate the bird on the dish from that heavenly melody which
registered a sensation in his brain, to be thereafter reproduced at
will, together with the revived emotion. It is a curious question, and
is no nearer to a settlement when one of these two I have described
turns round and calls his neighbour a gross feeder, a worshipper of his
belly, a soulless and brutish man; and when the other answers
"pooh-pooh" and goes on complacently devouring larks with great gusto,
until he is himself devoured of death.

To those with whom I am in sympathy in this matter, who love to listen
to and are yearly invigorated by the skylark's music, and whose souls
are yearly sickened at the slaughter of their loved songsters, I would
humbly suggest that there is a simpler, more practical means of ending
this dispute, which has surely lasted long enough. It goes without
saying that this bird's music is eminently pleasing to most persons,
that even as the sunshine is sweet and pleasant to behold, its silvery
aerial sounds rained down so abundantly from heaven are delightful and
exhilarating to all of us, or at all events, to so large a majority that
the minority are not entitled to consideration. One person in five
thousand, or perhaps in ten thousand, might be found to say that the
lark singing in blue heaven affords him no pleasure. This being so, and
ours being a democratic country in which the will or desire of the many
is or may be made the law of the land, it is surely only right and
reasonable that lovers of lark's flesh should be prevented from
gratifying their taste at the cost of the destruction of so loved a
bird, that they should be made to content themselves with woodcock, and
snipe on toast, and golden plover, and grouse and blackcock, and any
other bird of delicate flavor which does not, living, appeal so strongly
to the aesthetic feelings in us and is not so universal a favourite.

This, too, will doubtless come in time. Speaking for myself, and going
back to the former subject, little as I like to see men feeding on
larks, rather would I see larks killed and eaten than thrust into cages.
For in captivity they do not "sweeten" my life, as the Maidenhead
guidebook writer would say, with their shrill, piercing cries for
liberty, but they "sing me mad." Just as in some minds this bird's
music--a sound which above all others typifies the exuberant life and
joy of nature to the soul--cannot be separated from the cooked and
dished-up melodist, so that they turn with horror from such meat, so I
cannot separate this bird, nor any bird, from the bird's wild life of
liberty, and the marvellous faculty of flight which is the bird's
attribute. To see so wild and aerial a creature in a cage jars my whole
system, and is a sight hateful and unnatural, an outrage on our
universal mother.

This feeling about birds in captivity, which I have attempted to
describe, and which, I repeat, is not sentimentality, as that word is
ordinarily understood, has been so vividly rendered in an ode to "The
Skylarks" by Sir Rennell Rodd, that the reader will probably feel
grateful to me for quoting a portion of it in this place, especially as
the volume in which it appears--_Feda, with Other Poems_--is, I imagine,
not very widely known:

    "Oh, the sky, the sky, the open sky,
    For the home of a song-bird's heart!
    And why, and why, and for ever why,
    Do they stifle here in the mart:
    Cages of agony, rows on rows,
    Torture that only a wild thing knows:
    Is it nothing to you to see
    That head thrust out through the hopeless wire,
    And the tiny life, and the mad desire
    To be free, to be free, to be free?
    Oh, the sky, the sky, the blue, wide sky,
    For the beat of a song-bird's wings!

    * * *

    Straight and close are the cramping bars
    From the dawn of mist to the chill of stars,
    And yet it must sing or die!
    Will its marred harsh voice in the city street
    Make any heart of you glad?
    It will only beat with its wings and beat,
    It will only sing you mad.

    * * *

    If it does not go to your heart to see
    The helpless pity of those bruised wings,
    The tireless effort to which it clings
    To the strain and the will to be free,
    I know not how I shall set in words
    The meaning of God in this,
    For the loveliest thing in this world of His
    Are the ways and the songs of birds.
    But the sky, the sky, the wide, free sky,
    For the home of the song-bird's heart!"

How falsely does that man see Nature, how grossly ignorant must he be of
its most elemental truths, who looks upon it as a chamber of torture, a
physiological laboratory on a very vast scale, a scene of endless strife
and trepidation, of hunger and cold, and every form of pain and
misery--and who, holding this doctrine of

  "Oh, the sky, the sky, the open sky is the home of a song-bird's heart,"

Nature's cruelty, keeps a few captive birds in cages, and is accustomed
to say of them, "These, at any rate, are safe, rescued from subjection
to ruthless conditions, sheltered from the inclement weather and from
enemies, and all their small wants abundantly satisfied;" who once or
twice every day looks at his little captives, presents them with a lump
of sugar, whistles and chuckles to provoke them to sing, then goes about
his business, flattering himself that he is a lover of birds, a being of
a sweet and kindly nature. It is all a delusion--a distortion and
inversion of the truth--so absurd that it would be laughable were it
not so sad, and the cause of so much unconscious cruelty. The truth is,
that if birds be capable of misery, it is only in the unnatural
conditions of a caged life that they experience it; and that if they are
capable of happiness in a cage, such happiness or contentment is but a
poor, pale emotion compared with the wild exuberant gladness they have
in freedom, where all their instincts have full play, and where the
perils that surround them do but brighten their many splendid faculties.
The little bird twitters and sings in its cage, and among ourselves the
blind man and the cripple whistle and sing, too, feeling at times a
lower kind of contentment and cheerfulness. The chaffinch in East
London, with its eyeballs seared by red-hot needles, sings, too, in its
prison, when it has grown accustomed to its darkened existence, and is
in health, and the agreeable sensations that accompany health prompt it
at intervals to melody, but no person, not even the dullest ruffian
among the baser sort of bird-fanciers would maintain for a moment that
the happiness of the little sightless captive, whether vocal or silent,
is at all comparable in degree to that of the chaffinch singing in April
"on the orchard bough," vividly seeing the wide sunlit world, blue above
and green below, possessing the will and the power, when its lyric ends,
to transport itself swiftly through the crystal fields of air to other
trees and other woods.

I take it that in the lower animals misery can result from two causes
only--restraint and disease; consequently, that animals in a state of
nature are not miserable. They are not hindered nor held back. Whether
the animal is migrating, or burying himself in his hibernating nest or
den; or flying from some rapacious enemy, which he may, or may not, be
able to escape; or feeding, or sleeping, or fighting, or courting, or
incubating, however many days or weeks this process may last--in all
things he is obeying the impulse that is strongest in him at the
time--he is doing what he wants to do--the one thing that makes him

As to disease, it is so rare in wild animals, or in a large majority of
cases so quickly proves fatal, that, compared with what we call disease
in our own species it is practically non-existent. The "struggle for
existence," in so far as animals in a state of nature are concerned, is
a metaphorical struggle; and the strife, short and sharp, which is so
common in nature, is not misery, although it results in pain, since it
is pain that kills or is soon outlived. Fear there is, just as in fine
weather there are clouds in the sky; and just as the shadow of the cloud
passes, so does fear pass from the wild creature when the object that
excited it has vanished from sight. And when death comes, it comes
unexpectedly, and is not the death that we know, even before we taste of
it, thinking of it with apprehension all our lives long, but a sudden
blow that takes away consciousness--the touch of something that numbs
the nerves--merely the prick of a needle.  In whatever way the animal
perishes, whether by violence, or excessive cold, or decay, his death is
a comparatively easy one. So long as he is fighting with or struggling
to escape from an enemy, wounds are not felt as wounds, and scarcely
hurt him--as we know from our own experience; and when overcome, if
death be not practically instantaneous, as in the case of a small bird
seized by a cat, the disabling grip or blow is itself a kind of anodyne,
producing insensibility to pain. This, too, is a matter of human
experience. To say nothing of those who fall in battle, men have often
been struck down and fearfully lacerated by lions, tigers, jaguars, and
other savage beasts; and after having been rescued by their companions,
have recounted this strange thing. Even when there was no loss of
consciousness, when they saw and knew that the animal was rending their
flesh, they seemed not to feel it, and were, at the time, indifferent to
the fate that had overtaken them.

It is the same in death from cold. The strong, well-nourished man,
overtaken by a snowstorm on some pathless, uninhabited waste, may
experience some exceedingly bitter moments, or even hours, before he
gives up the struggle. The physical pain is simply nothing: the whole
bitterness is in the thought that he must die. The horror at the thought
of annihilation, the remembrance of all the happiness he is now about to
lose, of dear friends, of those whose lives will be dimmed with grief
for his loss, of all his cherished dreams of the future--the sting of
all this is so sharp that, compared with it, the creeping coldness in
his blood is nothing more than a slight discomfort, and is scarcely
felt. By and by he is overcome by drowsiness, and ceases to struggle;
the torturing visions fade from his mind, and his only thought is to lie
down and sleep. And when he sleeps he passes away; very easily, very
painlessly, for the pain was of the mind, and was over long before death

The bird, however hard the frost may be, flies briskly to its customary
roosting-place, and with beak tucked into its wing, falls asleep. It has
no apprehensions; only the hot blood grows colder and colder, the pulse
feebler as it sleeps, and at midnight, or in the early morning, it drops
from its perch--dead.

Yesterday he lived and moved, responsible to a thousand external
influences, reflecting earth and sky in his small brilliant brain as in
a looking-glass; also he had a various language, the inherited knowledge
of his race, and the faculty of flight, by means of which he could
shoot, meteor-like, across the sky, and pass swiftly from place to
place, and with it such perfect control over all his organs, such
marvellous certitude in all his motions, as to be able to drop himself
plumb down from the tallest tree-top or out of the void air, on to a
slender spray, and scarcely cause its leaves to tremble. Now, on this
morning, he lies stiff and motionless; if you were to take him up and
drop him from your hand, he would fall to the ground like a stone or a
lump of clay--so easy and swift is the passage from life to death in
wild nature! But he was never miserable.

Those of my readers who have seen much of animals in a state of nature,
will agree that death from decay, or old age, is very rare among them.
In that state the fullest vigour, with brightness of all the faculties,
is so important that probably in ninety-nine cases in a hundred any
falling-off in strength, or decay of any sense, results in some fatal
accident. Death by misadventure, as we call it, is Nature's ordinance,
the end designed for a very large majority of her children.
Nevertheless, animals do sometimes live on without accident to the very
end of their term, to fade peacefully away at the last. I have myself
witnessed such cases in mammals and birds; and one such case, which
profoundly impressed me, and is vividly remembered, I will describe.

One morning in the late summer, while walking in the fields at my home
in South America, I noticed a few purple martins, large, beautiful
swallows common in that region, engaged, at a considerable height, in
the aerial exercises in which they pass so much of their time each day.
By and by, one of the birds separated itself from the others, and,
circling slowly downward, finally alighted on the ground not far from
me. I walked on: but the action of the bird had struck me as unusual and
strange, and before going far, I turned and walked back to the spot
where it continued sitting on the ground, quite motionless. It made no
movement when I approached to within four yards of it; and after I had
stood still at that distance for a minute or so, attentively regarding
it, I saw it put out one wing and turn over on its side. I at once took
it up in my hand, and found that it was already quite dead. It was a
large example of its species, and its size, together with a something of
dimness in the glossy purple colour of the upper plumage, seemed to show
that it was an old bird. But it was uninjured, and when I dissected it
no trace of disease was discernible. I concluded that it was an old bird
that had died solely from natural failure of the life-energy.

But how wonderful, how almost incredible, that the healthy vigour and
joy of life should have continued in this individual bird down to within
so short a period of the end; that it should have been not only strong
enough to find its food, but to rush and wheel about for long intervals
in purely sportive exercises, when the brief twilight of decline and
final extinction were so near! It becomes credible--we can even believe
that most of the individuals that cease to exist only when the vital
fire has burnt itself out, fall on death in this swift, easy
manner--when we recall the fact that even in the life-history of men
such a thing is not unknown. Probably there is not one among my readers
who will not be able to recall some such incident in his own circle--the
case of someone who lived, perhaps, long past the term usually allotted
to man, and who finally passed away without a struggle, without a pang,
so that those who were with him found it hard to believe that the spirit
had indeed gone. In such cases, the subject has invariably been healthy,
although it is hard to believe that, in the conditions we exist in, any
man can have the perfect health that all wild creatures enjoy.


After my long talk with the bird-catcher on June 24, and two more talks
equally long on the two following days, I found that something of the
charm the common had had for me was gone. It was not quite the same as
formerly; even the sunshine had a something of conscious sadness in it
which was like a shadow. Those merry little brown twitterers that
frequently shot across the sky, looking small as insects in the wide
blue expanse, and ever and anon dropped swiftly down like showers of
aerolites, to lose themselves in the grass and herbage, or perch singing
on the topmost dead twigs of a bush, now existed in constant imminent
danger--not of that quick merciful destruction which Nature has for her
weaklings, and for all that fail to reach her high standard; but of a
worse fate, the prison life which is not Nature's ordinance, but one of
the cunning larger Ape's abhorred inventions. Instead of taking my usual
long strolls about the common I loitered once more in the village lanes
and had my reward.

On the morning of June 27 I was out sauntering very indolently, thinking
of nothing at all; for it was a surpassingly brilliant day, and the
sunshine produced the effect of a warm, lucent, buoyant fluid, in which
I seemed to float rather than walk--a celestial water, which, like the
more ponderable and common sort, may sometimes be both felt and seen.
The sensation of feeling it is somewhat similar to that experienced by a
bather standing breast-deep in a dear, green, warm tropical sea, so
charged with salt that it lifts him up; but to distinguish it with the
eye, you must look away to a distance of some yards in an open unshaded
place, when it will become visible as fine glinting lines, quivering and
serpentining upwards, fountain-wise, from the surface. All at once I was
startled by hearing the loud importunate hunger-call of a young cuckoo
quite close to me. Moving softly up to the low hedge and peering over, I
saw the bird perched on a long cross-stick, which had been put up in a
cottage garden to hang clothes on; he was not more than three to four
yards from me, a fine young cuckoo in perfect plumage, his barred
under-surface facing me. Although seeing me as plainly as I saw him, he
exhibited no fear, and did not stir. Why should he, since I had not come
there to feed him, and, to his inexperienced avian mind, was only one of
the huge terrestrial creatures of various forms, with horns and manes on
their heads, that move heavily about in roads and pastures, and are
nothing to birds? But his foster parent, a hedge-sparrow, was
suspicious, and kept at some distance with food in her bill; then
excited by his imperative note, she flitted shyly to him, and deposited
a minute caterpillar in his great gaping yellow mouth. It was like
dropping a bun into the monstrous mouth of the hippopotamus of the
Zoological Gardens. But the hedge-sparrow was off and back again with a
second morsel in a very few moments; and again and again she darted away
in quest of food and returned successful, while the lazy, beautiful
giant sat sunning himself on his cross-stick and hungrily cried for

This is one of those exceptional sights in nature which, however often
seen, never become altogether familiar, never fail to re-excite the old
feelings of wonder and admiration which were experienced on first
witnessing them. I can safely say, I think, that no man has observed so
many parasitical young birds (individuals) being fed by their
foster-parents as myself, yet the interest such a sight inspired in me
is just as fresh now as in boyhood.  And probably in no parasitical
species does the strangeness of the spectacle strike the mind so sharply
as in this British bird, since the differences in size and colouring
between the foster-parent and its false offspring are so much greater in
its case. Here nature's unnaturalness in such an instinct--a close union
of the beautiful and the monstrous--is seen in its extreme form. The
hawk-like figure and markings of the cuckoo serve only to accentuate the
disparity, which is perhaps greatest when the parent is the
hedge-sparrow--so plainly-coloured a bird, so shy and secretive in its
habits. One never ceases to be amazed at the blindness of the parental
instinct in so intelligent a creature as a bird in a case of this kind.
Some idea of how blind it is may be formed by imagining a case in widely
separated types of our own species, which would be a parallel to that of
the cuckoo and hedge-sparrow. Let us imagine that some malicious Arabian
Night's genius had snatched up the infant male child of a Scandinavian
couple--the largest of their nation; and flying away to Africa with it,
to the heart of the great Aruwhimi forest had laid it on the breast of a
little coffee-coloured, woolly-headed, spindle-shanked, pot-bellied,
pigmy mother, taking away at the same time her own newly-born babe; that
she had tenderly nursed the substituted child, and reared and protected
it, ministering, according to her lights, to all its huge wants, until
he had come to the fullness of his stature, yet never suspected, that
the magnificent, ivory-limbed giant, with flowing yellow locks and
cerulean eyes, was not the child of her own womb.


Bright and genial were all the last days of June, when I loitered in the
lanes before the unwished day of my return to London. During this quiet,
pleasant time the greenfinch was perhaps more to me than any other
songster. In the village itself, with the adjacent lanes and orchards,
this pretty, seldom-silent bird was the most common species. The village
was his metropolis, just as London is ours--and the sparrow's; its lanes
were his streets, its hedges and elm trees his cottage rows and tall
stately mansions and public buildings. . We frequently find the
predominance of one species somewhat wearisome. Speaking for myself,
there are songsters that are best appreciated when they are limited in
numbers and keep their distance, but of the familiar, unambitious
strains of swallow, robin, and wren I never tire, nor, during these
days, could I have too much of the greenfinch, low as he ranks among
British melodists. Tastes differ; that is a point on which we are all
agreed, and every one of us, even the humblest, is permitted to have his
own preferences. Still, after re-reading Wordsworth's lines to "The
Green Linnet," it is curious, to say the least of it, to turn to some
prosewriter--an authority on birds, perhaps--to find that this species,
whose music so charmed the poet, has for its song a monotonous croak,
which it repeats at short intervals for hours without the slightest
variation--a dismal sound which harmonizes with no other sound in
nature, and suggests nothing but heat and weariness, and is of all
natural sounds the most irritating. To this writer, then--and there are
others to keep him in countenance--the greenfinch as a vocalist ranks
lower than the lowest. One can only wonder (and smile) at such extreme
divergences. To my mind all natural sounds have, in some measure an
exhilarating effect, and I cannot get rid of the notion that so it
should be with every one of us; and when some particular sound, or
series of sounds, that has more than this common character, and is
distinctly pleasing, is spoken of as nothing but disagreeable,
irritating, and the rest of it, I am inclined to think that there is
something wrong with the person who thus describes it; that he is not
exactly as nature would have had him, but that either during his
independent life, or before it at some period of his prenatal existence,
something must have happened to distune him. All this, I freely confess,
may be nothing but fancy. In any case, the subject need not keep us
longer from the greenfinch--that is to say, _my_ greenfinch not another

From morning until evening all around and about the cottage, and out of
doors whithersoever I bent my steps, from the masses of deep green
foliage, sounded the perpetual airy prattle of these delightful birds.
One had the idea that the concealed vocalists were continually meeting
each other at little social gatherings, where they exchanged pretty
loving greetings, and indulged in a leafy gossip, interspersed with
occasional fragments of music, vocal and instrumental; now a long
trill--a trilling, a tinkling, a sweeping of one minute finger-tip over
metal strings as fine as gossamer threads--describe it how you will, you
cannot describe it; then the long, low, inflected scream, like a lark's
throat-note drawn out and inflected; little chirps and chirruping
exclamations and remarks, and a soft warbled note three or four or more
times repeated, and sometimes, the singer fluttering up out of the
foliage and hovering in the air, displaying his green and yellow plumage
while emitting these lovely notes; and again the trill, trill answering
trill in different keys; and again the music scream, as if some
unsubstantial being, fairy or woodnymph had screamed somewhere in her
green hiding-place. In London one frequently hears, especially in the
spring, half-a-dozen sparrows just met together in a garden tree, or
among the ivy or creeper on a wall, burst out suddenly into a confused
rapturous chorus of chirruping sounds, mingled with others of a finer
quality, liquid and ringing. At such times one is vexed to think that
there are writers on birds who invariably speak of the sparrow as a
tuneless creature, a harsh chirper, and nothing more. It strikes one
that such writers either wilfully abuse or are ignorant of the right
meaning of words, so wild and glad in character are these concerts of
town sparrows, and so refreshing to the tired and noise-vexed brain! But
now when I listened to the greenfinches in the village elms and
hedgerows, if by chance a few sparrows burst out in loud gratulatory
notes, the sounds they emitted appeared coarse, and I wished the
chirrupers away. But with the true and brilliant songsters it seemed to
me that the rippling greenfinch music was always in harmony, forming as
it were a kind of airy, subdued accompaniment to their loud and ringing

I had had my nightingale days, my cuckoo and blackbird and tree-pipit
days, with others too numerous to mention, and now I was having my
greenfinch days; and these were the last.

One morning in July I was in my sitting-room, when in the hedge on the
other side of the lane, just opposite my window, a small brown bird
warbled a few rich notes, the prelude to his song. I went and stood by
the open window, intently listening, when it sang again, but only a
phrase or two. But I listened still, confidently expecting more; for
although it was now long past its singing season, that splendid sunshine
would compel it to express its gladness. Then, just when a fresh burst
of music came, it was disturbed by another sound close by--a human
voice, also singing. On the other side of the hedge in which the bird
sat concealed was a cottage garden, and there on a swing fastened to a
pair of apple trees, a girl about eleven years old sat lazily swinging
herself. Once or twice after she began singing the nightingale broke out
again, and then at last he became silent altogether, his voice
overpowered by hers.  Girl and bird were not five yards apart. It
greatly surprised me to hear her singing, for it was eleven o'clock,
when all the village children were away at the National School, a time
of day when, so far as human sounds were concerned, there reigned an
almost unbroken silence. But very soon I recalled the fact that this was
a very lazy child, and concluded that she had coaxed her mother into
sending an excuse for keeping her at home, and so had kept her liberty
on this beautiful morning. About two minutes' walk from the cottage, at
the side of the crooked road running through the village, there was a
group of ancient pollarded elm trees with huge, hollow trunks, and
behind them an open space, a pleasant green slope, where some of the
village children used to go every day to play on the grass. Here I used
to see this girl lying in the sun, her dark chestnut hair loosed and
scattered on the sward, her arms stretched out, her eyes nearly closed,
basking in the sun, as happy as some heat-loving wild animal. No, it was
not strange that she had not gone to school with the others when her
disposition was remembered, but most strange to hear a voice of such
quality in a spot where nature was rich and lovely, and only man was, if
not vile, at all events singularly wanting in the finer human qualities.

Looking out from the open window across the low hedge-top, I could see
her as she alternately rose and fell with slow, indolent motion, now
waist-high above the green dividing wall, then only her brown head
visible resting against the rope just where her hand had grasped it. And
as she swayed herself to and fro she sang that simple melody--probably
some child's hymn which she had been taught at the Sunday-school; but it
was a very long hymn, or else she repeated the same few stanzas many
times, and after each there was a brief pause, and then the voice that
seemed to fall and rise with the motion went on as before. I could have
stood there for an hour--nay, for hours--listening to it, so fresh and
so pure was the clear young voice, which had no earthly trouble in it,
and no passion, and was in this like the melody of the birds of which I
had lately heard so much; and with it all that tenderness and depth
which is not theirs, but is human only and of the soul.

It struck me as a singular coincidence--and to a mind of so primitive a
type as the writer's there is more in the fact that the word
implies--that, just as I had quitted London, to seek for just such a
spot as I so speedily found, with the passionately exclaimed words of a
young London girl ringing in my ears, so now I went back with this
village girl's melody sounding and following me no less clearly and
insistently. For it was not merely remembered, as we remember most
things, but vividly and often reproduced, together with the various
melodies of the birds I had listened to; a greater and principal voice
in that choir, yet in no wise lessening their first value, nor ever out
of harmony with them.


There are countries with a less fertile soil and a worse climate than
ours, yet richer in bird life. Nevertheless, England is not poor; the
species are not few in number, and some are extremely abundant.
Unfortunately many of the finer kinds have been too much sought after;
persecuted first for their beauty, then for their rarity, until now we
are threatened with their total destruction. As these kinds become
unobtainable, those which stand next in the order of beauty and rarity
are persecuted in their turn; and in a country as densely populated as
ours, where birds cannot hide themselves from human eyes, such
persecution must eventually cause their extinction. Meanwhile the bird
population does not decrease. Every place in nature, like every property in
Chancery, has more than one claimant to it--sometimes the claimants are
many--and so long as the dispute lasts all live out of the estate. For
there are always two or more species subsisting on the same kind of
food, possessing similar habits, and frequenting the same localities. It
is consequently impossible for man to exterminate any one species
without indirectly benefiting some other species, which attracts him in
a less degree, or not at all. This is unfortunate, for as the bright
kinds, or those we esteem most, diminish in numbers the less interesting
kinds multiply, and we lose much of the pleasure which bird life is
fitted to give us. When we visit woods, or other places to which birds
chiefly resort, in districts uninhabited by man, or where he pays little
or no attention to the feathered creatures, the variety of the bird life
encountered affords a new and peculiar delight. There is a constant
succession of new forms and new voices; in a single day as many species
may be met with as one would find in England by searching diligently for
a whole year.

And yet this may happen in a district possessing no more species than
England boasts; and the actual number of individuals may be even less
than with us. In sparrows, for instance, of the one common species, we
are exceedingly rich; but in bird life generally, in variety of birds,
especially in those of graceful forms and beautiful plumage, we have
been growing poorer for the last fifty years, and have now come to so
low a state that it becomes us to inquire whether it is not in our power
to better ourselves. It is an old familiar truth--a truism--that it is
easier to destroy than to restore or build up; nevertheless, some
comfort is to be got from the reflection that in this matter we have up
till now been working against Nature. She loves not to bring forth food
where there are none to thrive on it; and when our unconsidered action
had made these gaps, when, despising her gifts or abusing them, we had
destroyed or driven out her finer kinds, she fell back on her lowlier
kinds--her reserve of coarser, more generalized species--and gave them
increase, and bestowed the vacant places which we had created on them.
What she has done she will undo, or assist us in undoing; for we should
be going back to her methods, and should have her with and not against
us. Much might yet be done to restore the balance among our native
species. Not by legislation, albeit all laws restraining the wholesale
destruction of bird life are welcome. On this subject the Honourable
Auberon Herbert has said, and his words are golden: "For myself,
legislation or no legislation, I would turn to the friends of animals in
this country, and say, 'If you wish that the friendship between man and
animals should become a better and truer thing than it is at present,
you must make it so by countless individual efforts, by making thousands
of centres of personal influence.'"

The subject is a large one. In this paper the question of the
introduction of exotic birds will be chiefly considered. Birds have been
blown by the winds of chance over the whole globe, and have found rest
for their feet. That a large number of species, suited to the conditions
of this country, exist scattered about the world is not to be doubted,
and by introducing a few of these we might accelerate the change so
greatly to be desired. At present a very considerable amount of energy
is spent in hunting down the small contingents of rare species that once
inhabited our islands, and still resort annually to its shores,
persistently endeavouring to re-establish their colonies. A less amount
of labour and expense would serve to introduce a few foreign species
each year, and the reward would be greater, and would not make us
ashamed. We have generously given our own wild animals to other
countries; and from time to time we receive cheering reports of an
abundant increase in at least two of our exportations--to wit, the
rabbit and the sparrow. We are surely entitled to some return. Dead
animals, however rich their pelt or bright their plumage may be, are not
a fair equivalent. Dead things are too much with us. London has become a
mart for this kind of merchandise for the whole of Europe, and the
traffic is not without a reflex effect on us; for life in the inferior
animals has come or is coming to be merely a thing to be lightly taken
by human hands, in order that its dropped garment may be sold for filthy
lucre. There are warehouses in this city where it is possible for a
person to walk ankle-deep--literally to wade--in bright-plumaged
bird-skins, and see them piled shoulder-high on either side of him--a
sight to make the angels weep!

Not the angel called woman. It is not that she is naturally more cruel
than man; bleeding wounds and suffering in all its forms, even the sigh
of a burdened heart, appeal to her quick sympathies, and draw the ready
tears; but her imagination helps her less. The appeal must in most cases
be direct and through the medium of her senses, else it is not seen and
not heard. If she loves the ornament of a gay-winged bird, and is able
to wear it with a light heart, it is because it calls up no mournful
image to her mind; no little tragedy enacted in some far-off wilderness,
of the swift child of the air fallen and bleeding out its bright life,
and its callow nestlings, orphaned of the breast that warmed them, dying
of hunger in the tree. We know, at all events, that out of a female
population of many millions in this country, so far only ten women,
possibly fifteen, have been found to raise their voices--raised so often
and so loudly on other questions--to protest against the barbarous and
abhorrent fashion of wearing slain birds as ornaments. The degrading
business of supplying the demand for this kind of feminine adornment
must doubtless continue to flourish in our midst, commerce not being
compatible with morality, but the material comes from other lands,
unblessed as yet with Wild Bird Protection Acts, and "individual
efforts, and thousands of centres of personal influence"; it comes
mainly from the tropics, where men have brutish minds and birds a
brilliant plumage. This trade, therefore, does not greatly affect the
question of our native bird life, and the consideration of the means,
which may be within our reach, of making it more to us than it now is.
Some species from warm and even hot climates have been found to thrive
well in England, breeding in the open air; as, for instance, the black
and the black-necked swans, the Egyptian goose, the mandarin and summer
ducks, and others too numerous to mention. But these birds are
semi-domestic, and are usually kept in enclosures, and that they can
stand the climate and propagate when thus protected from competition is
not strange; for we know that several of our hardy domestic birds--the
fowl, pea-fowl, Guinea-fowl, and Muscovy duck--are tropical in their
origin. Furthermore, they are all comparatively large, and if they ever
become feral in England, it will not be for many years to come.

That these large kinds thrive so well with us is an encouraging fact;
but the question that concerns us at present is the feasibility of
importing birds of the grove, chiefly of the passerine order, and
sending them forth to give a greater variety and richness to our bird
life. To go with such an object to tropical countries would only be to
court failure. Nature's highest types, surpassing all others in
exquisite beauty of form, brilliant colouring, and perfect melody, can
never be known to our woods and groves. These rarest avian gems may not
be removed from their setting, and to those who desire to know them in
their unimaginable lustre, it will always be necessary to cross oceans
and penetrate into remote wildernesses. We must go rather to regions
where the conditions of life are hard, where winters are long and often
severe, where Nature is not generous in the matter of food, and the
mouths are many, and the competition great. Nor even from such regions
could we take any strictly migratory species with any prospect of
success. Still, limiting ourselves to the resident, and consequently to
the hardiest kinds, and to those possessing only a partial migration, it
is surprising to find how many there are to choose from, how many are
charming melodists, and how many have the bright tints in which our
native species are so sadly lacking. The field from which the supply can
be drawn is very extensive, and includes the continent of Europe, the
countries of North Asia, a large portion of North America and Antarctic
America, or South Chili and Patagonia. It would not be going too far to
say that for every English species, inhabiting the garden, wood, field,
stream, or waste, at least half a dozen resident species, with similar
habits, might be obtained from the countries mentioned which would be
superior to our own in melody (the nightingale and lark excepted),
bright plumage, grace of form, or some other attractive quality. The
question then arises; What reason is there for believing that these
exotics, imported necessarily in small numbers, would succeed in winning
a footing in our country, and become a permanent addition to its
avifauna? For it has been admitted that our species are not few, in
spite of the losses that have been suffered, and that the bird
population does not diminish, however much its character may have
altered and deteriorated from the aesthetic point of view, and probably
also from the utilitarian. There are no vacant places. Thus, the streams
are fished by herons, grebes, and kingfishers, while the rushy margins
are worked by coots and gallinules, and, above the surface, reed and
sedge-warblers, with other kinds, inhabit the reed-beds. The decaying
forest tree is the province of the woodpecker, of which there are three
kinds; and the trunks and branches of all trees, healthy or decaying,
are quartered by the small creeper, that leaves no crevice unexplored in
its search for minute insects and their eggs. He is assisted by the
nuthatch; and in summer the wryneck comes (if he still lives), and
deftly picks up the little active ants that are always wildly careering
over the boles. The foliage is gleaned by warblers and others; and not
even the highest terminal twigs are left unexamined by tits and their
fellow-seekers after little things. Thrushes seek for worms in moist
grounds about the woods; starlings and rooks go to the pasture lands;
the lark and his relations keep to the cultivated fields; and there also
dwells the larger partridge. Waste and stony grounds are occupied by the
chats, and even on the barren mountain summits the ptarmigan gets his
living. Wagtails run on the clean margins of streams; and littoral birds
of many kinds are in possession of the entire sea-coast. Thus, the whole
ground appears to be already sufficiently occupied, the habitats of
distinct species overlapping each other like the scales on a fish. And
when we have enumerated all these, we find that scores of others have
been left out.  The important fly-catcher; the wren, Nature's diligent
little housekeeper, that leaves no dusty corner uncleaned; and the
pigeons, that have a purely vegetable diet. The woods and thickets are
also ranged by jays, cuckoos, owls, hawks, magpies, butcher-birds--
Nature's gamekeepers, with a licence to kill, which, after the manner of
game-keepers, they exercise somewhat indiscriminately. Above the earth,
the air is peopled by swifts and swallows in the daytime, and by
goatsuckers at night. And, as if all these were not enough, the finches
are found scattered everywhere, from the most secluded spot in nature to
the noisy public thoroughfare, and are eaters of most things, from
flinty seed to softest caterpillar. This being the state of things, one
might imagine that experience and observation are scarcely needed to
prove to us that the exotic, strange to the conditions, and where its
finest instincts would perhaps be at fault, would have no chance of
surviving. Nevertheless, odd as it may seem, the small stock of facts
bearing on the subject which we possess point to a contrary conclusion.
It might have been assumed, for instance, that the red-legged partridge
would never have established itself with us, where the ground was
already fully occupied by a native species, which possessed the
additional advantage of a more perfect protective colouring. Yet, in
spite of being thus handicapped, the stranger has conquered a place, and
has spread throughout the greater part of England. Even more remarkable
is the case of the pheasant, with its rich plumage, a native of a hot
region; yet our cold, wet climate and its unmodified bright colours have
not been fatal to it, and practically it is one of our wild birds. The
large capercailzie has also been successfully introduced from Norway.
Small birds would probably become naturalized much more readily than
large ones; they are volatile, and can more quickly find suitable
feeding-ground, and safe roosting and nesting places; their food is also
more abundant and easily found; their small size, which renders them
inconspicuous, gives them safety; and, finally, they are very much more
adaptive than large birds.

It is not at all probable that the red-legged partridge will ever drive
out our own bird, a contingency which some have feared. That would be a
misfortune, for we do not wish to change one bird for another, or to
lose any species we now possess, but to have a greater variety. We are
better off with two partridges than we were with one, even if the
invader does not afford such good sport nor such delicate eating. They
exist side by side, and compete with each other; but such competition is
not necessarily destructive to either. On the contrary, it acts and
re-acts healthily and to the improvement of both. It is a fact that in
small islands, very far removed from the mainland, where the animals
have been exempt from all foreign competition--that is, from the
competition of casual colonists--when it does come it proves, in many
cases, fatal to them. Fortunately, this country's large size and
nearness to the mainland has prevented any such fatal crystallization of
its organisms as we see in islands like St.  Helena. That any English
species would be exterminated by foreign competition is extremely
unlikely; whether we introduce exotic birds or not, the only losses we
shall have to deplore in the future will, like those of the past, be
directly due to our own insensate action in slaying every rare and
beautiful thing with powder and shot. From the introduction of exotic
species nothing is to be feared, but much to be hoped.

There is another point which should not be overlooked. It has after all
become a mere fiction to say that _all_ places are occupied. Nature's
nice order has been destroyed, and her kingdom thrown into the utmost
confusion; our action tends to maintain the disorderly condition, while
she is perpetually working against us to re-establish order. When she
multiplies some common, little-regarded species to occupy a space left
vacant by an artificially exterminated kind, the species called in as a
mere stop-gap, as it were, is one not specially adapted in structure and
instincts to a particular mode of life, and consequently cannot fully
and effectually occupy the ground into which it has been permitted to
enter. To speak in metaphor, it enters merely as a caretaker or ignorant
and improvident steward in the absence of the rightful owner. Again,
some of our ornamental species, which are fast diminishing, are fitted
from their peculiar structure and life habits to occupy places in nature
which no other kinds, however plastic they may be, can even partially
fill. The wryneck and the woodpecker may be mentioned; and a still
better instance is afforded by the small, gem-like kingfisher--the
only British bird which can properly be described as gem-like.
When the goldfinch goes--and we know that he is going rapidly--other
coarser fringilline birds, without the melody, brightness, and charm of
the goldfinch--sparrow and bunting--come in, and in some rough fashion
supply its place; but when the kingfisher disappears an important place
is left absolutely vacant, for in this case there is no coarser bird of
homely plumage with the fishing instinct to seize upon it. Here, then,
is an excellent opportunity for an experiment. In the temperate regions
of the earth there are many fine kingfishers to select from; some are
resident in countries colder than England, and are consequently very
hardy; and in some cases the rivers and streams they frequent are
exceedingly poor in fish. Some of them are very beautiful, and they vary
in size from birds no larger than a sparrow to others as large as a

Anglers might raise the cry that they require all the finny inhabitants
of our waters for their own sport. It is scarcely necessary to go as
deeply into the subject as mathematical-minded Mudie did to show that
Nature's lavishness in the production of life would make such a
contention unreasonable. He demonstrated that if all the fishes hatched
were to live their full term, in twenty-four years their production
power would convert into fish (two hundred to the solid foot) as much
matter as there is contained in the whole solar system--sun, planets,
and satellites! An "abundantly startling" result, as he says. To be well
within the mark, ninety-nine out of every hundred fishes hatched must
somehow perish during that stage when they are nothing but suitable
morsels for the kingfisher, to be swallowed entire; and a portion of all
this wasted food might very well go to sustain a few species, which
would be beautiful ornaments of the waterside, and a perpetual delight
to all lovers of rural nature, including anglers. It may be remarked in
passing, that the waste of food, in the present disorganized state of
nature, is not only in our streams.

The introduction of one or more of these lovely foreign kingfishers
would not certainly have the effect of hastening the decline of our
native species; but indirectly it might bring about a contrary result--a
subject to be touched on at the end of this paper. Practical naturalists
may say that kingfishers would be far more difficult to procure than
other birds, and that it would be almost impossible to convey them to
England. That is a question it would be premature to discuss now; but if
the attempt should ever be made, the difficulties would not perhaps be
found insuperable. In all countries one hears of certain species of
birds that they invariably die in captivity; but when the matter is
closely looked into, one usually finds that improper treatment and not
loss of liberty is the cause of death. Unquestionably it would be much
more difficult to keep a kingfisher alive and healthy during a long
sea-voyage than a common seed-eating bird; but the same may be said of
woodpeckers, cuckoos, warblers, and, in fact, of any species that
subsists in a state of nature on a particular kind of animal food.
Still, when we find that even the excessively volatile humming-bird,
which subsists on the minutest insects and the nectar of flowers, and
seems to require unlimited space for the exercise of its energies, can
be successfully kept confined for long periods and conveyed to distant
countries, one would imagine that it would be hard to set a limit to
what might be done in this direction. We do not want hard-billed birds
only. We require, in the first place, variety; and, secondly, that every
species introduced, when not of type unlike any native kind, as in the
case of the pheasant, shall be superior in beauty, melody, or some other
quality, to its British representative, or to the species which comes
nearest to it in structure and habits. Thus, suppose that the
introduction of a pigeon should be desired. We know that in all
temperate regions, these birds vary as little in colour and markings as
they do in form; but in the vocal powers of different species there is
great diversity; and the main objects would therefore be to secure a
bird which would be an improvement in this respect on the native kinds.
There are doves belonging to the same genus as stock-dove and
wood-pigeon, that have exceedingly good voices, in which the peculiar
mournful dove-melody has reached its highest perfection--weird and
passionate strains, surging and ebbing, and startling the hearer with
their mysterious resemblance to human tones. Or a Zenaida might be
preferred for its tender lament, so wild and exquisitely modulated, like
sobs etherealized and set to music, and passing away in sigh-like sounds
that seem to mimic the aerial voices of the wind.

When considering the character of our bird population with a view to its
improvement, one cannot but think much, and with a feeling almost of
dismay, of the excessive abundance of the sparrow. A systematic
persecution of this bird would probably only serve to make matters
worse, since its continued increase is not the cause but an effect of a
corresponding decrease in other more useful and attractive species; and
if Nature is to have her way at all there must be birds; and besides, no
bird-lover has any wish at see such a thing attempted. The sparrow has
his good points, if we are to judge him as we find him, without allowing
what the Australians and Americans say of him to prejudice our minds.
Possibly in those distant countries he may be altogether bad,
resembling, in this respect, some of the emigrants of our species, who,
when they go abroad, leave their whole stock of morality at home. Even
with us Miss Ormerod is exceedingly bitter against him, and desires
nothing less than his complete extirpation; but it is possible that this
lady's zeal may not be according to knowledge, that she may not know a
sparrow quite so well as she knows a fly. At all events, the
ornithologist finds it hard to believe that so bad an insect-catcher is
really causing the extinction of any exclusively insectivorous species.
On her own very high authority we know that the insect supply is not
diminishing, that the injurious kinds alone are able to inflict an
annual loss equal to £10,000,000 on the British farmer. To put aside
this controversial matter, the sparrow with all his faults is a pleasant
merry little fellow; in many towns he is the sole representative of wild
bird life, and is therefore a great deal to us--especially in the
metropolis, in which he most abounds, and where at every quiet interval
his blithe chirruping comes to us like a sound of subdued and happy
laughter. In London itself this merriment of Nature never irritates; it
is so much finer and more aerial in character than the gross jarring
noises of the street, that it is a relief to listen to it, and it is
like melody. In the quiet suburbs it sounds much louder and without
intermission. And going further afield, in woods, gardens, hedges,
hamlets, towns--everywhere there is the same running, rippling sound
of the omnipresent sparrow, and it becomes monotonous at last. We have
too much of the sparrow. But we are to blame for that. He is the
unskilled worker that Nature has called in to do the work of skilled
hands, which we have foolishly turned away. He is willing enough to take
it all on himself; his energy is great; he bungles away without ceasing;
and being one of a joyous temperament, he whistles and sings in his
tuneless fashion at his work, until, like the grasshopper of
Ecclesiastes, he becomes a burden. For how tiring are the sight and
sound of grasshoppers when one journeys many miles and sees them
incessantly rising like a sounding cloud before his horse, and hears
their shrill notes all day from the wayside! Yet how pleasant to listen
to their minstrelsy in the green summer foliage, where they are not too
abundant! We can have too much of anything, however charming it may be
in itself. Those who live where scores of humming-birds are perpetually
dancing about the garden flowers find that the eye grows weary of seeing
the daintiest forms and brightest colours and liveliest motions that
birds exhibit. We are told that Edward the Confessor grew so sick of the
incessant singing of nightingales in the forest of Havering-at-Bower
that he prayed to Heaven to silence their music; whereupon the birds
promptly took their departure, and returned no more to that forest until
after the king's death. The sparrow is not so sensitive as the legendary
nightingales, and is not to be got rid of in this easy manner. He is
amenable only to a rougher kind of persuasion; and it would be
impossible to devise a more effectual method of lessening his
predominance than that which Nature teaches--namely to subject him to
the competition of other and better species. He is well equipped for the
struggle--hardy, pugnacious, numerous, and in possession. He would not
be in possession and so predominant if he had not these qualities, and
great pliability of instinct and readiness to seize on vacant places.
Nevertheless, even with the sturdy sparrow a very small thing might turn
the scale, particularly if we were standing by and putting a little
artificial pressure on one side of the balance; for it must be borne in
mind that the very extent and diversity of the ground he occupies is a
proof that he does not occupy it effectually, and that his position is
not too strong to be shaken. It is not probable that our action in
assisting one side against the other would go far in its results; still,
a little might be done. There are gardens and grounds in the suburbs of
London where sparrows are not abundant, and are shyer than the birds of
other species, and this result has been brought about by means of a
little judicious persecution. Shooting is a bad plan, even with an
air-gun; its effects are seen by all the birds, for they see more from
their green hiding-places than we imagine, and it creates a general
alarm among them. Those who wish to give the other birds a chance will
only defeat their own object by shooting the sparrows. A much better
plan for those who are able to practise it prudently is to take their
nests, which are more exposed to sight than those of other birds; but
they should be taken after the full complement of eggs have been laid,
and only at night, so that other birds shall not witness the robbery and
fear for their own treasures. Mr. Henry George, in that book of his
which has been the delight of so many millions of rational souls,
advocates the destruction of all sharks and other large rapacious
fishes, after which, he says, the ocean can be stocked with salmon,
which would secure an unlimited supply of good wholesome food for the
human race. No such high-handed measures are advocated here with regard
to the sparrow. Knowledge of nature makes us conservative. It is so very
easy to say, "Kill the sparrow, or shark, or magpie, or whatever it is,
and then everything will be right." But there are more things in nature
than are dreamt of in the philosophy of the class of reformers
represented by the gamekeeper, and the gamekeeper's master, and Miss
Ormerod, and Mr. Henry George. Let him by all means kill the sharks, but
he will not conquer Nature in that way: she will make more sharks out of
something else--possibly out of the very salmon on which he proposes to
regale his hungry disciples. To go into details is not the present
writer's purpose; and to finish with this part of the subject, it is
sufficient to add that in the very wide and varied field occupied by the
sparrow, in that rough, ineffectual manner possible to a species having
no special and highly perfected feeding instincts, there is room for the
introduction of scores of competitors, every one of which should be
better adapted than the sparrow to find a subsistence at that point or
that particular part of the field where the two would come into rivalry;
and every species introduced should also possess some quality which
would make it, from the aesthetic point of view, a valuable addition to
our bird life. This would be no war of violence, and no contravention of
Nature's ordinances, but, on the contrary, a return to her safe,
healthy, and far-reaching methods.

There is one objection some may make to the scheme suggested here which
must be noticed. It may be said that even if exotic species able to
thrive in our country were introduced there would be no result; for
these strangers to our groves would all eventually meet with the same
fate as our rarer species and casual visitors--that is to say, they
would be shot. There is no doubt that the amateur naturalist has been a
curse to this country for the last half century, that it is owing to the
"cupidity of the cabinet" as old Robert Mudie has it--that many of our
finer species are exceedingly rare, while others are disappearing
altogether. But it is surely not too soon to look for a change for the
better in this direction. Half a century ago, when the few remaining
great bustards in this country were being done to death, it was suddenly
remembered by naturalists that in their eagerness to possess examples of
the bird (in the skin) they had neglected to make themselves acquainted
with its customs when alive. Its habits were hardly better known than
those of the dodo and solitaire. The reflection came too late, in so far
as the habits of the bird in this country are concerned; but unhappily
the lesson was not then taken to heart, and other fine species have
since gone the way of the great bustard. But now that we have so clearly
seen the disastrous effects of this method of "studying ornithology,"
which is not in harmony with our humane civilization, it is to be hoped
that a better method will be adopted--that "finer way" which Thoreau
found and put aside his fowling-piece to practise. There can be no doubt
that the desire for such an improvement is now becoming very general,
that a kindlier feeling for animal, and especially bird life is growing
up among us, and there are signs that it is even beginning to have some
appreciable effect. The fashion of wearing birds is regarded by most men
with pain and reprobation; and it is possible that before long it will
be thought that there is not much difference between the action of the
woman who buys tanagers and humming-birds to adorn her person, and that
of the man who kills the bittern, hoopoe, waxwing, golden oriole, and
Dartford-warbler to enrich his private collection.

A few words on the latest attempt which has been made to naturalize an
exotic bird in England will not seem out of place here. About eight
years ago a gentleman in Essex introduced the rufous tinamou--a handsome
game bird, nearly as large as a fowl--into his estate. Up till the
present time, or till quite recently these birds have bred every year,
and at one time they had increased considerably and scattered about the
neighbourhood. When it began to increase, the neighbouring proprietors
and sportsmen generally were asked not to shoot it, but to give it a
chance, and there is reason to believe that they have helped to protect
it, and have taken a great interest in the experiment. Whatever the
ultimate result may be, the partial success attained during these few
years is decidedly encouraging, and that for more reasons than one. In
the first place, the bird was badly chosen for such an experiment. It
belongs to the pampas of La Plata, to which it is restricted, and where
it enjoys a dry, bright climate, and lives concealed in the tall
close-growing indigenous grasses. The conditions of its habitat are
therefore widely different from those of Essex, or of any part of
England; and, besides, it has a peculiar organisation, for it happens to
be one of those animals of ancient types of which a few species still
survive in South America. That so unpromising a subject as this large
archaic tinamou should be able to maintain its existence in this
country, even for a very few years, encourages one to believe that with
better-chosen species, more highly organized, and with more pliant
habits, such as the hazel hen of Europe for a game bird, success would
be almost certain.

Another circumstance connected with the attempted introduction of this
unsuitable bird, even of more promise than the mere fact of the partial
success achieved, is the greatest interest the experiment has excited,
not only among naturalists throughout the country, but also among
landlords and sportsmen down in Essex, where the bird was not regarded
merely as fair game to be bagged, or as a curiosity to be shot for the
collector's cabinet, but was allowed to fight its own fight without
counting man among its enemies. And it is to be expected that the same
self-restraint and spirit of fairness and intelligent desire to see a
favourable result would be shown everywhere if exotic species were to be
largely introduced, and breeding centres established in suitable places
throughout the country. When it once became known that individuals were
doing this thing, giving their time and best efforts and at considerable
expense not for their own selfish gratification, but for the general
good, and to make the country more delightful to all lovers of rural
sights and sounds, there would be no opposition, but on the contrary
every assistance, since all would wish success to such an enterprise.
Even the most enthusiastic collector would refrain from lifting a weapon
against the new feathered guests from distant lands; and if by any
chance an example of one should get into his hands he would be ashamed
to exhibit it.

The addition of new beautiful species to our avifauna would probably not
be the only, nor even the principal benefit we should derive from the
carrying out of the scheme here suggested. The indirect effect of the
knowledge all would possess that such an experiment was being conducted,
and that its chief object was to repair the damage that has been done,
would be wholly beneficial since it would enhance the value in our eyes
of our remaining native rare and beautiful species. A large number of
our finer birds are annually shot by those who know that they are doing
a great wrong--that if their transgression is not punishable by law it
is really not less grave than that of the person who maliciously barks a
shade tree in a park or public garden--but who excuse their action by
saying that such birds must eventually get shot, and that those who
first see them might as well have the benefit. The presence of even a
small number of exotic species in our woods and groves would no doubt
give rise to a better condition of things; it would attract public
attention to the subject; for the birds that delight us with their
beauty and melody should be for the public, and not for the few
barbarians engaged in exterminating them; and the "collector" would find
it best to abandon his evil practices when it once began to be generally
asked, if we can spare the rare, lovely birds brought hither at great
expense from China or Patagonia, can we not also spare our own
kingfisher, and the golden oriole, and the hoopoe, that comes to us
annually from Africa to breed, but is not permitted to breed, and many
other equally beautiful and interesting species?


The sparrow, like the poor, we have always with us, and on windy days
even the large-sized rook is blown about the murkiness which does duty
for sky over London; and on such occasions its coarse, corvine dronings
seem not unmusical, nor without something of a tonic effect on our
jarred nerves. And here the ordinary Londoner has got to the end of his
ornithological list--that is to say, his winter list. He knows nothing
about those wind-worn waifs, the "occasional visitors" to the
metropolis--the pilgrims to distant Meccas and Medinas that have fallen,
overcome by weariness, at the wayside; or have encountered storms in the
great aerial sea, and lost compass and reckoning, and have been lured by
false lights to perish miserably at the hands of their cruel enemies. It
may be true that gulls are seen on the Serpentine, that woodcocks are
flushed in Lincoln's Inn Fields, but the citizen who goes to his office
in the morning and returns after the lamps have been lighted, does not
see them, and they are nothing in his life. Those who concern themselves
to chronicle such incidents might just as well, for all that it matters
to him, mistake their species, like that bird-loving but
unornithological correspondent of the Times who wrote that he had seen
a flock of golden orioles in Kensington Gardens. It turned out that what
he had seen were wheatears, or they might draw a little on their
imaginations, and tell of sunward-sailing cranes encamped on the dome of
St. Paul's Cathedral, flamingoes in the Round Pond, great snowy owls in
Westminster Abbey, and an ibis--scarlet, glossy, or sacred, according to
fancy--perched on Peabody's statue, at the Royal Exchange.

But his winter does not last for ever. When the bitter months are past,
with March that mocks us with its crown of daffodils; when the sun
shines, and the rain is soon over; and elms and limes in park and
avenue, and unsightly smoke-blackened brushwood in the squares, are
dressed once more in tenderest heart-refreshing green, even in London we
know that the birds have returned from beyond the sea. Why should they
come to us here, when it would seem so much more to their advantage, and
more natural for them to keep aloof from our dimmed atmosphere, and the
rude sounds of traffic, and the sight of many people going to and fro?
Are there no silent green retreats left where the conditions are better
suited to their shy and delicate natures? Yet no sooner is the spring
come again than the birds are with us. Not always apparent to the eye,
but everywhere their irrepressible gladness betrays their proximity; and
all London is ringed round with a mist of melody, which presses on us,
ambitious of winning its way even to the central heart of our citadel,
creeping in, mist-like, along gardens and tree-planted roads, clinging
to the greenery of parks and squares, and floating above the dull noises
of the town as clouds fleecy and ethereal float above the earth.

Among our spring visitors there is one which is neither aerial in
habits, nor a melodist, yet is eminently attractive on account of its
graceful form, pretty plumage, and amusing manners; nor must it be
omitted as a point in its favour that it is not afraid to make itself
very much at home with us in London.  [Footnote: Note that when this was
written in 1893, the moor-hen was never known to winter in London; his
habits have changed in this respect during the last two decades: he is
now a permanent resident.] This is the little moor-hen, a bird
possessing some strange customs, for which those who are curious about
such matters may consult its numerous biographies. Every spring a few
individuals of this species make their appearance in Hyde Park, and
settle there for the season, in full sight of the fashionable world; for
their breeding-place happens to be that minute transcript of nature
midway between the Dell and Rotten Row, where a small bed of rushes and
aquatic grasses flourishes in the stagnant pool forming the end of the
Serpentine. Where they pass the winter--in what Mentone or Madeira of
the ralline race--is not known. There is a pretty story, which
circulated throughout Europe a little over fifty years ago, of a Polish
gentleman, capturing a stork that built its nest on his roof every
summer, and putting an iron collar on its neck with the inscription,
"Haec Ciconia ex Polonia." The following summer it reappeared with
something which shone very brightly on its neck, and when the stork was
taken again this was found to be a collar of gold, with which the iron
collar had been replaced, and on it were graven the words, "India cum
donis remittit ciconian Polonis." No person has yet put an iron collar
on the moor-hen to receive gifts in return, or followed its feeble
fluttering flight to discover the limits of its migration which is
probably no further away than the Kentish marshes and other wet
sheltered spots in the south of England; that it leaves the country when
it quits the park is not to be believed. Still, it goes with the wave,
and with the wave returns; and, like the migratory birds that observe
times and seasons, it comes back to its own home--that circumscribed
spot of earth and water which forms its little world, and is more to it
than all other reedy and willow-shaded pools and streams in England. It
is said to be shy in disposition, yet all may see it here, within a few
feet of the Row, with so many people continually passing, and so many
pausing to watch the pretty birds as they trip about their little plot
of green turf, deftly picking minute insects from the grass and not
disdaining crumbs thrown by the children. A dainty thing to look at is
that smooth, olive-brown little moor-hen, going about with such freedom
and ease in its small dominion, lifting its green legs deliberately,
turning its yellow beak and shield this way and that, and displaying the
snow-white undertail at every step, as it moves with that quaint,
graceful, jetting gait peculiar to the gallinules.

Such a fact as this--and numberless facts just as significant all
pointing to the same conclusion, might be adduced--shows at once how
utterly erroneous is that often-quoted dictum of Darwin's that birds
possess an instinctive or inherited fear of man. These moor-hens fear
him not at all; simply because in Hyde Park they are not shot at, and
robbed of their eggs or young, nor in any way molested by him. They fear
no living thing, except the irrepressible small dog that occasionally
bursts into the enclosure, and hunts them with furious barkings to their
reedy little refuge. And as with these moor-hens, so it is with all wild
birds; they fear and fly from, and suspiciously watch from a safe
distance, whatever molests them, and wherever man suspends his hostility
towards them they quickly outgrow the suspicion which experience has
taught them, or which is traditional among them; for the young and
inexperienced imitate the action of the adults they associate with, and
learn the suspicious habit from them.

It is also interesting and curious to note that a bird which inhabits
two countries, in summer and winter, regulates his habits in accordance
with the degree of friendliness or hostility exhibited towards him by
the human inhabitants of the respective areas. The bird has in fact two
traditions with regard to man's attitude towards him--one for each
country. Thus, the field-fare is an exceedingly shy bird in England, but
when he returns to the north if his breeding place is in some inhabited
district in northern Sweden or Norway he loses all his wildness and
builds his nest quite close to the houses. My friend Trevor Battye saw a
pair busy making their nest in a small birch within a few yards of the
front door of a house he was staying at. "How strange," said he to the
man of the house, "to see field-fares making a nest in such a place!"

"Why strange?" said the man in surprise. "Why strange? Because of the
boys, always throwing stones at a bird. The nest is so low down, that
any boy could put his hand in and take the eggs." "Take the eggs!" cried
the man, more astonished than ever. "And throwing stones at a bird! Who
ever heard of a boy doing such things!"

Closely related to this error is another error, which is that noise in
itself is distressing to birds, and has the effect of driving them away.
To all sounds and noises which are not associated with danger to them,
birds are absolutely indifferent. The rumbling of vehicles, puffing and
shrieking of engines, and braying of brass bands, alarm them less than
the slight popping of an air gun, where that modest weapon of
destruction is frequently used against them. They have no "nerves" for
noise, but the apparition of a small boy silently creeping along the
hedge-side, in search of nests or throwing stones, is very terrifying to
them. They fear not cattle and horses, however loud the bellowing may
be; and if we were to transport and set loose herds of long-necked
camelopards, trumpeting elephants, and rhinoceroses of horrible aspect,
the little birds would soon fear them as little as they do the familiar
cow. But they greatly fear the small-sized, quiet, unobtrusive, and
meek-looking cat.  Sparrows and starlings that fly wildly at the shout
of a small boy or the bark of a fox-terrier, build their nests under
every railway arch; and the incubating bird sits unalarmed amid the iron
plates and girders when the express train rushes overhead, so close to
her that one would imagine that the thunderous jarring noise would cause
the poor thing to drop down dead with terror. To this indifference to
the mere harmless racket of civilization we owe it that birds are so
numerous around, and even in, London; and that in Kew Gardens, which, on
account of its position on the water side, and the numerous railroads
surrounding it, is almost as much tortured with noise as Willesden or
Clapham Junction, birds are concentrated in thousands. Food is not more
abundant there than in other places; yet it would be difficult to find a
piece of ground of the same extent in the country proper, where all is
silent and there are no human crowds, with so large a bird population.
They are more numerous in Kew than elsewhere, in spite of the noise and
the people, because they are partially protected there from their human
persecutors. It is a joy to visit the gardens in spring, as much to hear
the melody of the birds as to look at the strange and lovely vegetable
forms. On a June evening with a pure sunny sky, when the air is elastic
after rain, how it rings and palpitates with the fine sounds that people
it, and which seem infinite in variety! Has England, burdened with care
and long estranged from Nature, so many sweet voices left? What aerial
chimes are those wafted from the leafy turret of every tree? What
clear, choral songs--so wild, so glad? What strange instruments, not
made with hands, so deftly touched and soulfully breathed upon? What
faint melodious murmurings that float around us, mysterious and tender
as the lisping of leaves? Who could be so dull and exact as to ask the
names of such choristers at such a time! Earthly names they have, the
names we give them, when they visit us, and when we write about them in
our dreary books; but, doubtless, in their brighter home in cloudland
they are called by other more suitable appellatives. Kew is
exceptionally favoured for the reason mentioned, but birds are also
abundant where there are no hired men with red waistcoats and brass
buttons to watch over their safety. Why do they press so persistently
around us; and not in London only, but in every town and village, every
house and cottage in this country? Why are they always waiting,
congregating as far from us as the depth of garden, lawn, or orchard
will allow, yet always near as they dare to come? It is not sentiment,
and to be translated into such words as these: "Oh man, why are you
unfriendly towards us, or else so indifferent to our existence that you
do not note that your children, dependants, and neighbours cruelly
persecute us? For we are for peace, and knowing you for the lord of
creation, we humbly worship you at a distance, and wish for a share in
your affection." No; the small, bright soul which is in a bird is
incapable of such a motive, and has only the lesser light of instinct
for its guide, and to the birds' instinct we are only one of the
wingless mammalians inhabiting the earth, and with the cat and weasel
are labelled "dangerous," but the ox and horse and sheep have no such
label. Even our larger, dimmer eyes can easily discover the
attraction. Let any one, possessing a garden in the suburbs of London,
minutely examine the foliage at a point furthest removed from the house,
and he will find the plants clean from insects; and as he moves back he
will find them increasingly abundant until he reaches the door. Insect
life is gathered thickly about us, for that birdless space which we have
made is ever its refuge and safe camping ground. And the birds know. One
came before we were up, when cat and dog were also sleeping, and a
report is current among them. Like ants when a forager who has found a
honey pot returns to the nest, they are all eager to go and see and
taste for themselves. Their country is poor, for they have gathered its
spoils, and now this virgin territory sorely tempts them. To those who
know a bird's spirit it is plain that a mere suspension of hostile
action on our part would have the effect of altering their shy habits,
and bringing them in crowds about us. Not only in the orchard and grove
and garden walks would they be with us, but even in our house. The
robin, the little bird "with the red stomacher," would be there for the
customary crumbs at meal-time, and many dainty fringilline pensioners
would keep him company. And the wren would be there, searching
diligently in the dusty angles of cornices for a savoury morsel; for it
knows, this wise little Kitty Wren, that "the spider taketh hold with
her hands, and is in king's palaces"; and wandering from room to room it
would pour forth many a gushing lyric--a sound of wildness and joy in
our still interiors, eternal Nature's message to our hearts.

Who delights not in a bird? Yet how few among us find any pleasure in
reading of them in natural history books! The living bird, viewed
closely and fearless of our presence, is so much more to the mind than
all that is written--so infinitely more engaging in its spontaneous
gladness, its brilliant vivacity, and its motions so swift and true and
yet so graceful! Even leaving out the melody, what a charm it would add
to our homes if birds were permitted to take the part there for which
Nature designed them--if they were the "winged wardens" of our gardens
and houses as well as of our fields. Bird-biographies are always in our
bookcases; and the bird-form meets our sight everywhere in decorative
art Eastern and Western; for its aerial beauty is without parallel in
nature; but the living birds, with the exception of the unfortunate
captives in cages, are not with us.

    A robin redbreast in a cage
    Puts all heaven in a rage,

sings Blake prophet and poet; and for "robin redbreast" I read every
feathered creature endowed with the marvellous faculty of flight. Wild,
and loving their safety and liberty, they keep at a distance, at the end
of the garden or in the nearest grove, where from their perches they
suspiciously watch our movements, always waiting to be encouraged,
waiting to feed on the crumbs that fall from our table and are wasted,
and on the blighting insects that ring us round with their living


One week-day morning, following a crowd of well-dressed people, I
presently found myself in a large church or chapel, where I spent an
hour very pleasantly, listening to a great man's pulpit eloquence. He
preached about genius. The subject was not suggested by the text, nor
did it have any close relation with the other parts, of his discourse;
it was simply a digression, and, to my mind, a very delightful one. He
began about the restrictions to which we are all more or less subject,
the aspirations that are never destined to be fulfilled, but are mocked
by life's brevity. And it was at this point that--probably thinking of
his own case--he branched off into the subject of genius; and proceeded
to show that a man possessing that divine quality finds existence a
much sadder affair than the ordinary man; the reason being that his
aspirations are so much loftier than those of other minds, the
difference between his ideal and reality must be correspondingly greater
in his case. This was obvious--almost a truism; but the illustration by
means of which he brought it home to his hearers was certainly born of
poetic imagination. The life of the ordinary person he likened to that
of the canary in its cage. And here, dropping his lofty didactic manner,
and--if I may coin a word--smalling his deep, sonorous voice, to a thin
reedy treble, in imitation of the tenuous fringilline pipe, he went on
with lively language, rapid utterance, and suitable brisk movements and
gestures, to describe the little lemon-coloured housekeeper in her
gilded cage. Oh, he cried, what a bright, busy bustling life is hers,
with so many things to occupy her time! how briskly she hops from perch
to perch, then to the floor, and back from floor to perch again! how
often she drops down to taste the seed in her box, or scatter it about
her in a little shower! how curiously, and turning her bright eyes
critically this way and that, she listens to every new sound and regards
every object of sight! She must chirp and sing, and hop from place to
place, and eat and drink, and preen her wings, and do at least a dozen
different things every minute; and her time is so fully taken up that
the narrow limits confining her are almost forgotten--the wires that
separate her from the great world of wind-tossed woods, and of blue
fields of air, and the free, buoyant life for which her instincts and
faculties fit her, and which, alas! can never more be hers.

All this sounded very pretty, as well as true, and there was a pleased
smile on every face in the audience.

Then the rapid movements and gestures ceased, and the speaker was
silent. A cloud came over his rough-hewn majestic visage; he drew
himself up, and swayed his body from side to side, and shook his black
gown, and lifted his arms, as their plumed homologues are lifted by some
great bird, and let them fall again two or three times; and then said,
in deep measured tones, which seemed to express rage and despair, "But
did you ever see the eagle in his cage?"

The effect of the contrast was grand. He shook himself again, and lifted
and dropped his arms again, assuming, for the nonce, the peculiar
aquiline slouch; and there before us stood the mighty bird of Jove, as
we are accustomed to see it in the Zoological Gardens; its deep-set,
desolate eyes looking through and beyond us; ruffling its dark plumage,
and lifting its heavy wings as if about to scorn the earth, only to drop
them again, and to utter one of those long dreary cries which seem to
protest so eloquently against a barbarous destiny. Then he proceeded to
tell us of the great raptor in its life of hopeless captivity; his
stern, rugged countenance, deep bass voice, and grand mouth-filling
polysllables suiting his subject well, and making his description seem
to our minds a sombre magnificent picture never to be forgotten--at all
events, never by an ornithologist.

Doubtless this part of his discourse proved eminently pleasing to the
majority of his hearers, who, looking downwards into the depths of their
own natures, would be able to discern there a glimmer, or possibly more
than a glimmer of that divine quality he had spoken of, and which was,
unhappily for them, not recognized by the world at large; so that, for
the moment, he was addressing a congregation of captive eagles, all
mentally ruffling their plumage and flapping their pinions, and uttering
indignant screams of protest against the injustice of their lot.

The illustration pleased me for a different reason, namely, because,
being a student of bird-life, his contrasted picture of the two widely
different kinds, when deprived of liberty, struck me as being singularly
true to nature, and certainly it could not have been more forcibly and
picturesquely put. For it is unquestionably the fact that the misery we
inflict by tyrannously using the power we possess over God's creatures,
is great in proportion to the violence of the changes of condition to
which we subject our prisoners; and while canary and eagle are both more
or less aerial in their mode of life, and possessed of boundless energy,
the divorce from nature is immeasurably greater in one case than in the
other. The small bird, in relation to its free natural life, is less
confined in its cage than the large one. Its smallness, perching
structure, and restless habits, fit it for continual activity, and its
flitting, active life within the bars bears some resemblance except in
the great matter of flight, to its life in a state of nature. Again, its
lively, curious, and extremely impressible character, is in many ways an
advantage in captivity; every new sound and sight, and every motion,
however slight, in any object or body near it, affording it, so to
speak, something to think about. It has the further advantage of a
varied and highly musical language; the frequent exercise of the faculty
of singing, in birds, with largely developed vocal organs, no doubt
reacts on the system, and contributes not a little to keep the prisoner
healthy and cheerful.

On the other hand, the eagle, on account of its structure and large
size, is a prisoner indeed, and must languish with all its splendid
faculties and importunate impulses unexercised. You may gorge it with
gobbets of flesh until its stomach cries, "Enough"; but what of all the
other organs fed by the stomach, and their correlated faculties? Every
bone and muscle and fibre, every feather and scale, is instinct with an
energy which you cannot satisfy, and which is like an eternal hunger.
Chain it by the feet, or place it in a cage fifty feet wide--in either
case it is just as miserable. The illimitable fields of thin cold air,
where it outrides the winds and soars exulting beyond the clouds, alone
can give free space for the display of its powers and scope to its
boundless energies. Nor to the power of flight alone, but also to a
vision formed for sweeping wide horizons, and perceiving objects at
distances which to short-sighted man seem almost miraculous.  Doubtless,
eagles, like men, possess some adaptiveness, else they would perish in
their enforced inactivity, swallowing without hunger and assimilating
without pleasure the cold coarse flesh we give them. A human being can
exist, and even be tolerably cheerful, with limbs paralyzed and hearing
gone; and that, to my mind, would be a parallel case to that of the
eagle deprived of its liberty and of the power to exercise its flight,
vision, and predatory instincts.

As I sit writing these thoughts, with a cage containing four canaries on
the table before me, I cannot help congratulating these little prisoners
on their comparatively happy fate in having been born, or hatched,
finches and not eagles. And yet albeit I am not responsible for the
restraint which has been put upon them, and am not their owner, being
only a visitor in the house, I am troubled with some uncomfortable
feelings concerning their condition--feelings which have an admixture of
something like a sense of shame or guilt, as if an injustice had been
done, and I had stood by consenting. I did not do it, but we did it. I
remember Matthew Arnold's feeling lines on his dead canary, "Poor
Matthias," and quote:

    Yet, poor bird, thy tiny corse
    Moves me, somehow, to remorse;
    Something haunts my conscience, brings
    Sad, compunctious visitings.
    Other favourites, dwelling here,
    Open lived with us, and near;
    Well we knew when they were glad
    Plain we saw if they were sad;
    Sympathy could feel and show
    Both in weal of theirs and woe.

    Birds, companions more unknown,
    Live beside us, but alone;
    Finding not, do all they can,
    Passage from their souls to man.
    Kindness we bestow and praise,
    Laud their plumage, greet their lays;
    Still, beneath their feathered breast
    Stirs a history unexpressed.
    Wishes there, and feeling strong,
    Incommunicably throng;
    What they want we cannot guess.

This, as poetry, is good, but it does not precisely fit my case; my
"compunctious visitings" being distinctly different in origin and
character from the poet's. He--Matthew Arnold--is a poet, and the author
of much good verse, which I appreciate and hold dear. But he was not a
naturalist--all men cannot be everything. And I, a naturalist, hold that
the wishes, thronging the restless little feathered breast are not
altogether so incommunicable as the melodious mourner of "Poor Matthias"
imagines. The days--ay, and years--which I have spent in the society of
my feathered friends have not, I flatter myself, been so wasted that I
cannot small my soul, just as the preacher smalled his voice, to bring
it within reach of them, and establish some sort of passage.

And so, thinking that a little more knowledge of birds than most people
possess, and consideration for them--for I will not be so harsh to speak
of justice--and time and attention given to their wants, might remove
this reproach, and silence these vague suggestions of a too fastidious
conscience, I have taken the trouble to add something to the seed with
which these little prisoners had been supplied. For we give sweetmeats
to the child that cries for the moon--an alternative which often acts
beneficially--and there is nothing more to be done. Any one of us, even
a philosopher, would think it hard to be restricted to dry bread only,
yet such a punishment would be small compared with that which we, in our
ignorance or want of consideration, inflict on our caged animals--our
pets on compulsion. Small, because an almost infinite variety of
flavours drawn from the whole vegetable kingdom--a hundred flavours for
every one in the dietary which satisfies our heavier mammalian
natures--is a condition of the little wild bird's existence and
essential to its well-being and perfect happiness. And so, to remedy
this defect, I went out into the garden, and with seeding grasses and
pungent buds, and leaves of a dozen different kinds, I decorated the
cage until it looked less like a prison than a bower. And now for an
hour the little creatures have been busy with their varied green
fare, each one tasting half a dozen different leaves every minute,
hopping here and there and changing places with his fellows, glancing
their bright little eyes this way and that, and all the time uttering
gratulatory notes in the canary's conversational tone. And their
language is not altogether untranslatable. I listen to one, a pretty
pure yellow bird, but slightly tyrannical in his treatment of the
others, and he says, or seems to say: "This is good, I like it, only the
old leaf is tough; the buds would be better. . . . These are certainly
not so good. _I tasted them out of compliment to nature, though they
were scarcely palatable. . . ._" No, that was not my own expression; it
was said by Thoreau, perhaps the only human a little bird can quote with
approval. "This is decidedly bitter--and yet--yes, it does leave a
pleasant flavour on the palate. Make room for me there--or I shall make
you and let me taste it again. Yes, I fancy I can remember eating
something like this in a former state of existence, ages and ages ago."
And so on, and so on, until I began to imagine that the whole thing had
been put right, and that the uncomfortable feeling would return to
trouble me no more. But at the rate they are devouring their green stuff
there will not be a leat, scarcely a stem left in another hour; and
then? Why, then they will have the naked wires of their cage all round
them to protect them from the cat and for hunger there will be seed in
the box.

After all, then, what a little I have been able to do! But I flatter
myself that if they were mine I should do more. I never keep captive
birds, but if they were given to me, and I could not refuse, I should do
a great deal more for them. All my knowledge of their ways and their
requirements would teach me how to make their caged existence less
unlike the old natural life, than it now is. To begin the ameliorating
process, I should place them in a large cage, large enough to allow
space for flight, so that they might fly to and fro, a few feet each
way, and rest their little feet from continual perching. That would
enable them to exercise their most important muscles and experience once
more, although in a very limited degree, the old delicious sensation of
gliding at will through the void air. The wires of their new cage would
be of brass or of some bright metal, and the wooden parts and perches
green enamelled, or green variegated with brown and grey, and the roof
would be hung with glass lustres, to quiver and sparkle into drops of
violet, red, and yellow light, gladdening these little lovers of bright
colours; for so we deem them. I should also add gay flowers and berries,
crocus and buttercup and dandelion, hips and haws and mountain ash and
yellow and scarlet leaves--all seasonable jewellery from woods and
hedges and from the orchard and garden. Then would come the heaviest
part of my task, which would be to satisfy their continual craving for
new tastes in food, their delight in an endless variety. I should go to
the great seed-merchants of London and buy samples of all the cultivated
seeds of the earth, and not feed them in a trough, or manger, like heavy
domestic brutes, but give it to them mixed and scattered in small
quantities, to be searched for and gladly found in the sand and gravel
and turf on the wide floor of the cage. And, higher up, the wires of
their dwelling would be hung with an endless variety of seeded grasses,
and sprays of all trees and plants, good, bad, and indifferent. For if
the volatile bird dines on no more than twenty dishes every day he
loves to taste of a hundred and to have at least a thousand on the table
to choose from.

Feeding the birds and keeping the cage always sweet and clean would
occupy most, if not the whole of my time. But would that be too much to
give if it made me tranquil in my own mind? For it must be noted that I
have done all this, mentally and on paper, for my own satisfaction
rather than that of the canaries. Birds are not worth much--_to us_. Are
not five sparrows sold for three farthings? I have even shot many birds
and have felt no compunction. True, they perished before their time, but
they did not languish, and being dead there was an end of them; but the
caged canaries continuing with us, cannot be dismissed from the mind
with the same convenient ease. After all, I begin to think that my
imaginary reforms, if carried out, would not quite content me. The
"compunctious visitings" would continue still. I look out of the window
and see a sparrow on a neighbouring tree, loudly chirruping. And as I
listen, trying to find comfort by thinking of the perils which do
environ him, his careless unconventional sparrow-music resolves itself
into articulate speech, interspersed with occasional bursts of derisive
laughter. He knows, this fabulous sparrow, what I have been thinking
about and have written. "How would you like it," I hear him saying, "O
wise man that knows so much about the ways of birds, if you were shut up
in a big cage--in Windsor Castle, let us say--with scores of menials to
wait on you and anticipate your every want? That is, I must explain,
every want compatible with--ahem!--the captive condition. Would you be
happy in your confinement, practising with the dumb-bells, riding up and
down the floors on a bicycle and gazing at pictures and filigree caskets
and big malachite vases and eating dinners of many, many courses? Or
would you begin to wish that you might be allowed to live on sixpence a
day--_and earn it_; and even envy the ragged tramp who dines on a
handful of half-rotten apples and sleeps in a hay-stack, but is free to
come and go, and range the world at will? You have been playing at
nature; but Nature mocks you, for your captives thank you not. They
would rather go to her without an intermediary, and take a scantier
measure of food from her hand, but flavoured as she only can flavour it.
Widen your cage, naturalist; replace the little twinkling lustres with
sun and moon and milky way; plant forests on the floor, and let there be
hills and valleys, rivers and wide spaces; and let the blue pillars of
heaven be the wires of your cage, with free entrance to wind and rain;
then your little captives will be happy, even happy as I am, in spite of
all the perils which do environ me--guns and cats and snares, with wet
and fog and hard frosts to come."

And, seeing my error, I should open the cage and let them fly away. Even
to death, I should let them fly, for there would be a taste of liberty
first, and life without that sweet savour, whether of aerial bird or
earth-bound man, is not worth living.


During the month of September I spent several days at a house standing
on high ground in one of the pleasantest suburbs of London, commanding a
fine view at the back of the breezy, wooded, and not very far-off Surrey
hills; and all round, from every window, front and back, such a mass of
greenery met the eye, almost concealing the neighbouring houses, that I
could easily imagine myself far out in the country. In the garden the
omnipresent sparrow, and that always pleasant companion the starling,
associated with the thrush, blackbird, green linnet, chaffinch,
redstart, wren, and two species of tits; and, better than all these, not
fewer than half a dozen robins warbled their autumn notes from early
morning until late in the evening. Domestic bird-life was also
represented by fifteen fowls, and the wise laxity existing in the
establishment made these also free of the grounds; for of eyesores and
painful skeletons in London cupboards, one of the worst, to my mind, is
that unwholesome coop at the back where a dozen unhappy birds are
usually to be found immured for life. These, more fortunate, had ample
room to run about in, and countless broad shady leaves from which to
pick the green caterpillar, and red tortoise-shaped lady-bird, and
parti-coloured fly, and soft warm soil in which to bathe in their own
gallinaceous fashion, and to lie with outstretched wings luxuriating by
the hour in the genial sunshine. And having seen their free wholesome
life, I did not regard the new-laid egg on the breakfast-table with a
feeling of repugnance, but ate it with a relish.

I have said that the fowls numbered fifteen; five were old birds, and
ten were chickens, closely alike in size, colour and general appearance.
They were not the true offspring of the hen that reared them, but
hatched from eggs bought from a local poultry-breeder. As they advanced
in age to their teens, or the period in chicken-life corresponding to
that in which, in the human species, boy and girl begin to diverge,
their tails grew long, and they developed very fine red combs; but the
lady of the house, who had been promised good layers when she bought the
eggs clung tenaciously to the belief that long arching tails and stately
crests were ornaments common to both sexes in this particular breed. By
and by they commenced to crow, first one, then two, then all, and stood
confessed cockerels. Incidents like this, which are of frequent
occurrence, serve to keep alive the exceedingly ancient notion that the
sex of the future chick can be foretold from the shape of the egg. As I
had no personal interest in the question of the future egg-supply of the
establishment, I was not sorry to see the chickens develop into cocks;
what did interest me were their first attempts at crowing--those grating
sounds which the young bird does not seem to emit, but to wrench out
with painful effort, as a plant is wrenched out of the soil, and not
without bringing away portions of the lungs clinging to its roots. The
bird appears to know what is coming, like an amateur dentist about to
extract one of his own double-pronged teeth, and setting his feet
firmly on the ground, and throwing himself well back before an imaginary
looking-glass, and with arched-neck, wide-open beak, and rolling eyes,
courageously performs the horrible operation. One cannot help thinking
that a cockerel brought up without any companions of his own sex and age
would not often crow, but in this instance there were no fewer than ten
of them to encourage each other in the laborious process of tuning their
harsh throats. Heard subsequently in the quiet of the early morning,
these first tuning efforts suggested some reflections to my mind, which
may not prove entirely without interest to fanciers who aim at something
beyond a mere increase in our food-supply in their selecting and
refining processes.

To continue my narration. I woke in the morning at my usual time,
between three and four o'clock, which is not my getting-up time, for, as
a rule, after half an hour or so I sleep again. The waking is not
voluntary as far as I know; for although it may seem a contradiction in
terms to speak of coming at will out of a state of unconsciousness, we
do, in cases innumerable, wake voluntarily, or at the desired time, not
perhaps being altogether unconscious when sleeping. If, however, this
early waking were voluntary, I should probably say that it was for the
pleasure of listening to the crowing of the cocks at that silent hour
when the night, so near its end, is darkest, and the mysterious tide of
life, prescient of coming dawn, has already turned, and is sending the
red current more and more swiftly through the sleeper's veins. I have
spent many a night in the desert, and when waking on the wide silent
grassy plain, the first whiteness in the eastern sky, and the fluting
call of the tinamou, and the perfume of the wild evening primrose, have
seemed to me like a resurrection in which I had a part; and something of
this feeling is always associated in my mind with the first far-heard
notes of Chanticleer.

It was very dark and quiet when I woke; my window was open, with only a
lace curtain before it to separate me from the open air. Presently the
profound silence was broken. From a distance of fifty or sixty yards
away on the left hand came the crow of a cock, soon answered by another
further away on the same side, and then, further away still, by a third.
Other voices took up the challenge on the right, some near, some far,
until it seemed that there was scarcely a house in the neighbourhood at
which Chanticleer was not a dweller. There was no other sound. Not for
another hour would the sparrows burst out in a chorus of chirruping
notes, lengthened or shortened at will, variously inflected, and with a
ringing musical sound in some of them, which makes one wonder why this
bird, so high in the scale of nature, has never acquired a set song for
itself. For there is music in him, and when confined with a singing
finch he will sometimes learn its song. Then the robins, then the tits,
then the starlings, gurgling, jarring, clicking, whistling, chattering.
Then the pigeons cooing soothingly on the roof and window-ledges, taking
flight from time to time with sudden, sharp flap, flap, followed by a
long, silken sound made by the wings in gliding. At four the cocks had
it all to themselves; and, without counting the cockerels (not yet out
of school), I could distinctly hear a dozen birds; that is to say, they
were near enough for me to listen to their music critically. The variety
of sounds they emitted was very great, and, if cocks were selected for
their vocal qualities, would have shown an astonishing difference in the
musical tastes of their owners. A dozen dogs of as many different
breeds, ranging from the boar-hound to the toy terrier, would not have
shown greater dissimilarity in their forms than did these cocks in their
voices. For the fowl, like the dog, has become an extremely variable
creature in the domestic state, in voice no less than in size, form,
colour, and other particulars. At one end of the scale there was the
raucous bronchial strain produced by the unwieldy Cochin. What a bird is
that! Nature, in obedience to man's behests, and smiling with secret
satire over her work, has made it ponderous and ungraceful as any clumsy
mammalian, wombat, ardvaark, manatee, or hippopotamus. The burnished red
hackles, worn like a light mantle over the black doublet of the breast,
the metallic dark green sickle-plumes arching over the tail, all the
beautiful lines and rich colouring, have been absorbed into flesh and
fat for gross feeders; and with these have gone its liveliness and
vigour, its clarion voice and hostile spirit and brilliant courage; it
is Gallus bankiva degenerate, with dulled brains and blunted spurs, and
its hoarse crow is a barbarous chant.

And far away at the other end, startling in its suddenness and
impetuosity, was a trisyllabic crow, so brief, piercing, and emphatic,
that it could only have proceeded from that peppery uppish little bird,
the bantam. And of the three syllables, the last, which should be the
longest, was the shortest, "short and sharp like the shrill swallow's
cry," or perhaps even more like the shrieky bark of an enraged little
cur; not a _reveille_ and silvern morning song in one, as a crow should
be, but a challenge and a defiance, wounding the sense like a spur, and
suggesting the bustle and fury of the cockpit.

If this style of crowing was known to Milton, it is perhaps accountable
for the one bad couplet in the "Allegro":

  While the cock with lively din
  Scatters the rear of darkness thin.

Someone has said that every line in that incomparable poem brings at
least one distinct picture vividly before the mind's eye. The picture
the first line of the couplet I have quoted suggests to ray mind is not
of crowing Chanticleer at all, but of a stalwart, bare-armed,
blowsy-faced woman, vigorously beating on a tin pan with a stick; but
for what purpose--whether to call down a passing swarm of bees, or to
summon the chickens to be fed--I never know. It is only my mental
picture of a "lively din." As to the second line, all attempts to see
the thing described only bring before me clouds and shadows, confusedly
rushing about in an impossible way; a chaos utterly unlike the serenity
and imperceptible growth of morning, and not a picture at all.

By and by I found myself paying special attention to one cock, about a
hundred yards away, or a little more perhaps, for by contrast all the
other songs within hearing seemed strangely inferior. Its voice was
singularly clear and pure, the last note greatly prolonged and with a
slightly falling inflection, yet not collapsing at the finish as such
long notes frequently do, ending with a little internal sound or croak,
as if the singer had exhausted his breath; but it was perfect in its
way, a finished performance, artistic, and, by comparison, brilliant.
After once hearing this bird I paid little attention to the others, but
after each resounding call I counted the seconds until its repetition.
It was this bird's note, on this morning, and not the others, which
seemed to bring round me that atmosphere of dreams and fancies I exist
in at early cockcrow--dreams and memories, sweet or sorrowful, of old
scenes and faces, and many eloquent passages in verse and prose, written
by men in other and better days, who lived more with nature than we do
now. Such a note as this was, perhaps, in Thoreau's mind when he
regretted that there were no cocks to cheer him in the solitude of
Walden. "I thought," he says, "that it might be worth while keeping a
cockerel for his music merely, as a singing bird. The note of this once
wild Indian pheasant is certainly the most remarkable of any bird's, and
if they could be naturalized without being domesticated it would soon
become the most famous sound in our woods. . . . To walk in a winter
morning in a wood where these birds abounded, their native woods, and
hear the wild cockerels crow on the trees, clear and shrill for miles
over the surrounding country--think of it! It would put nations on the
alert. Who would not be early to rise, and rise earlier and earlier on
each successive morning of his life, till he became unspeakably healthy,
wealthy, and wise?"

Soon I fell into thinking of one in some ways greater than Thoreau, so
unlike the skyey-minded New England prophet and solitary, so much more
genial and tolerant, more mundane and lovable; and yet like Thoreau in
his nearness to nature. Not only a lover of generous wines--"That mark
upon his lip is wine"--and books "clothed in black and red," all natural
sights and sounds also "filled his herte with pleasure and solass," and
the early crowing of the cock was a part of the minstrelsy he loved.
Perhaps when lying awake during the dark quiet hours, and listening to
just such a note as this, he conceived and composed that wonderful tale
of the "Nun's Priest," in which the whole character of Chanticleer, his
glory and his foibles, together with the homely virtues of Dame
Partlett, are so admirably set forth.

And longer ago it was perhaps such a note as this, heard in imagination
by the cock-loving Athenians, which all at once made them feel so
unutterably weary of endless fighting with the Lacedaemonians, and
inspired their hearts with such a passionate desire for the long
untasted sweets of security and repose. Is it one of my morning fancies
merely--for fact and fancy mingle strangely at this still, mysterious
hour, and are scarcely distinguishable--or is it related in history that
this strange thing happened when all the people of the violet-crowned
city were gathered to witness a solemn tragedy, in which certain verses
were spoken that had a strange meaning to their war-weary souls? "Those
who sleep in the morning in the arms of peace do not start from them at
the sound of the trumpet, and nothing interrupts their slumbers but the
peaceful crowing of the cock." And at these words the whole concourse
was electrified, and rose up like one man, and from thousands of lips
went forth a great cry of "Peace! Peace! Let us make peace with Sparta!"

Hark! once more that long clarion call: it is the last time--the very
last; for all the others have sung a dozen times apiece and have gone to
sleep again. So would this one have done, but cocks, like minstrels
among men, are vain creatures, and some kind officious fairy whispered
in his ear that there was an appreciative listener hard by, and so to
please me he sang, just one stave more.

Lying and listening in the dark, it seemed to me that there were two
opposite qualities commingled in the sound, with an effect analogous to
that of shadow mingling with and chastening light at eventide. First, it
was strong and clear, full of assurance and freedom, qualities admirably
suited to the song of a bird of Chanticleer's disposition; a lusty,
ringing strain, not sung in the clouds or from a lofty perch midway
between earth and heaven, but with feet firmly planted on the soil, and
earthly; and compared with the notes of the grove like a versified
utterance of Walt Whitman compared with the poems of the true inspired
children of song--Blake, Shelley, Poe. Earthly, but not hostile and
eager; on the contrary, leisurely, _peaceful_ even dreamy, with a touch
of tenderness which brings it into relationship with the more aerial
tones of the true singers; and this is the second quality I spoke of,
which gave a charm to this note and made it seem better than the others.
This is partly the effect of distance, which clarifies and softens
sound, just as distance gives indistinctness of outline and ethereal
blueness to things that meet the sight. To objects beautiful in
themselves, in graceful lines and harmonious proportions and colouring,
the haziness imparts an additional grace; but it does not make beautiful
the objects which are ugly in themselves, as, for instance, an ugly
square house. So in the etherealizing effect of distance on sound, when
so loud a sound as the crowing of a strong-lunged cock becomes dreamy
and tender at a distance of one hundred yards, there must be good
musical elements in it to begin with.  I do not remark this dreaminess
in the notes of other birds, some crowing at an equal distance, others
still further away. All natural music is heard best at a distance; like
the chiming of bells, and the music of the flute, and the wild confused
strains of the bagpipes, for among artificial sounds these come the
nearest to those made by nature.  The "shrill sharps" of the thrush must
be softened by distance to charm; and the skylark, when close at hand,
has both shrill and harsh sounds scarcely pleasing. He must mount
high before you can appreciate his merit. I do not recommend any one to
keep a caged cock in his study for the sake of its music, crow it never
so well.

To return to the ten cockerels; they did not crow very much, and at
first I paid little attention to them. After a few days I remarked that
one individual among them was rapidly acquiring the clear vigorous
strain of the adult bird. Compared with that fine note which I have
described, it was still weak and shaky, but in shape it was similar, and
the change had come while its brethren were still uttering brief and
harsh screeches as at the beginning. Probably, where there is a great
mixture of varieties, it is the same with the fowl as with man in the
diversity of the young, different ancestral characters appearing in
different members of the same family. This cockerel was apparently the
musical member, and promised in a short time to rival his neighbour.
Having heard that it was intended to keep one of the cockerels to be the
parent of future broods, I began to wonder whether the prize in the
lottery--to wit, life and a modest harem--would fall to this fine
singer or not. The odds were that his musical career would be cut short
by an early death, since the ten birds were very much alike in other
respects, and I felt perfectly sure that his superior note would weigh
nothing in the balance. For when has the character of the voice
influenced a fancier in selecting? Never I believe, odd as it seems. I
have read a very big book on the various breeds of the fowl, but the
crowing of the cock was not mentioned in it.  This would not seem so
strange if fanciers had invariably looked solely to utility, and their
highest ambition had ended at size, weight and quality of flesh, early
maturity, hardihood, and the greatest number of eggs. This has not been
the case. They possess, like others, the love of the beautiful,
artificial as their standards sometimes appear; and there are breeds in
which beauty seems to have been the principal object, as, for instance,
in several of the gold and silver spangled and pencilled varieties. But,
besides beauty of plumage, there are other things in the fowl worthy of
being improved by selection. One of these has been cultivated by man for
thousands of years, namely, the combative spirit and splendid courage of
the male bird. But there is a spirit abroad now which condemns
cock-fighting, and to continue selecting and breeding cocks solely for
their game-points seems a mere futility. The energy and enthusiasm
expended in this direction would be much better employed in improving
the bird's vocal powers.

The morning song of the cock is a sound unique in nature, and of all
natural sounds it is the most universal. "All climates agree with brave
Chanticleer. He is more indigenous even than the natives. His health is
ever good; his lungs are sound; his spirits never flag." He is a pet
bird among tribes that have never seen the peacock, goose, and turkey.
In tropical countries where the dog becomes dumb, or degenerates into a
mere growler, his trumpet never rusts. It is true that he was cradled in
the torrid zone, yet in all Western lands, where he "shakes off the
powdery snow," with vigorous wings, his voice sounds as loud and
inspiriting as in the hot jungle. Pale-faced Londoners, and blacks, and
bronzed or painted barbarians, all men all the world over, wake at morn
to the "peaceful crowing of the cock," just as the Athenians woke of
old, and the nations older still. It is not, therefore, strange that
this song has more associations for man than any other sound in nature.
But, apart from any adventitious claims to our attention, the sound
possesses intrinsic merits and pleases for its own sake. In our other
domestic birds we have, with regard to this point, been unfortunate. We
have the gobbling of turkeys, and the hoarse, monotonous come back of
the guinea-fowl, screaming of peacocks and geese, and quacking, hissing,
and rasping of mallard and mus-covy. Above all these sounds the ringing,
lusty, triumphant call of Chanticleer, as the far-reaching toll of the
bell-bird sounds above the screaming and chattering of parrots and
toucans in the Brazilian forest. A fine sound, which in spite of many
changes of climate and long centuries of domestication still preserves
that forest-born character of wildness, which gives so great a charm to
the language of many woodland gallinaceous birds. As we have seen, it is
variable, and in some artificial varieties has been suffered to
degenerate into sounds harsh and disagreeable; yet it is plain that an
improved voice in a beautiful breed would double the bird's value from
an aesthetic point of view. As things now are, the fine voices are in a
very small minority. Some bad voices in artificial breeds, i.e., those
which, like the Brahma and Cochin, diverge most widely from the original
type--are perhaps incurable, like the carrion crow's voice; for that
bird will probably always caw harshly in spite of the musical throat
which anatomists find in it. We can only listen to our birds, and begin
experimenting with those already possessed of shapely notes and voices
of good quality.

I am not going to be so ill-mannered as to conclude without an apology
to those among us who under no circumstances can tolerate the crowing of
the cock. It is true that I have not been altogether unmindful of their
prepossessions, and have freely acknowledged in divers places that
Chanticleer does not always please, and that there is abundant room for
improvement; but if they go further than that, if for them there exists
not on this round globe a cock whose voice would fail to irritate, then
I have not shown consideration enough, and something is still owing to
their feelings, which are very acute. It is possible that one of these
sensitive persons may take up my book, and, attracted by its title, dip
into this paper, hoping to find in it a practical suggestion for the
effectual muzzling of the obnoxious bird. The only improvement which
would fall in with such a one's ideas on the subject of cock-crowing
would be to improve this kind of natural music out of existence.
Naturally the paper would disappoint him; he would be grieved at the
writer's erroneous views. I hope that his feelings would take no acuter
form. I have listened to a person, usually mild-mannered, denouncing a
neighbour in the most unmeasured terms for the crime of keeping a
crowing cock. If the cock had been a non-crower, a silent member, it
would have been different: he would hardly have known that he had a
neighbour. There is a very serious, even a sad, side to this question.
Mr. Sully maintains that as civilization progresses, and as we grow more
intellectual, all noise, which is pleasing to children and savages, and
only exhilarates their coarse and juvenile brains, becomes increasingly
intolerable to us. What unfortunate creatures we then are! We have got
our pretty rattle and are now afraid that the noise it makes is going to
be the death of us. But what is noise? Will any two highly intellectual
beings agree as to the particular sound which produces the effect of
rusty nails thrust in among the convolutions of the brain? Physicians
are continually discovering new forms of nervous maladies, caused by the
perpetual hurry and worry and excitement of our modern life; and perhaps
there is one form in which natural sounds, which being natural should be
agreeable, or at any rate innocent, become more and more abhorrent. This
is a question which concerns the medical journals; also, to some extent,
those who labour to forecast the future. Happily, all our maladies are
thrown off, sooner or later, if they do not kill us; and we can
cheerfully look forward to a time when the delicate chords in us shall
no longer be made to vibrate "like sweet bells jangled out of tune and
harsh" to any sound in nature, and when the peaceful crowing of the cock
shall cease to madden the early waker. For, whatever may be the fate
awaiting our city civilization, brave Chanticleer, improved as to his
voice or not, will undoubtedly still be with us.


A sunny morning in June--a golden day among days that have mostly a
neutral tint; a large garden, with no visible houses beyond, but green
fields and unkept hedges and great silent trees, oak and ash and
elm--could I wish, just now, for a more congenial resting-place, or even
imagine one that comes nearer to my conception of an earthly paradise?
It is true that once I could not drink deeply enough from the sweet and
bitter cup of wild nature, and loved nature best, and sought it gladly
where it was most savage and solitary. But that was long ago. Now, after
years of London life, during which I have laboured like many another "to
get a wan pale face," with perhaps a wan pale mind to match, that past
wildness would prove too potent and sharp a tonic; unadulterated nature
would startle and oppress me with its rude desolate aspect, no longer
familiar. This softness of a well-cultivated earth, and unbroken verdure
of foliage in many shades, and harmonious grouping and blending of
floral hues, best suit my present enervated condition. I had, I imagine,
a swarter skin and firmer flesh when I could ride all day over great
summer-parched plains, where there was not a bush that would have
afforded shelter to a mannikin, and think that I was having a pleasant
journey. The cloudless sky and vertical sun--how intolerable they would
now seem, and scorch my brain and fill my shut eyes with dancing flames!
At present even this mild June sun is strong enough to make the old
mulberry tree on the lawn appear grateful. It is an ancient,
rough-barked tree, with wide branches, that droop downwards all round,
and rest their terminal leaves on the sward; underneath it is a natural
tent, or pavilion, with plenty of space to move about and sling a
hammock in. Here, then, I have elected to spend the hottest hours of my
one golden day, reading, dreaming, listening at intervals to the fine
bird-sounds that have a medicinal and restorative effect on the jarred
and wounded sense.

From the elms hard by comes a subdued, airy prattle of a few sparrows.
It is rather pleasant, something like a low accompaniment to the notes
of the more tuneful birds; the murmurous music of a many-stringed
instrument, forming the indistinct ground over which runs the bright
embroidery of clear melodious singing.

This morning, while lying awake from four to five o'clock, I almost
hated the sparrows, they were there in such multitudes, and so loud and
persistent sounded their jangling through the open window. It set me
thinking of the England of the future--of a time a hundred years hence,
let us say--when there will remain with us only two representatives of
feral life--the sparrow and the house-fly. Doubtless it will come,
unless something happens; but, doubtless, it will not continue. It will
still be necessary for a man to kill something in order to be happy; and
the sportsmen of that time, like great Gambetta, in the past, will sit
in the balconies, popping with pea-rifles at the sparrows until not one
is left to twitter. Then will come the turn of the untamed and untamable
fly; and he will afford good sport if hunted a la Domitain, with fine,
needle-tipped paper javelins, thrown to impale him on the wall.

One of our savants has lately prophesied that the time will come when
only the microscopic organisms will exist to satisfy the hunting
instinct in man. How these small creatures will be taken he does not
tell us. Perhaps the hunters will station themselves round a table with
a drop of preserved water on its centre, made large and luminous by
means of a ray of magnifying light. When that time comes the
amoeba--that "wandering Jew," as an irreverent Quarterly Reviewer has
called it--will lose its immortality, and the spry rotifer will fall a
victim to the infinitesimal fine bright arrows of the chase. A strange
quarry for men whose paeliolithic progenitors hunted the woolly mastodon
and many-horned rhinoceros and sabre-toothed tiger!

That sad day of very small things for the sportsman is, however, not
near, nor within measurable distance; or, so it seemed to me when, an
hour ago, I strolled round the garden, curiously peering into every
shrub, to find the visible and comparatively noble insect-life in great
abundance. Beetles were there--hard, round, polished, and of various
colours, like sea-worn pebbles on the beach; and some, called lady-birds
in the vernacular, were bound like the books that Chaucer loved in black
and red. And the small gilded fly, not less an insect light-headed, a
votary of vain delights, than in the prehistoric days when a
white-headed old king, discrowned and crazed, railed against sweet
Nature's liberty. And ever waiting to welcome this inconstant lover
(with falces) there sits the solitary geometric spider, an image and
embodiment of patience, not on a monument, but a suspended wheel of
which he is himself the hub; and so delicately fashioned are the silver
spokes thereof, radiating from his round and gem-like body, and the
rings, concentric tire within tire, that its exceeding fineness, like
swift revolving motion, renders it almost invisible. Caterpillars, too,
in great plenty--miniature porcupines with fretful quills on end, and
some naked even as they came into the world. This one, called the
earth-measurer, has drunk himself green with chlorophyll so as to escape
detection. Vain precaution! since eccentric motion betrays him to keen
avian eyes, when, like the traveller's snake, he erects himself on the
tip of his tail and sways about in empty space, vaguely feeling for
something, he knows not what. And the mechanical tortrix that rolls up a
leaf for garment and food, and preys on his own case and shelter until
he has literally eaten himself stark naked; after which he rolls up a
second leaf, and so on progressively. Thus in his larval life does he
symbolize some restless nation that makes itself many successive
constitutions and forms of government, in none of which it abides long;
but afterwards some higher thing, when he rests motionless, in form like
a sarcophagus, whence the infolded life emerges to haunt the twilight--a
grey ghost moth. There is no end to rolled-up leaves, and to the variety
of creatures that are housed in them; for, just as the "insect tribes of
human kind" in all places and in all ages, while seeking to improve
their condition, independently hit on the same means and inventions, so
it is with these small six-legged people; and many species in many
places have found out the comfort and security of the green cylinder.

So many did I open that I at last grew tired of the process, like a man
to whom the post has brought too many letters; but there was one--the
last I opened--the living active contents of which served to remind me
that some insects are unable to make a cylinder for themselves, having
neither gum nor web to fasten it with, and yet they will always find one
made by others to shelter themselves in. Here were no fewer than six
unbeautiful creatures, brothers and sisters, hatched from eggs on which
their parent earwig sat incubating just like an eagle or dove or
swallow, or, better still, like a pelican; for in the end did she not
give of her own life-fluid to nourish her children? Unbeautiful, yet not
without a glory superior to that of the Purple Emperor, and the angelic
blue Morpho, and the broad-winged Ornithoptera, that caused an
illustrious traveller to swoon with joy at the sight of its supreme
loveliness. Du Maurier has a drawing of a little girl in a garden gazing
at two earwigs racing along a stem. "I suppose," she remarks
interrogatively to her mamma, "that these are Mr. and Mrs. Earwig?" and
on being answered affirmatively, exclaims, "What could they have seen in
each other?" What they saw was blue blood, or something in insectology
corresponding to it. The earwig's lustre is that of antiquity. He
existed on earth before colour came in; and colour is old, although not
so old as Nature's unconscious aestheticism which, in the organic world,
is first expressed in beauty of form. It is long since the great May
flies, large as swifts, had their aerial cloudy dances over the vast
everglades and ancient forests of ferns; and when, on some dark night, a
brilliant Will-o'-the-wisp rose and floated above the feathery foliage,
drawn in myriads to its light, they revolved about it in an immense
mystical wheel, misty-white, glistening, and touched with prismatic
colour. Floating fire and wheel were visible only to the stars, and the
wakeful eyes of giant scaly monsters lying quiescent in the black waters
below; but they were very beautiful nevertheless. The modest earwig was
old on the earth even then; he dates back to the time, immeasurably
remote, when scorpions possessed the earth, and taught him to frighten
his enemies with a stingless tail--that curious antique little tail
which has not yet forgot its cunning.

Greater than all these inhabitants of the garden, ancient or modern by
reason of their numbers, which is the sign of predominance, are the
small wingless people that have colonies on every green stem and under
every green leaf.

These are the true generators of that heavenly sweat, or saliva of the
stars, concerning which Pliny the Younger wrote so learnedly. And they
are many tribes--green, purple, brown, isabel-line; but all are one
nation, and sacred to that fair god whom the Carian water-nymph loved
not wisely but too well. For, albeit the children of an ancient union,
they marry not, nor are given in marriage, yet withal multiply
exceedingly, so that one (not two) may in a single season produce a
billion. And at last when autumn comes, won back from the cold god to
his hot mother, they know love and wedlock, and die like all married
things. These are the Aphides--sometimes unprettily called plant-lice,
and vaguely spoken of by the uninformed as "blight"--and they nourish
themselves on vegetable juices, that thin green blood which is the
plant's life.

This, then, is the fruit which the birds have, come to gather. In June
is their richest harvest; it is more bountiful than September, when
apples redden, and grapes in distant southern lands are gathered for the
wine-press. In yon grey wall at the end of the lawn, just above the
climbing rose-bush, there are now seven hungry infants in one small
cradle, each one, some one says, able to consume its own weight of
insect food every day. I am inclined to believe that it must be so,
while trying to count the visits paid to the nest in one hour by the
parent tits--those small tits that do the gardener so much harm! We
know, on good authority, that the spider has a "nutty flavour"; and most
insects in the larval stage afford succulent and toothsome, or at all
events beaksome, morsels. These are, just now, the crimson cherries,
purple and yellow plums, currants, red, white, and black--and
sun-painted peaches, asking in their luscious ripeness for a mouth to
melt in, that fascinate finch and flycatcher alike, and make the
starlings smack their horny lips with a sound like a loving kiss.

Not that I care, or esteem birds for what they eat or do not eat. With
all these creatures that are at strife among themselves, and that birds
prey upon, I am at peace, even to the smallest that are visible--the red
spider which is no spider; and the minute gossamer spider clinging to
the fine silvery hairs of the flying summer; and the coccus that fall
from the fruit trees to float on their buoyant cottony down--a summer
snow. Fils de la Vierge are these, and sacred. The man who can
needlessly set his foot on a worm is as strange to my soul as De
Quincey's imaginary Malay, or even his "damned crocodile." The worm that
one sees lying bruised and incapable on the gravel walk has fallen among
thieves. These little lives do me good and not harm. I smell the acid
ants to strengthen my memory. I know that if I set an overturned
cockchafer on his legs three sins shall be forgiven me; that if I am
kindly tolerant of the spider that drops accidentally on my hand or
face, my purse shall be mysteriously replenished. At the same time, one
has to remember that such sentiments, as a rule, are not understood by
those who have charge over groves and gardens, whose minds are ignorant
and earthy, or, as they would say, practical. Of the balance of nature
they know and care naught, nor can they regard life as sacred; it is
enough to know that it is or may be injurious to their interests for
them to sweep it away. The small thing that has been flying about and
uttering musical sounds since April may, when July comes, devour a
certain number of cherries. Nor is even this plea needed. If it is
innocent for the lower creatures to prey upon one another, it cannot be
less innocent for man to destroy them indiscriminately, if it gives him
any pleasure to do so. It is idle to go into such subtle questions with
those who have the power to destroy; if their hands are to be restrained
it is not by appealing to feelings which they do not possess, but to
their lower natures--to their greed and their cunning. For the rest of
us, for all who have conquered or outgrown the killing instinct, the
impartiality that pets nothing and persecutes nothing is doubtless man's
proper attitude towards the inferior animals; a godlike benevolent
neutrality; a keen and kindly interest in every form of life, with
indifference as to its ultimate destiny; the softness which does no
wrong with the hardness that sees no wrong done.

To return to the birds. The starlings have kissed like lovers, and
fluttered up vertically on their short wings, trying to stream like
eagles, only to return to the trees once more and sit there chattering
pleasant nothings; at intervals throwing out those soft, round,
modulated whistled notes, just as an idle cigarette-smoker blows rings
of blue smoke from his lips; and now they have flown away to the fields
so that I can listen to the others.

A thrush is making music on a tall tree beyond the garden hedge, and I
am more grateful for the distance that divides us than for the song;
for, just now, he does not sing so well as sometimes of an evening, when
he is most fluent, and a listener, deceived by his sweetness and melody,
writes to the papers to say that he has heard the nightingale. Just now
his song is scrappy, composed of phrases that follow no order and do not
fit or harmonize, and is like a poor imitation of an inferior
mocking-bird's song.

Between the scraps of loud thrush-music I listen to catch the thin,
somewhat reedy sound of a yellow-hammer singing in the middle of the
adjoining grassy field. It comes well from the open expanse of purpling
grass, and reminds me of a favourite grasshopper in a distant sunny
land. O happy grasshopper! singing all day in the trees and tall
herbage, in a country where every village urchin is not sent afield to
"study natural history" with green net and a good store of pins, shall I
ever again hear thy breezy music, and see thee among the green leaves,
beautiful with steel-blue and creamy-white body, and dim purple over and
vivid red underwings?

The bird of the pasture-land is singing still, perhaps, but all at once
I have ceased to hear him, for something has come to lift me above his
low grassy level, something faint and at first only the suspicion of a
sound; then a silvery lisping, far off and aerial, touching the sense as
lightly as the wind-borne down of dandelion.

If any place for any soul there be Disrobed and disentrammelled,
doubtless it is from such a place and such a soul that this sublimated
music falls. The singer, one can imagine, has never known or has
forgotten earth; and if it is visible to him, how small it must seem
from that altitude, "spinning like a fretful midge" beneath him in the
vast void!

It is the lark singing in the blue infinite heaven, at this distance
with something ethereal and heavenly in his voice; but now the wide
circling wings that brought him for a few moments within hearing, have
borne him beyond it again; and missing it, the sunshine looks less
brilliant than before, and all other bird-voices seem by comparison dull
and of the earth.

Certainly there is nothing spiritual in the song of the chaffinch. There
he sits within sight, motionless, a little bird-shaped automaton, made
to go off at intervals of twelve or thirteen seconds; but unfortunately
one hears with the song the whirr and buzz of the internal machinery. It
is not now as in April, when it is sufficient in a song that it shall be
joyous; in the leafy month, when roses are in bloom, one grows critical,
and asks for sweetness and expression, and a better art than this
vigorous garden singer displays in that little double flourish with
which he concludes his little hurry-scurry lyric. He has practised that
same flourish for five thousand years--to be quite within the mark--and
it is still far from perfect, still little better than a kind of musical
sneeze. So long is art!

Perhaps in some subtle way, beyond the psychologist's power to trace, he
has become aware of my opinion of his performance--the unspoken
detraction which yet affects its object; and, feeling hurt in his
fringilline _amour propre_, he has all at once taken himself off. Never
mind; a better singer has succeeded him. I have heard and seen the
little wren a dozen times to-day; now he has come to the upper part of
the tree I am lying under, and although so near his voice sounds
scarcely louder than before. This is also a lyric, but of another kind.
It is not plaintive, nor passionate; nor is it so spontaneous as the
warbling of the robin--that most perfect feathered impressionist; nor is
it endeared to me by early associations since I listened in boyhood to
the songs of other wrens. In what, then, does its charm consist? I do
not know. Certainly it is delicate, and may even be described as
brilliant, in its limited way perfect, and to other greater songs like
the small pimpernel to a poppy or a hollyhock. Unambitious, yet
finished, it has the charm of distinction. The wren is the least
self-conscious of our singers. Somewhere among the higher green
translucent leaves the little brown barred thing is quietly sitting,
busy for the nonce about nothing, dreaming his summer dream, and
unknowingly telling it aloud. When shall we have symbols to express as
perfectly our summer-feeling--our dream?

That small song has served to remind me of two small books I brought
into the garden to read--the works of two modern minor poets whose
"wren-like warblings," I imagined, would suit my mood and the genial
morning better than the stirring or subtle thoughts of greater singers.
Possibly in that I was mistaken; for there until now lie the books
neglected on a lawn chair within reach of my hand. The chair was dragged
hither half-an-hour ago by a maiden all in white, who appeared half
inclined to share the mulberry shade with me. She did not continue long
in that mind. In a lively manner, she began speaking of some trivial
thing; but after a very few moments all interest in the subject
evaporated, and she sat humming some idle air, tapping the turf with her
fantastic shoe. Presently she picked up one of my books, opened it at
random and read a line or two, her vermilion under-lip curling slightly;
then threw it down again, and glanced at me out of the corners of her
eyes; then hummed again, and finally became silent, and sat bending
forward a little, her dark lustrous eyes gazing with strange intentness
through the slight screen of foliage into the vacant space beyond. What
to see? The poet has omitted to tell us to what the maiden's fancy
lightly turns in spring. Doubtless it turns to thoughts of something
real. Life is real; so is passion--the quickening of the blood, the wild
pulsation. But the pleasures and pains of the printed book are not real,
and are to reality like Japanese flowers made of coloured bits of tissue
paper to the living fragrant flowers that bloom to-day and perish
to-morrow; they are a simulacrum, a mockery, and present to us a pale
phantasmagoric world, peopled with bloodless men and women that chatter
meaningless things and laugh without joy. The feeling of unreality
affects us all at times, but in very different degrees. And perhaps I
was too long a doer, herding too much with narrow foreheads, drinking
too deeply of the sweet and bitter cup, to experience that pure
unfailing delight in literature which some have.  Its charm, I fancy, is
greatest to those in whom the natural man, deprived in early life of his
proper aliment, grows sickly and pale, and perishes at last of
inanition. There is ample room then for the latter higher growth--the
unnatural cultivated man. Lovers of literature are accustomed to say
that they find certain works "helpful" to them; and doubtless, being all
intellect, they are right. But we, the less highly developed, are
compounded of two natures, and while this spiritual pabulum sustains
one, the other and larger nature is starved; for the larger nature is
earthly, and draws its sustenance from the earth. I must look at a leaf,
or smell the sod, or touch a rough pebble, or hear some natural sound,
if only the chirp of a cricket, or feel the sun or wind or rain on my
face. The book itself may spoil the pleasure it was designed to give me,
and instead of satisfying my hunger, increase it until the craving and
sensation of emptiness becomes intolerable. Not any day spent in a
library would I live again, but rather some lurid day of labour and
anxiety, of strife, or peril, or passion.

Occupied with this profound question, I scarcely noticed when my
shade-sharer, with whom I sympathised only too keenly in her restless
mood, rose and, lifting the light green curtain, passed out into the
sunshine and was gone. Nor did I notice when the little wren ceased
singing overhead. At length recalled to myself I began to wonder at the
unusual silence in the garden, until, casting my eyes on the lawn, I
discovered the reason; for there, moving about in their various ways,
most of the birds were collected in a loose miscellaneous flock, a kind
of happy family. There were the starlings, returned from the fields, and
looking like little speckled rooks; some sparrows, and a couple of
robins hopping about in their wild startled manner; in strange contrast
to these last appeared that little feathered clodhopper, the chaffinch,
plodding over the turf as if he had hobnailed boots on his feet; last,
but not least, came statuesque blackbirds and thrushes, moving, when
they moved, like automata. They all appear to be finding something to
eat; but I Watch the thrushes principally, for these are more at home on
the moist earth than the others, and have keener senses, and seek for
nobler game. I see one suddenly thrust his beak into the turf and draw
from it a huge earthworm, a wriggling serpent, so long that although he
holds his head high, a third of the pink cylindrical body still rests in
its run. What will he do with it? We know how wandering Waterton treated
the boa which he courageously grasped by the tail as it retreated into
the bushes. Naturally, it turned on him, and, lifting high its head,
came swiftly towards his face with wide-open jaws; and at this supreme
moment, without releasing his hold on its tail, with his free hand he
snatched off his large felt hat and thrust it down the monster's throat,
and so saved himself.

Just as I am intently watching to see how my hatless little Waterton
will deal with _his_ serpent, a startling bark, following by a canine
shriek, then a yell, resound through the silent garden; and over the
lawn rush those three demoniacal fox-terriers, Snap, Puzzy, and Babs,
all determined to catch something. Away fly the birds, and though now
high overhead, the baffled brutes continue wildly careering about the
grounds, vexing the air with their frantic barkings. No more birds
to-day! But now the peace-breakers have discovered me, and come tearing
across the lawn, and on to the half-way chair, then to the hammock,
scrambling over each other to inflict their unwelcome caresses on my
hands and face.

Ah well, let them have their way and do their worst, since the birds are
gone, and I shall go soon. It is a consolation to think that they are
not my pets; that I shall not grieve, like their mistress, when their
brief barking period is over; that I care just so much and no more for
them than for any other living creature, not excepting the
_fer-de-lance_, "quoiled in the path like rope in a ship," or the
broad-winged vulture "scaling the heavens by invisible stairs." None are
out of place where Nature placed them, nor unbeautiful; none are
unlovable, since their various qualities--the rage of the one and the
gentleness of the other--are but harmonious lights and shades in the
ever-changing living picture that is so perfect.




Having begun, or first written, this book in one village, which was near
London, I am now finishing, or re-writing, it in another in "the westest
part of all the land," over three hundred miles from the first. Here I
had to go over this ancient work of twenty-three years ago, which was
also my first English bird book, to prepare it for a new edition; and
after all necessary corrections, omissions and additions of fresh matter
made in the foregoing parts, it seemed best to throw out the whole of
the concluding portion, which dealt mainly with the question of
bird-preservation as it presented itself at that time and is now out of
date, thanks to the legislation of recent years and to the growth in
this country of the feeling or desire for birds during the last two or
three decades. In place of this discarded matter I propose to give here
the results of recent observations on the bird life of a Cornish

My residence in the Cornish Village (or villages) was during May and
June, 1915, and again from October of the same year to June, 1916. These
were months of ill-health, so that I was prevented from pursuing my
customary outdoor rambling life; but, like that poor creature the
barnyard fowl that can't use its wings, instinctively, or from old
habit, I used my eyes in keeping a watch on the feathered (and flying)
people about me.

The village, Lelant, is on the Hayle estuary, and to see the Atlantic
one has but to walk past the grey old church at the end of the street,
where the ground rises, to find oneself in a wilderness of towans, as
the sand-hills are there called, clothed in their rough, grey-green
marram grass and spreading on either hand round the bay of St. Ives. A
beautiful sight, for the sea on a sunny day is of that marvellous blue
colour seen only in Cornwall; far out on a rock on the right hand stands
the shining white Godrevy lighthouse, and on the left, on the opposite
side of the bay, the little ancient fishing-town of St. Ives.

The river or estuary, in sight of the doors and windows of the village,
was haunted every day by numbers of gulls and curlews. These last
numbered about one hundred and fifty birds, and were always there except
at full tide, when they would fly away to the fields and moors. Of all
my bird neighbours I think that these gave me most pleasure, especially
at night, when lying awake I would listen by the hour to the perpetual
curlew conversation going on in the dark--an endless series of clear
modulated notes and trills, with a beautiful expression of wildness and
freedom, a reminder of lonely seashores and mountains and moorlands in
the north country. What wonder that Stevenson, sick in his tropical
island--sick for his cold grey home so many thousands of miles away,
wished once more to hear the whaup crying over the graves of his
forefathers, and to hear no more at all!

Of bird music by day there was little; you would hear more of it in one
morning in that small rustic village in Berkshire where the first part
of this book was written than in a whole summer in one of these West
Cornwall villages, so few comparatively are the songsters. Nor was this
scarcity in the village only; it was everywhere, as I found when able to
get out for a few hours during my two spring seasons in the place. Close
by were the extensive woods of Trevalloe, where I was struck by the
extraordinary silence and where I listened in vain for a single note
from blackcap, garden-warbler, willow-wren, wood-wren, or redstart. The
thrushes, chaffinch, chiff-chaff, and greenfinch were occasionally
heard; outside the wood the buntings, chats, and the skylark were few
and far between.

This scarcity of small birds is, I think, due in the first place to the
extraordinary abundance of the jackdaw, the diligent seeker after small
birds' nests, and to the autumn and winter pastime of bush-beating to
which men and boys are given in these parts, and which the Cornish
authorities refuse to suppress.

After a time, when, owing to increasing debility, I was confined more
and more to the village, I began to concentrate my attention on a few
common species that were always present, particularly on the three
commonest--rook, daw, and starling; the first two residents, the
starling, a winter visitor from September to April.

In October, I started feeding the birds at the house where I was staying
as a guest, throwing the scraps on a lawn at the back which sloped down
towards the estuary. First came all the small birds in the immediate
neighbourhood--robin, dunnock, wagtail, chaffinch, throstle, blackbird,
and blue and ox-eye tits. Then followed troops of starlings, and soon
all the rooks and daws in the village began to see what was going on and
come too, and this attracted the gulls from the estuary--I wished that
it had drawn the curlews; and all these big ones were so greedy and
bold, so noisy and formidable-looking that the small birds were quite
driven out; all except the starlings that came in hungry crowds and were
determined to get their share.

At the beginning of December I had to move to a nursing-home at the
Convent of the Sisters of the Cross at the adjacent village of Hayle,
just across the estuary. The Convent buildings and grounds and gardens
are fortunately outside the ugly village, and my room had an
exceptionally big window occupying almost the whole wall on one side,
with an outlook to the south over the green fields and moors towards
Helston. An ideal sick-room for a man who can't be happy without the
company of birds, and here, even when lying on my bed before I was able
to sit or stand by the window, a large portion of the sky, rainy or
blue, was visible, and rooks and daws and gulls and troops of starlings,
and the curlews from the river, were seen coming and going all day long.

But it was much better when I was able to go to the window, since now,
by feeding them, I could draw the birds to me. I fed them on a green
field beneath my window, where the Convent milch-cows were accustomed to
graze for some hours each day. All through the winter there was grass
for them, and I was glad to have them there, as the cow is my favourite
beast, and it was also pleasant to see the wintering starlings
consorting with them, clustering about their noses, just as they do in
the pasture lands in summer time. But I found it best to feed the birds
when the cows were not there, on account of the behaviour of one of
them, a young animal who had not yet been sobered by having a calf of
her own.  She was a frivolous young thing and when tired of feeding, she
would start teasing the old cows, pushing them with her horns, then
flinging up her hind legs to challenge them to a romp. The sight of a
crowd of birds under my window would bring her at a gallop to the spot
to find out what all the fuss was about, and the birds would be driven

One morning I was at my window when the field was empty of bird and
beast life with the exception of a solitary old rook, a big bird who was
a constant attendant and so much bigger than most of the rooks that I
had come to know it well. By and by the young cow walked into the field
by herself and, after gazing all round as if surprised at finding the
place so lifeless, she caught sight of and fixed her eyes on the old
rook working at the turf some fifty or sixty yards away. Presently she
began walking towards it, and when within about twenty yards put her
head down and charged it. The rook paid no attention until she was
almost on it, then rose up, emitting its angriest, most raucous screams
while hovering just over her head, and having thus relieved its
indignant feelings it flew heavily away to the far end of the field, and
settling down began prodding away at the soil. The cow, standing still,
gazed after it, and one could almost imagine her saying: "So you won't
get out of the field! Well!  I'll soon make you. I'm going to have it
all to myself this morning." And at once she began rapidly walking
towards the bird. But half-way to it was the post set up in the middle
of the field for the cows to rub their hides, and on coming abreast of
it the sight of it and its proximity suggested the delight of a rub, and
turning off at right angles she walked straight to the post and began
rubbing herself against it. The rook went on with its business, and
after that there was no more quarrelling.

Another morning this same old rook came with his mate to the field:
separating, they came down a distance of a hundred yards or more apart
and began searching for grubs. By and by the old cock discovered
something particularly good and after vigorously prodding the turf for a
few moments he sprang up and flew excitedly to his mate, who instantly
knew what this action meant and began fluttering her wings and crying
for the dainty morsel which he proceeded to deliver into her wide-open
mouth. Having fed her, he flew back to the same spot and began working

This is a common action of the rooks, and I saw this same bird feed his
mate on other occasions during the winter months, when I have no doubt
that he, poor wretch, could hardly find food enough to keep himself
alive during the dark season of everlasting wind and rain when the dim
daylight lasted for about six hours. But I never saw a daw or starling
feed his mate, or feed another daw or starling, although I watched
closely every day and often for an hour at a stretch, and though I am
convinced that the starling, like the rook and crow and daw, and in fact
all the Corvidae, pairs for life. To this point I will return presently;
let me first relate another incident about our frivolous and
irresponsible young cow.

One morning when the cows were in the field, some herring-gulls drifted
by and a few of them remained circling about above the field. I threw
out a piece of bread, and a troop of starlings rushed to it, and one of
the gulls dropped down and took possession of it, but had scarcely began
tearing at it when two more gulls dropped down and the first bird,
lifting his wings began screaming "Hands off!" at the others, and the
others, also raising their wings, screamed their wailing screams in
reply. The young cow, attracted by the noise, gazed at them for a few
moments, then all at once putting her head down furiously charged them.
The three gulls rose up simultaneously and floated over her and then
away, leaving her standing on the spot, shaking her head in anger and
disgust at their escape. A rhinoceros charging a ball of thistledown or
a soap-bubble, and causing it to float away with the wind it created,
would not have been a more ludicrous spectacle.



From my boyhood, when I first began to observe birds, I started with the
imbibed notion that those which paired for life were the rare
exceptions--the dove that rhymed with love, the eagle, and perhaps half
a dozen more. Who, for instance, would imagine that the sexes could be
faithful in parasitical species like the cuckoo of Europe and the
cow-birds of America? Yet even as a boy I made the discovery that an
Argentine cow-bird that lays its eggs in the nests of other species,
does actually pair for life; and so effectually mated is it, that on no
day and no season of the year will you see a male without his female: if
he flies she flies with him and feeds and drinks with him, and when he
perches she perches at his side, and he never utters a sound but a
responsive sound immediately falls from her devoted beak.

Again, it may seem unlikely that there can be pairing for life in
species, like the chaffinch of northern Europe and, with us, of
Scotland, in which the sexes separate and migrate separately. Also of
non-gregarious species like the nightingale in which the males arrive in
this country several days before the females. Yet I am confident that if
we could catch and mark a considerable number of pairs it would be found
that the same male and female found one another and re-mated every year.

It comes to this, that birds may pair for life, yet not be all the time
or all the year together, as in the case of hawks, crows, owls, herons,
and many others. In numberless species which undoubtedly pair for life
the sexes keep apart during several hours each day, and there is some
evidence that those that separate for a part of the year remain faithful.

An incident, related by Miss Ethel Williams, of Winchester, in her
natural history notes contributed to a journal in that city, bears on
this point. She had among the bird pensioners in the garden of her house
adjoining the Cathedral green, a female thrush that grew tame enough to
fly into the house and feed on the dining-room table. Her thrush paired
and bred for several seasons in the garden, and the young, too, were
tame and would follow their mother into the house to be fed. The male
was wild and too shy ever to venture in. She noticed the first year that
it had a wing-feather which stuck out, owing probably to a malformation
of the socket. Each year after the breeding season the male vanished,
the female remaining alone through the winter months, but in spring the
male came back--the same bird with the unmistakable projecting
wing-feather. Yet it was certain that this bird had gone quite away,
otherwise he would have returned to the garden, where there was food in
abundance during the spells of frosty weather. As he did not appear it
is probable that he migrated each autumn to some warmer climate beyond
the sea.

I have noticed that wagtails, thrushes, blackbirds, and some other
species when the young are out of the nest, divide the brood between
male and female and go different ways and spend the daylight hours at a
distance apart, each attending to the one or two young birds in its charge.

One winter, a few years ago, I was staying for a few days at a cottage
facing Silchester Common, and on going out after breakfast to feed the
birds I particularly noticed a male grey wagtail among those that came
to me, on account of its beauty and tameness. Every morning I fed it,
and on my speaking to my landlady about it she said, "Oh, we know that
bird well; this is the fourth winter it has spent with us, but it always
came before with its mate. The poor little thing had only one leg, but
managed to hop about and feed very well; this year the poor thing didn't
turn up with its mate, so we suppose it had met its death somewhere
during the summer."

I have often watched the gatherings of pied wagtails (always with a
certain number of the grey species among them) in places where they
spend the winter in our southern counties, at some spot where they are
accustomed to congregate each evening to hold a sort of frolic before
going to roost, and it has always appeared to me that the birds, both
pied and grey, were in pairs. So too, in watching the starlings day
after day in the field in front of my window. Well able with my
binocular to observe them closely, I saw much to convince me that the
starling, too, lives all the year with his mate.

Each morning the birds that had made our village their daily
feeding-ground, would, on arrival from the roosting-place in one body,
break up into numerous small parties of half a dozen to twenty or more
birds. All day long these little flocks were hurrying about from field
to field, spending but a short time at one spot, so hungry were they and
anxious to find a more productive one, and in every field they would
meet and mix with other small groups, and presently all would fly, and
breaking up into small parties again go off in different directions.
Thus one had a constant succession of little flocks in the field from
morning till night, and I found from counting the birds in each small
group that in three cases in four they were in even numbers. Again, I
have often seen a group of three, five, seven or nine birds on the
field, and after a while a solitary starling from a neighbouring field
or from some treetop near by has flown down to join the group and make
the numbers even.

The birds when feeding, I have said, are always in a desperate hurry,
and little wonder, since after a night, usually wet and cold, of from
sixteen to eighteen hours and only about six to feed in, they must be in
a half-starved state and frantic to find something to swallow. No sooner
do they alight than they begin running about, prodding with their beaks,
and all the time advancing, the birds keeping pretty well abreast. Now,
from time to time you will notice that a bird finds something to delay
him and is left behind by the others. On they go--prod, prod, then a
little run, then prod, prod again and run again--while he, excited over
his find, and vigorously digging at the roots of the grass, lets them go
on without him until he is yards behind. Whenever this happens you will
see one of the advancing birds pause in its prodding to look back from
time to time as if anxious about the one left behind; and by and by this
same bird, its anxiety increasing, will suddenly spring into the air and
fly back to place itself at the side of the other, to wait quietly until
it has finished its task; and no sooner does the busy one put up its
head to signal that he is ready than up they spring and fly together on
to the flock. No one witnessing this action can doubt for a moment that
these two are mates, and that wherever they paired and bred
originally--in Lincoln or York or Thurso or perhaps in one of the
western islands--they paired for life and will stick together, summer
and winter and in all their wanderings, as long as they live.

Until one observes starlings in this close way, even to their minutest
actions--I had indeed little else to do during my three winter months in
this nursing-home--it is only natural to believe that among gregarious
species the starling is one of those least likely to pair for life,
seeing that in it the gregarious instinct is intensified and more highly
developed than in most others. One would suppose that the flock, which
is like an organism--that is to say, the attachment to the flock--would,
out of the breeding season, take the place of the close relation or
companionship between bird and bird seen in species known to pair for
life. Only the pairing passion, one would suppose, could serve to
dissolve the company of birds and this only for a brief season of about
a couple of months' duration. There is but one brood raised in the
season, and the whole business of reproduction is well over before the
end of June. Later breeders are those that have lost their first eggs or
broods. And no sooner are the young brought off and instructed in the
starling's sole vocation (except his fruit-eating) of extracting the
grubs it subsists on from the roots of the grass--a business which
detains them for a week or two--than the married life is apparently over
and the communal life resumed. The whole life of the bird is then
changed; the sole tie appears to be that of the flock; home and young
are forgotten: the birds range hither and thither about the land, and by
and by migrate to distant places, some passing oversea, while others
from the northern counties and from Scotland and the islands come down
to the south of England, where they winter in millions and myriads.
There they form the winter habit of congregating in immense numbers in
the evening at their favourite roosting-places, and hundreds and
thousands of small flocks, which during the daylight hours exist
distributed over an area of hundreds of square miles all make to one
point and combine into one flock. At such times they actually appear to
rejoice in their own incalculable numbers and gather earlier than they
need at the roosting-place, so that the whole vast gathering may spend
an hour or so in their beloved aerial exercises.

To anyone who witnesses these gatherings and sees the birds rising from
time to time from the wood, and appearing like a big black cloud in the
sky, growing lighter and darker alternately as the birds scatter wide or
mass themselves in a closer formation, until after wheeling about for
some minutes they pour back into the trees; and who listens to the noise
they make, as of a high wind in the wood, composed, as it is, of an
infinity of individual voices, it must seem incredible that all these
birds can keep in pairs. For how could any couple hold together in such
circumstances, or when separated ever meet again in such a multitude,
or, should they ever meet by chance, how recognize one another when all
are exactly alike in size, shape, colour and voice?

They can, and certainly do, keep together, and when forced apart as,
when pursued by a hawk, they scatter in all directions, they can quickly
find one another again. They can do it because of their perfect
discipline, or instinct, or the perfection of the system they follow
during their autumn and winter wanderings and migrations.

The breeding season over, the birds in each locality unite in a small
flock composed of twenty or thirty to fifty or more pairs and start
their wandering life. Those in the north migrate or drift south, and
vast numbers, as we see, spend the winter in the southern counties. And
here they have their favourite roosting-places and are accustomed to
assemble in tens and hundreds of thousands. But the original small flock
composed of a few pairs, is never broken up--never absorbed by the
multitude. Each morning when it is light enough, the birds quit the
roosting-wood, but not all together; they quit it in flocks, flock
following flock so closely as to appear like a continuous stream of
birds, and the streams flow out in different directions over the
surrounding country. Each stream of birds is composed of scores and
hundreds of units, and each unit drops out of the stream and slopes away
to this or that side, to drop down on its own chosen feeding-ground, to
which it returns morning after morning through the winter. When all the
units have dropped out and settled on their feeding areas for the day,
it may be seen that the whole country within a circuit of ten or twelve
or more miles from the roosting-place has been occupied, that each flock
has its own territory, where it splits up into some groups and spends
its short hours flying about and exploring every green field, and one
might almost say "every grass." One can only explain this perfect
distribution by assuming that each unit instinctively looks for
unoccupied ground in its winter habitat, and that consequently there is
very little overlapping. It must also be assumed that at the place of
assembly in the evening each flock has its own roosting-place--its own
trees and bushes where the members of the flock can still keep together
and to which after each aerial performance they can return. The flock
comes back to sleep on its own tree, and no doubt every couple roosts
side by side on its own twig.

On the return of Spring the birds do not migrate in a body, but slip
away, flock by flock, to reappear about the end of April in their old
breeding-place in the North Country, with, perhaps, the loss of a few
members--the one that was old and died in the season of scarcity; and
one that was taken at the roost by a brown owl, and one that had its
feet frozen to the perch; and was killed by a jackdaw when struggling to
free itself; and one that was struck down by a sparrow-hawk on his
homeward journey.

What I have so far been unable to trace is the career of the young after
August. We see that once they are able to fend for themselves they club
together in small flocks and continue together during their "brown
thrush" stage, but by and by they get the adult plumage and language and
are no longer distinguishable as young. Do they, then, join the old
birds before the wandering and migrating south begins? And do they pair
or not before the winter?



Throughout the winter of 1915-16, and more particularly during my three
months in the hospital at Hayle, from the beginning of December to
March, I was greatly impressed at the perpetual state of hunger in which
the birds exist, especially the three commonest species in our
village--rook, daw, and starling. Little wonder that the sight of a
piece of bread thrown out on the green field below my window would bring
all these three and many others with a rush from all sides, every one
eager to get a morsel! But the birds that live most in a groove, as it
were, like the rook and starling, and have but one kind of food and one
way of finding it, are always the worst off in winter. These subsist on
the grubs and other minute organisms they are able to pick out of the
grass roots, and are life workers paid by the piece who must labour hard
and incessantly to make enough to keep themselves alive; their winter
life is accordingly in startling contrast to that of the daw--one that
lives on his wits and fares better and altogether has an easier and more
amusing time.

It was the habit of the three species named to quit the wood where they
roosted as soon as it was light enough for them to feed, the time
varying according to the state of the weather from half-past eight to
ten o'clock, the mornings being usually wet and dark. The rooks that had
their rookery in the village numbered forty or fifty birds, and these
would remain at the village, getting their food in the surrounding
fields for the rest of the day. The daws would appear in a body of two
or three hundred birds, but after a little while many of them would go
on to their own villages further away, leaving about sixty to eighty
birds belonging to the village. Last of all the starlings would appear
in flocks and continuous streams of birds often fighting their way
against wind and rain, leaving about a couple of hundred or more behind,
these being the birds that had settled in the village for the season,
and worked in the grass fields in and surrounding it. Rooks and
starlings would immediately fall to work, while the daws, the flock
breaking up into small parties of three or four, would distribute
themselves about the village and perch on the chimney-pots. They would
perch and then fly, and for all the rest of the day would be incessantly
shifting about from place to place, on the look-out for something to
eat, dropping from time to time to snatch up a crust of bread or the
core of an apple thrown away by a child in the road, or into a back
garden or on to a dust-heap where potato-parings and the head of a
mackerel or other refuse had been thrown. They were very bold, but not
as courageous as the old-time British kite that often swooped to snatch
the bread from a child's hand.

From time to time one, or a pair, of a small party of these daws would
drop down on the field before my window when the rooks and starlings
were there prodding busily at the turf, but though I watched them a
thousand times I never detected them trying to find something for
themselves. They simply stood or walked about among the working birds,
watching them intently. Grub-finding was an art they had not acquired,
or were too indolent or proud to practise; but they were not too proud
to beg or steal; they simply watched the other birds in the hope of
being able to snatch up a big unearthed grub and run away with it. As a
rule after a minute or two they would get tired of waiting and rush off
with a lively shout. Back they would go to the chimney-pots and to their
flying up and down, suspending their flight over this or that yard or
garden, and by and by one would succeed in picking up something big, and
at once all the other daws in sight would give chase to take it from
him; for these village daws are not only parasites and cadgers, but
worse--they are thieves without honour among themselves.

In spite of all the time and energy wasted in their perpetual races and
chases going on all over the village, every bird exerting himself to the
utmost to rob all he can from his pals, they get enough to eat; for when
the day is over and other daws from other villages drop in to visit
them, all unite in a big crowd and wheel about, making the place ring
with their merry yelping cries, before sailing away to the wood. One
might say after witnessing and listening to this evening performance
that they have great joy in their rascally lives.

But for the poor starling there is little joy in these brief, dark, wet
winter days, even if there is little frost in this West Cornwall
climate. A frost of a few days' duration would be fatal to incalculable
numbers, especially if, as in the great frosts of the winters of 1894-5
and 1896-7, severest in the south and west of England, it should come
late in winter, I think it can be taken as a fact that a long or
overseas migration takes place before midwinter or not at all. In
January and February, when birds are driven to the limits of the land by
a great cold they do not cross the sea, either because they are too weak
to attempt such an adventure or for some other reason unknown to us. We
see that on these occasions they come to the seashore and follow it
south and west even to the western extremity of Cornwall, and then
either turn back inland or wait where they are for open weather, many
perishing in the meantime.

During those three winter months, when I watched the starlings at work
on the field before my hospital window, they appeared to be in a
perpetual state of extreme hunger and were always running over the
ground, rapidly prodding as they moved, and apparently finding their
food almost exclusively on the surface--that is to say, on the surface
of the soil but under the grass, at its surface roots. At other seasons
they go deep when they know from the appearance of every blade of grass
whether or not there is a grub feeding on its roots beneath the surface.
Without shooting and examining the stomachs of a large number of
starlings it was not possible to know just what the food consisted of;
but with my strong binocular on them I could make out that at almost
every dig of the beak something was picked up, and could actually see it
when the beak was held up with the minute morsel at its tip--a small,
thread-like, semi-transparent worm or grub in most instances. Two or
three of these atomies would hardly have made a square meal for a
ladybird, and I should think that a starling after swallowing a thousand
would fed very hungry. And on many days this scanty, watery food had to
be searched for in very painful conditions, as it rained heavily on most
days and often all day long. At such times the birds in their sodden
plumage looked like drowned starlings fished out of a pool and
galvanized into activity. Nor were they even seen to shake the wet
off--a common action in swallows and other birds that feed in the rain;
they were too hungry, too anxious to find something to eat to keep the
starling soul and body together before the long night of eighteen or
twenty hours would overtake them.

No doubt the winter of 1915-16 was exceptionally wet and cold, although
without any severe frosts; a long frost in February, when the birds were
most reduced, would probably have proved fatal to at least half their
number. But though it continued wet and cold, things began to mend for
the starlings towards the end of February, and in March the improvement
was very marked; they were not in such a perpetual hurry; their time was
longer now, and by the end of the month their working day had increased
from five or six to twelve or fourteen hours, and the light had
increased and grubs were easier to find. By April, the starlings no
longer appeared to be the same species as the poor, rusty, bedraggled
wretches we had been accustomed to see; they are now lively, happy birds
with a splendid gloss on their feathers and beaks as bright a yellow as
the blackbird's. Finally, in April they left us, not going in a body,
but flock by flock, day after day, until by the end of the month all
were gone back to their homes in the north--all but the two or three to
half a dozen pairs in each village. And these few that stay behind are
new colonists in West Cornwall.



About the daw, or Jackie, or Dorrie or Jackie-Dorrie, as he is variously
and familiarly called, and his village habits, there will be more to say
presently; just now my concern is with another matter--a veritable daw

For the last twenty years or longer it has seemed to me that the daw is
an increasing species in Britain; at all events I am quite sure that it
is so in the southern half of England, particularly along the coast of
Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and in Cornwall, more than in any other county.
And why is it? He is certainly not a respectable bird, like the
starling, for example--if we do not go to the cherry-grower for the
starling's character. He is and always has been on the keeper's and
farmer's black list, and scarcely a week passes but you will find him
described in some gamekeeper's or farmer's journal as "even worse than
the rook." Even the ornithologists who are interested in birds as birds
haven't a good word to say of the daw. According to them he alone is
responsible for the disappearance of his distinguished relation, the
chough. (The vulgar daw is of course devoid of any distinction at all,
unless it be his grey pate and wicked little grey eyes.)

The ornithologists were wrong about the chough, just as they had been
wrong about the goldfinch, during the late years of the nineteenth
century, and as they were wrong about the swallows and martins in later
years. Of the goldfinch, they said, and solemnly put it down in their
books, that owing to improved methods of agriculture the thistle had
been extirpated and the bird, deprived of his natural food, had forsaken
this country. But no sooner did our County Councils begin to avail
themselves of the powers given them by the Bird Act of twenty years ago
to protect the goldfinch from the bird-catcher, than it began to
increase again and is still increasing, year by year, all over the country.

Of the decrease of swallows and martins, they said it resulted from the
action of the sparrows in ousting them from their nests and
nesting-sites. But we know the true cause of the decline of these two
species, the best loved and best protected of all birds in Britain, not
even excepting robin redbreast. The French Government, in response to
representations on this matter from our Foreign Office, have caused
enquiries to be made and have found that our swallows are being
destroyed wholesale in France during the autumn migration, and have
promised to put a stop to this deplorable business. They do not appear
to have done so, since the promise was made three years ago, and I can
say from my own observation in the south and west countries that the
decline has continued and that we have never had so few swallows come to
us as in the present summer of 1916.

The daw--to return to that subject--has always been regarded as an
injurious species, and down to a quarter of a century ago every farm lad
in possession of a gun shot it in the interests of the henwife, even as
he had formerly shot the kite, a common British species and a familiar
feature in the landscape down to the early years of last century.
Doubtless it was a great thing to bring down this great bird "that soars
sublime" and nail it to the barn-door. By the middle of the last century
it had become a rarity, and the ensuing rush for specimens and eggs for
private collectors quickly brought about its virtual extinction. The
kite is but one of several species--six of them hawks--extirpated within
the last forty years. Why, then, does the daw, more injurious to the
game-preserver and henwife than any one of these lost hawks, continue to
flourish and increase in numbers? It is, I imagine, because of the
growth of a sentiment which favours its preservation. But it is not the
same as that which has served to preserve the rook and made it so
common. That is a sentiment confined to the landowning class--to those
who inherit great houses where the ancient rookery with its crowd of
big, black, contentious birds caw-cawing on the windy elms, has come to
be an essential part of the establishment, like the gardens and park and
stables and home-farm and, one might add, the church and village. This
sentiment differs, too, from the heron-sentiment, which serves to keep
that bird with us in spite of the annual wail, rising occasionally in
South Devon to a howl, of human trout-fishers. It is a traditional
feeling coming down from the far past in England--from the time of
William the Conqueror to that of William of Orange and the decay of
falconry. That a species without any sentiment to favour it and without
special protection by law may increase is to be seen in the case of the
starling. This increase has come about automatically after we had
destroyed the starling's natural enemies and then ceased to persecute it
ourselves. Of all birds it was the most preyed on by certain raptorial
species, especially by the sparrowhawk, which is now becoming so rare,
assisted by the hobby (rarer still) and the merlin. It was more exposed
than other birds to these enemies owing to its gregarious and feeding
habits in grasslands and the open country, also to its slower flight.
The greatest drain on the species, came, however, from man. The starling
was a favourite bird for shooting-matches up till about thirty years
ago, and was taken annually in large numbers by the bird-catchers for
the purpose. It is probable that this use of the bird for sport caused
people to eat it, and so common did the habit become that at the end of
summer, or before the end, shooting starlings for the pot was practised
everywhere. Old men in the country have told me that forty or fifty
years ago it was common to hear people on the farms say that of all
birds the starling was the best to eat.

When starling and sparrow shooting-matches declined, the starling went
out of favour as a table-bird, and from that time the species has been
increasing. At present the rate of increase grows from year to year, and
during the last decade the birds have colonized every portion of the
north of Scotland and the islands, where the starling had previously
been a rare visitor--a bird unknown to the people. Here in West Cornwall
where I am writing this chapter the starling was only a winter visitor
until recently. Eight years ago I could only find two pairs breeding in
the villages--about twenty-five in number--in which I looked for them;
in the summer of 1915 I found them breeding in every town and village I
visited. At present, June, 1916, there are six pairs in the village I am
staying at. It may be the case, and from conversations I have had with
farmers about the bird I am inclined to believe it is so, that a strong
feeling in favour of the starling (in the pastoral districts) is growing
up at the present time, a feeling which in the end is more powerful to
protect than any law; but such a feeling has not become general as yet,
and consequently has had nothing to do with the extraordinary increase
of the bird.

The wood-pigeon is another species which, like the starling, has
increased greatly in recent years, without special protection and with
no sentiment in its favour. . . . The sentiment is all confined to the
nature-lovers, whose words have no effect on the people generally, least
of all on the farmers. I am reminded here of the experience of a young
man, an ardent bird-lover, on his visit to a Yorkshire farm. His host,
who was also a young man, took him a walk across his fields. It was a
spring day of brilliant sunshine, and the air was full of the music of
scores of soaring skylarks. The visitor long in cities pent, was
exhilarated by the strains and kept on making exclamations of rapturous
delight, "Just listen to the larks! Did you ever hear anything like it!"
and so on.

His host, his eyes cast down, trudged on in glum silence. Finally the
young man, carried away by his enthusiasm, stopped and turning to his
companion shouted, "Listen! Listen! Do you hear the larks?"

"Oh, yes," drawled the other, looking more glum than ever, "I hear them
fast enough. And I wish they were all dead!"

So with the other charming species. The moan of doves in immemorial elms
is a pleasing sound to the poets, but it does not prevent the farmers
throughout the land from wishing them all dead; and every person who
possesses a gun is glad to help in their massacre. For the bird is a
pest and he who shoots it is doing something for England; furthermore,
shooting it is first-rate sport, not like slaughtering wretched little
sparrows or innocent young rooks just out of their windy cradles. And
when shot it is a good table-bird, with as much tasty flesh on it as a
woodcock or partridge.

How, then can we account for the increase of such a species? One cause
is undoubtedly to be found in the removal by gamekeepers of its three
chief enemies--the carrion crow, magpie, and jay--all these three being
great devourers of pigeon's eggs, which of all eggs are most conspicuous
and open to attack. Then again the winter immigration of wood-pigeons
from northern Europe appears to be on the increase, and it may be
conjectured that a considerable number of these visitors remain annually
to breed with us. There has also been an increase in the stockdove and
turtle-dove in recent years, and the former species is extending its
range in the north. The cause or causes of the increase of the
turtledove are not far to seek. Its chief feathered enemies, the egg and
fledgling robbers, are the same as the wood-pigeon's; moreover, the
turtledove is least persecuted by man of our four pigeons, and being
strictly migratory it quits the country before shooting-time begins; add
to this that the turtle-dove has been specially protected under Sir
Herbert Maxwell's Act of 1894 in a good number of English counties, from
Surrey to Yorkshire.

Of the stock-dove we can only say that, like the ring-dove, it has
increased in spite of the persecution it is subject to, since no person
out after pigeons would spare it because it is without a white collar.
With the exception of the county of Buckinghamshire it is not on the
schedule anywhere in the country. One can only suppose that this species
has been indirectly benefited by the bird legislation and all that has
been done to promote a feeling favourable to bird-preservation during
the last thirty years.



I have spoken of the wood adjacent to the villages of Hayle and Lelant
where the rooks, daws, and starlings of the neighbourhood have their
winter roosting-place. This is at Trevelloe, the ancient estate of the
Praeds, who now call themselves Tyringham. Here the daws congregate each
evening in such numbers that a stranger to the district and to the local
habits of the bird might imagine that all the cliff-breeding jackdaws in
West Cornwall had come to roost at that spot. Yet the cliff-breeders,
albeit abundant enough, are but a minority of the daw population of this
district. The majority of these birds live and breed in the neighbouring
villages and hamlets--St. Ives, Carbis Bay, Towadneck, Lelant, Phillack,
Hayle, and others further away. It is a jackdaw metropolis and, as we
have seen, every village receives its own quota of birds each morning, and
there they spend the daylight hours and subsist on the waste food and on
what they can steal, just as the semi-domestic raven and the kite did in
former ages, from Roman times down to the seventeenth century.

Early in May the winter congregation breaks up, the cliff-breeders going
back to the rocks and the village birds to their chimneys, where they
presently set about relining their old nests. There are plenty of places
for all, since there are chimneys in almost every cottage where fires
are never lighted, and as ventilation is not wanted in bedrooms the
birds are allowed to bring in more materials each year, until the whole
flue is filled up. Year by year the materials brought in, sink lower and
lower until they rest on the closed iron register and change in time to
a solid brown mould. Thus, however long-lived a daw may be--and there
are probably more centenarians among the daws than among the human
inhabitants of the villages--it is a rare thing for one to be disturbed
in his tenancy.

In the cottage opposite the one I was staying in, its owner, an old
woman who had lived in it all her life, had recently died, aged

She was very feeble at the last, and one cold day when she could not
leave her bed, the extraordinary idea occurred to some one of her people
that it might be a good thing to light a fire in her room. The fireplace
was examined and was found to have no flue, or that the flue had been
filled with earth or cement. The village builder was called in, and with
the aid of a man on the roof and poles and various implements he
succeeded in extracting two or three barrow-loads of hard earth which
had no doubt once been sticks, centuries ago, as the building was very
ancient. No one had remembered that the daws had always occupied the
same chimney; the old dame herself had seen them going in and out of it
from her childhood, and her end was probably hastened by the disturbance
made in cleaning it. Now she is gone the daws here are in possession of
it once more.

All through the month of May daws were to be seen about the village,
dropping from time to time upon the chimney-pots where they had their
nests and occasionally bringing some slight materials to form a new
lining, but it was very rare to see one with a stick in his beak. The
flues were already full of old sticks and no more were wanted. It was
amusing to see a bird flying about, suddenly tumble out of the air on to
a chimneypot, then with tail tipped up and wings closed, dive into the
cavity below. One wondered how the young birds would be got out!

Talking with the rector of the neighbouring parish of Phillack one day
on this subject, he said, "Don't imagine that the daws restrict
themselves to the chimneys where fires are not lighted. At all events it
isn't so at Phillack. Perhaps we have too many daws in our village, but
every year before lighting fires in the drawing and dining-rooms we have
to call in a man with a pole to clear the flues out." He told me that a
few years ago, one cold June day, a fire was lighted in the
drawing-room, and as the smoke all poured out into the room a man was
sent up to the roof with a pole to clear the obstruction out. Presently
a mess of sticks came down and with them two fully-fledged young
jackdaws, one dead, killed with the pole, the other sound and lively.
This one they kept and it soon became quite tame; when able to fly it
would go off and associate with the wild birds, but refused to leave
the house until the following summer, when it found a mate and went away.

The head keeper at Trevelloe, a remarkably vigorous and intelligent
octogenarian who has been in his place over half a century, gave me some
interesting information about the daws. He says they have greatly
increased in recent years in this part of Cornwall because they are no
longer molested; no person, he says, not even a game-keeper anxious
about his pheasants, would think of shooting a jackdaw. But this is not
because the bird has changed its habits. He is as great a pest as ever
he was, and as an example of how bad jackdaws can be, he related the
following incident told him by a friend of his, a head keeper on an
estate adjoining a shooting his master took one year on the northwest
coast of England. It happened that a big colony of daws existed within a
mile or two of the preserves, and one day the keeper was called' away in
a hurry and left the coops unattended for the best part of a day; it was
the biggest mistake he had ever made and the chief disaster of his life.
On his return he found that the daws had been before him and that all
his precious chicks had been carried off. For several hours of that day
there was a steady coming and going of birds between the cliffs and the
coops, every daw going back with a chick in his beak for his hungry
young in the nest.

Yet my informant, this ancient and singularly intelligent old man, a
gamekeeper all his life, who knows his jackdaw, could not tell me why
gamekeepers no longer persecute so injurious a bird I He will not allow
a sparrow-hawk to exist in his woods, yet all he could say when I
repeated my question was, "No keeper ever thinks of hurting a jack now,
but I can't say why."

The reason of it I fancy is plain enough; it is simply the sentiment I
have spoken of. In a small way it has always existed in certain places,
in towns, where the jackdaw is associated in our minds with cathedrals
and church towers--where he is the "ecclesiastical daw"; but the modern
wider toleration is due to the character, the personality, of the bird
itself, which is more or less like that of all the members of the
corvine family, with the exception of the rook, who always tries his
best to be an honest, useful citizen; but it is not precisely the same.
They may be regarded as bad hats generally In the bird community, and on
this very account--"I'm sorry to say," to quote Mr. Pecksniff--they
touch a chord in us; and the daw being the genial rascal in feathers par
excellence is naturally the best loved.

It has thus come about that of all the Corvidae the daw is now the
favourite as a pet bird, and in the domestic condition he is accorded
more liberty than is given to other species. We think he makes better
use of his freedom, that he does not lose touch with his human friends
when allowed to fly about, and appears more capable of affection.

Formerly, the raven and magpie came first as pets. The raven vanished as
a pet, because like the goshawk, kite, and buzzard, he was extirpated in
the interests of the game-preserver and hen-wife. The magpie was then
first, and has only been recently ousted from that ancient, honourable
position. The pie was a superior bird as a feathered pet in a cage; he
is beautiful in shape and colour in his snow-white and metallic
dark-green and purple-glossed plumage, and his long graduated tail.
Moreover, he is a clever bird. To my mind there is no more fascinating
species when I can find it in numbers, in places where it is not
persecuted, and is accustomed to congregate at intervals, not as rooks
and starlings do merely because they are gregarious, but purely for
social purposes--to play and converse with one another. Its language at
such times is so various as to be a surprise and delight to the
listener; while its ways of amusing itself, its clowning and the little
tricks and practical jokes the birds are continually playing on each
other, are a delight to witness. All this is lost in a caged bird. He is
handsome to look at and remarkably intelligent, but he distinguishes
between magpies and men; he doesn't reveal himself; his accomplishments,
vocal and mental, are for his own tribe. In this he differs from the
daw; for the daw is less specialized; he is an undersized common crow,
livelier, more impish than that bird, also more plastic, more adaptive,
and takes more kindly to the domestic or parasitic life. Human beings to
him are simply larger daws, and unlike the pie he can play his tricks
and be himself among them as freely as when with his feathered comrades.
We like him best because he makes himself one of us.

Undoubtedly the chough comes nearest to the daw mentally, and as it is a
far more beautiful bird--the poor daw having little of that quality--it
would probably have been our prime favourite among the crows but for its
rarity. Formerly it was a common pet bird, caged or free, in all the
coast districts where it inhabited, and it may be that the desire for a
pet chough was the cause of its decline and final disappearance all
round the south and west coasts of England, except at one spot near
Tintagel where half a dozen pairs still exist only because watchers
appointed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are always on
the spot to warn off the nest-robbers during the breeding season. But of
the chough in captivity or as a domesticated bird we know little now, as
no records have been preserved. I have only known one bird, taken from a
North Devon cliff about forty years ago, at a house near the coast; a
very beautiful pet bird with charming, affectionate ways, always free to
range about the country and the cliffs, where it associated with the
daws. It was the last of its kind at that place, and I do not know if it
still lives.

Next to the chough the jay comes nearest to the daw mentally of all our
crows, and as he excels most of our wild birds in beauty he would
naturally have been a first favourite as a pet but for the fact that it
is only in a state of nature in which he is like the daw--lively,
clever, impish; in captivity he is more like the magpie and affiliates
even less than that bird with his human associates. In confinement he is
a quiet, almost sedate, certainly a silent bird: He is essentially a
woodland species; all his graces, his various, often musical, language,
with many imitations of bird and animal sounds, and his spectacular
games and pretty wing displays, are for his own people exclusively. He
must have his liberty in the woods and a company of his fellow-jays to
exhibit his full lustre.

The difference between jay and daw is similar to that between fox and
dog; or rather let us say, between one of the small desert foxes of
Syria and Egypt--the fennec, for instance--and the jackal, the domestic
dog's progenitor; the first gifted with exquisite grace and beauty, was
too highly specialized to suit the domestic condition; hence the
generalized un-beautiful beast was chosen to be man's servant and
companion. In the same way it looks as if we were taking to the daw in
preference to the more beautiful bird because he is more like us, or
understands us better, or adapts himself more readily to our way of

I believe that about nine out of every ten interesting and amusing
stories about charming pet birds I have heard in England during the last
quarter of a century relate to the daw, and this, I think, goes to show
that he is a prime favourite as a feathered pet, at all events in the
southern and western counties.



When I laid my pen down after concluding Part V it pleased me to think
that I had written the last word, that, my task finished, I was free to
go on to something else. But I was not yet wholly free of the jackdaws;
their yelping cries were still ringing in my mental ears, and their
remembered shapes were still all about me in their black dress, or
cassock, grey hood, and malicious little grey eyes. The persistent
images suggested that my task was not properly finished after all, that
it would be better to conclude with one of those anecdotes or stories of
the domesticated bird which I have said are so common; also that this
should be a typical story, which would serve to illustrate the peculiar
daw sentiment--the affectionate interest we take in him, not only in
spite of his impudence and impishness and naughtiness, but also to some
extent because of these same qualities, which find an echo in us.
Accordingly I set myself to recall some of the latest anecdotes of this
kind which I had heard, and selected the one which follows, not because
it was more interesting as a daw story than the others, but mainly on
account of the shrewd and humorous and dramatic way in which it was
related to me by a little boy of the working class.

I met him on a bright Sunday morning at the end of June in the park-like
grounds of Walmer Castle. I had not long been seated on a garden bench
when a daw came flying to a tree close by and began craning her neck and
eyeing me with one eye, then the other, with an intense, almost painful
curiosity; and these nervous movements and gestures immediately revealed
to me that she had a nestful of young birds somewhere close by. After
changing her position several times to view me from other points and
find out what I was there for, she came to the conclusion that I was not
to be got rid of, and making a sudden dash to a tree standing just
before me, disappeared in a small hole or cleft in the trunk about
forty-five feet above the ground, and in a few seconds came out again
and flew swiftly away. In four or five minutes she returned, and after
eyeing me suspiciously a short time flew again to the tree and,
vanishing from sight in the hole, remained there.  I was intently
watching that small black spot in the bark to see her emerge, when a
little boy came slowly sauntering past my bench, and glancing at him I
found that his shrewd brown eyes were watching my face and that he had a
knowing half-smile on his lips.

"Hullo, my boy!" I said. "I can see plainly enough what is in _your_
mind. You know I'm watching a hole in the tree where a jackdaw has just
gone in, and your intention is, when no one is about, to swarm up the
tree and get the young birds."

"Oh, no," he returned. "I'm not going to climb the tree and don't want
any young jackdaws. I always come to look because the birds breed in
that hole every year. Two years ago I had a bird from the nest, but I
don't want another."

Then at my invitation he sat down to tell me about it. One morning when
he came the young had just come off, and he found one squatting on the
ground under the trees, looking stupefied. No doubt when it flew out it
had struck against a trunk or branch and come down bruised and stunned.

He wrapped it up in a handkerchief and took it home to Deal and put it
in a box; then mother got some flannel and made a sort of bed for it,
and warmed some milk and they opened its beak and fed it with a
teaspoon. Next day it was all right and opened its beak to be fed
whenever they came near it, and in two or three days it began flying
about the room and perching on their shoulders. Then he brought it back
to Walmer and let it go and saw it fly off into the trees, but when he
got home mother scolded him for having let it go when its parents were
not about; she said it would die of starvation, and was going on at him
when in flew the jackdaw and came flop on her shoulder! After that
mother and father said they'd keep the daw a little longer, and then he
could let it go at a distance where there were other daws about. By and
by they said they'd let it stay where it was. Father liked a bloater for
his tea, and there was nothing the jackdaw was fonder of, so he was
always on the table at tea-time, eating out of father's plate. Then he
got to be troublesome. He was always watching for a door or window of
the parlour to be opened to let the air in, and that was the room mother
was so careful about, and every time he got in he'd fly straight to the
mantelpiece, which was covered with photographs and ornaments. They were
mostly those little things--pigs and dogs and parrots and all sorts of
animals made of glass and china, and the jackdaw would begin to pick
them up and throw them down on to the fender, and of course he broke a
lot of them. That made mother mad, and she scolded him and told him to
get rid of the bird. So he wrapped it up so as it shouldn't know where
it was going and went off two or three miles along the coast, and let it
go where there were other daws.  It flew off and joined them, and he
came home. That afternoon Jackie came back, and they wondered how he had
found his way. Father said 'twas plain enough, that the bird had just
followed the coast till he got back to Deal, and there he was at home.
He said the only way to lose it was to take it somewhere away from the
sea; so he wrapped it up again and took it to his Aunt Ellen's at
Northbourne, about five miles from Deal.  His aunt told him to carry
it to the park, where he'd find other daws and settle down. And that's
what he did, but Jackie came back to Deal again that same day; the
strangest thing was that mother and father made a great fuss over it and
fed it just as if they were glad to have it back. Next day it got into
the parlour and broke some more things, and mother scolded him for not
getting rid of the bird, and father said he knew how it could be done.
One of his pals was going to Dover, and he would ask him to take the
bird and let it go up by the castle where it would mix with the jackdaws
there, and that would be too far away for it to come back. But it did
come back, and after that he sent it to Ashford, and then to Canterbury,
and I don't know how many other places, but it always came back, and
they always seemed very glad to see it back. All the same, mother was
always scolding him about the bird and complaining to father about the
damage it did in the house. Then one day Aunt Ellen came to see mother,
and told her the best way to get rid of the daw would be to send it
abroad; she said her husband's cousin, Mr. Sturge, was going out to his
relations in Canada to work on their farm, and she would get
her husband to ask him to take the jackdaw. It would never come back
from such a distant place. A week afterwards Mr. Sturge sent word that
he would take the bird, as he thought his relations would like to have a
real old English jackdaw to remind them of home. So one day Aunt Ellen
came and took Jackie away in a small covered basket. The funniest thing
was the way father went on when he came home to tea. "A bloater with a
soft roe," he says; "just what Jackie likes! Where's the bird got to?
Come to your tea, Jackie!"

"He's gone," says mother, "gone to Canada, and a good riddance, too!"

"Oh, gone, has he?" says father. "Then we're a happy family and going to
lead a quiet life. No more screams and tears over broken chiny dolls!
And if ever Billy brings another jackdaw into the house we'll dust his
coat for him."

Here Billy interposed to say that if he ever made such a mistake again
they could thrash him as much as they liked.

"Oh, yes," said father, "we'll thrash you fast enough; mother'll do it
for the sake of her chiny toys and dolls."

That put mother up. "You're in a nasty temper," she says, "but you know
I miss the bird as much as you do!"

"Then," said father, "why the devil didn't you tell that sister of yours
to mind her own business when she came interfering about my jackdaw! And
that Sturge, he'll soon get tired of the bird and give it away for a
pint of beer before he gets to Liverpool."

"So much the better," says mother. "If Jackie can get free before they
take him aboard you may be sure he'll find his way back to Deal."

And that's what they went on hoping for days and days; but Jackie never
came back, so I s'pose Mr. Sturge took him out all right and that he's
in Canada now.

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