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Title: Bird Life Glimpses
Author: Selous, Edmund
Language: English
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BIRD LIFE GLIMPSES

by

EDMUND SELOUS

With 12 Headings and 6 Full-Page Illustrations by G. E. Lodge



London: George Allen, 156
Charing Cross Road. MCMV

[All rights reserved]


[Illustration: FLINT HOUSE, ICKLINGHAM]



PREFACE


In the autumn of 1899 I came to live at Icklingham in Suffolk, and
remained there, with occasional intervals of absence, for the next
three years. During the greater part of that period I kept a day-to-day
journal of field observation and reflection, and the following pages
represent, for the most part, a portion of this. They are the work of
one who professes nothing except to have used his eyes and ears to
the best of his ability, and to give only, both in regard to fact and
theory, the result of this method--combined, of course, in the latter
case, with such illustrations and fortifications as his reading may
have allowed him to make use of, and without taking into account some
passing reference or allusion. That my notes relate almost entirely
to birds, is not because I am less interested in other animals, but
because, with the exception of rabbits, there are, practically, no
wild quadrupeds in England. I am quite aware that a list can be
made out, but let any one sit for a morning or afternoon in a wood,
field, marsh, swamp, or pond, and he will then understand what I
mean. In fact, to be a field naturalist in England, is to be a field
ornithologist, and more often than not--I speak from experience--a
waster of one’s time altogether. Unless you are prepared to be always
unnaturally interested in the commonest matters, and not ashamed to
pass as a genius by a never-ending barren allusion to them, be assured
that you will often feel immensely dissatisfied with the way in which
you have spent your day. Many a weary wandering, many an hour’s
waiting and waiting to see, and seeing nothing, will be yours if you
aim at more than this--and to read a book is fatal. But there is the
_per contra_, and what that is I know very well. Of a few such _per
contras_--they were to me, and I can only hope that some may be so to
the reader--these “Bird Life Glimpses” are made up.

  EDMUND SELOUS.

  CHELTENHAM, _May 1905_.



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


  FULL-PAGE ILLUSTRATIONS

  “AT THE QUIET EVENFALL”                      _To face page_      8
  _Wood-Pigeons coming in to Roost_

  THE RULES OF PRECEDENCE                      ”       ”          54
  _Hooded Crows and Rooks Feeding_

  A GRAND DESCENT                              ”       ”          80
  _Herons coming down on to Nest_

  A STATUESQUE FIGURE                          ”       ”         119
  _Snipe, with Starlings Bathing, and Peewits_

  INDIGNANT                                    ”       ”         131
  _Starling in possession of Woodpecker’s
      Nesting Hole_

  A PRETTY PAIR                                ”       ”         198
  _Long-Tailed Tits Building_


  CHAPTER HEADPIECES

                                                               PAGE
  PHEASANT ROOSTING                                               1

  YOUNG NIGHTJARS                                                21

  ROOKS AT NEST                                                  51

  HERON FISHING                                                  72

  MALE WHEAT-EAR                                                106

  A “MURMURATION” OF STARLINGS                                  129

  PEEWITS AND NEST                                              163

  COAL-TIT                                                      194

  GREEN WOODPECKER                                              224

  MARTINS BUILDING NEST                                         239

  MOORHEN AND NEST                                              261

  DABCHICKS AND NEST                                            296

[Illustration: PHEASANT ROOSTING]



BIRD LIFE GLIMPSES



CHAPTER I


Icklingham, in and about which most of the observations contained
in the following pages have been made, is a little village of West
Suffolk, situated on the northern bank of the river Lark. It lies
between Mildenhall and Bury St. Edmunds, amidst country which is very
open, and so sandy and barren that in the last geological survey it is
described as having more the character of an Arabian desert than an
ordinary English landscape. There are, indeed, wide stretches where
the sand has so encroached upon the scanty vegetation of moss and
lichen that no one put suddenly down amongst them would think he were
in England, if it happened to be a fine sunny day. These arid wastes
form vast warrens for rabbits always, whilst over them, from April to
October, roam bands of the great plover or stone-curlew, whose wailing,
melancholy cries are in artistic unison with their drear desolation.
The country is very flat: no hill can be seen anywhere around, but the
ground rises somewhat, from the river on the northern side, and this
and a few minor undulations of the sand look almost like hills, against
the general dead level. I have seen the same effect on the great bank
of the Chesil, and read of it, I think, in the desert of Sahara.
These steppes on the one side of the river pass, on the other, into
a fine sweep of moorland, the lonely road through which is bordered,
on one side only, by a single row of gaunt Scotch firs. Westwards,
towards Cambridgeshire, the sand-country, as it may be termed, passes,
gradually, into the fenlands, which, in a modified, or, rather,
transitional form, lie on either side the Lark, as far as Icklingham
itself.

The Lark, which, for the greater part of its limited course, is a
fenland stream, rises a little beyond Bury (the St. Edmunds is never
added hereabouts), and enters the Ouse near Littleport. It is quite a
small river; but though its volume, after the first twelve miles or so,
does not increase to any very appreciable extent, the high artificial
banks, through which, with a view to preventing flooding, it is made to
flow, after entering the fenlands proper, give it a much more important
appearance, and this is enhanced by the flatness of the country on
either side: a flatness, however, which does not--nor does it ever,
in my opinion--prevent its being highly picturesque. Those, indeed,
who cannot feel the charm of the fenlands should leave nature--as
distinct from good hotels--alone. For myself, I sometimes wonder that
all the artists in the world are not to be found there, sketching; but
in spite of the skies and the windmills and Ely Cathedral in the near,
far, or middle distance, I have never met even one. It is to the fens
that the peewits, which, before, haunted the river and the country
generally, retire towards the end of October, nor do they return till
the following spring, so that Icklingham during this interval is
almost--indeed, I believe quite--without a peewit. Bury is eight miles
from Icklingham, and about half-way between them the country begins to
assume the more familiar features of an English landscape, so that the
difference which a few miles makes is quite remarkable.

Fifty years ago, I am told, there were no trees in this part of the
world, except a willow here and there along the course of the stream,
and a few huge ones of uncouth and fantastic appearance, which are
sometimes called “she oaks” by the people. The size of these trees is
often quite remarkable, and their wood being, fortunately, valueless,
they are generally allowed to attain to the full of it. They grow
sparingly, yet sometimes in scattered clusters, and the sand, with the
wide waste of which their large, rude outlines and scanty foliage has
a sort of harmony, seems a congenial soil for them. They are really,
I believe, of the poplar tribe, which would make them “poppels”
hereabouts, were this understood. These trees, with some elders and
gnarled old hawthorns, which the arid soil likewise supports, rather
add to than diminish the desolate charm of the country, and, as I say,
till fifty years ago there were no others. Then, however, it occurred
to landowners, or to some local body or council, that sand ought to
suit firs, and now, as a consequence, there are numerous plantations of
the Scotch kind, with others of the larch and spruce, or of all three
mingled together.

Thus, in the more immediate proximity of Icklingham we have the warrens
or sandy steppes, the moorlands passing here and there into green seas
of bracken, the river, with a smaller stream that runs into it, and
these fir plantations, which are diversified, sometimes, with oaks,
beeches, and chestnuts, and amidst which an undergrowth of bush and
shrub has long since sprung up. Beyond, on the one hand, there are the
fenlands, and, on the other, ordinary English country. In all these
bits there is something for a bird-lover to see, though, I confess,
I wish there was a great deal more. The plantations perhaps give the
greatest variety. Dark and sombre spots these make upon the great
steppes or moors, looking black as night against the dusky red of
the wintry sky, after the sun has sunk. In them one may sit silent,
as the shadows fall, and see the pheasants steal or the wood-pigeons
sweep to their roosting-trees, listening to the “mik, mik, mik” of
the blackbird, before he retires, the harsh strident note of the
mistle-thrush, or the still harsher and more outrageous scolding of the
fieldfare. Blackbirds utter a variety of notes whilst waiting, as one
may say, to roost. The last, or the one that continues longest, is the
“mik, mik” that I have spoken of, and this is repeated continuously for
a considerable time. Another is a loud and fussy sort of “chuck, chuck,
chuck,” which often ends in almost an exaggeration of that well-known
note which is generally considered to be the one of alarm, but which,
in my experience, has, with most other cries to which some special
meaning is attributed, a far wider and more generalised significance.
As the bird utters it, it flies, full of excitement, to the tree or
bush in which it means to pass the night, and here, whilst the darkness
deepens, it “mik, mik, mik, mik, miks,” till, as I suppose, with the
last “mik” of all, the head is laid beneath the wing, and it goes
peacefully to sleep. It is now that the pheasants come stealing, often
running, to bed. You may hear their quick, elastic little steps upon
the pine-needles, as they pass you, sometimes, quite close. I have had
one run almost upon me, as I sat, stone still, in the gloom, seen it
pause, look, hesitate, retreat, return again, to be again torn with
doubt, and, finally, hurry by fearfully, and only a pace or two off,
to fly into a tree just behind me. This shows, I think, that pheasants
have their accustomed trees, where they roost night after night. In
my experience this is the habit of most birds, but, after a time, the
favourite tree or spot will be changed for another, and thus it will
vary in a longer period, though not in a very short one. This, at
least, is my idea; assurance in such a matter is difficult. The aviary
may help us here. Two little Australian parrakeets, that expatiate
in my greenhouse, chose, soon after they were introduced, a certain
projecting stump or knob of a vine, as a roosting-place. For a week or
two they were constant to this, but, after that, I found them roosting
somewhere else, and they have now made use, for a time, of some
half-dozen places, coming back to their first choice in due course, and
leaving it again for one of their subsequent ones. Part of this process
I have noticed with some long-tailed tits, which, for a night or two,
slept all together, not only in the same bush but on the same spray of
it. Then, just like the parrakeets, they left it, but I was not able to
follow them beyond this. It would seem, therefore, that birds, though
they do not sleep anywhere, but have a bedroom, like us, yet like
variety, in respect of one, within reasonable limits, and go “from the
blue bed to the brown.”

Pheasants are sometimes very noisy and sometimes quite silent in
roosting, and this is just one of those differences which might be
thought to depend on the weather. For some time it seemed to me as if
a sudden sharp frost, or a fall of snow, made the birds clamorous,
but hardly had I got this fixed, as a rule, in my mind, when there
came a flagrant contradiction of it, and such contradictions were soon
as numerous as the supporting illustrations. I noticed, too, that on
the most vociferous nights some birds would be silent, whilst even
on the most silent ones, one or two were sure to be noisy, so that
I soon came to think that if their conduct in this respect did not
depend, purely, on personal caprice, it at least depended on something
beyond one’s power of finding out. The cries of all sorts of birds are
supposed to have something to do with the weather, but I believe that
any one who set himself seriously to test this theory would soon feel
like substituting “nothing” for “something” in the statement of the
proposition. It is much as with Sir Robert Redgauntlet’s jackanape,
I suspect--“ran about the haill castle chattering, and yowling, and
pinching, and biting folk, specially before ill weather or disturbances
in the state.” Every one knows the loud trumpety note, as I call it,
with which a pheasant flies up on to its perch, for the night. It is
a tremendous clamour, and continues, sometimes, for a long time after
the bird is settled. But sometimes, after each loud flourish, there
comes an answer from another bird, which is quite in an undertone; in
fact a different class of sound altogether, brief, and without the
harsh resonance of the other, so that you would not take it to be the
cry of a pheasant at all were it not always in immediate response to
the loud one. It proceeds, too, from the same spot or thereabouts.
What, precisely, is the meaning of this soft answering note? What is
the state of mind of the bird uttering it, and by which of the sexes
is it uttered? It is the cock that makes the loud trumpeting, and were
another cock to answer this, one would expect him to do so in a similar
manner. It is in April that my attention has been more particularly
drawn to this after-sound, so that, though early in the month, one
may suppose the male pheasant to have mated with at least a part of
his harem. One would hardly expect, however, to find a polygamous
bird on terms of affectionate connubiality with one or other of his
wives, and yet this little duet reminds me, strongly, of what one
may often hear, sitting in the woods, when wood-pigeons are cooing in
the spring. Almost always they are invisible, and it is by the ear,
alone, that one must judge of what is going on. Everywhere comes the
familiar “Roo, coo, oo, oo-oo,” and this, if you are not very close, is
all you hear, and it suggests that one bird is sitting alone--at least
alone in its tree, though answered perhaps from another. Sometimes,
however, one happens to be at the foot of the tree oneself, and then,
if one listens attentively, one will generally hear a single note, much
lower, and even softer than the other which precedes it, a long-drawn,
hoarse--but sweetly, tenderly hoarse--“oo.” The instant this has been
uttered, comes the note we know, the two tones being different, and
suggesting--which, I believe, is the case--that the first utterance is
the tender avowal of the one bird, the next the instant and impassioned
response of the other.

There is, perhaps, as much monotonous sameness--certainly as much of
expressive tenderness--in the coo of the wood-pigeon as in any sound
in nature, and yet, if one listens a little, one will find a good deal
of variety in it. Every individual bird has its own intonation, and
whilst, in the greatest number, this “speaks of all loves” as it should
do, in some few a coo seems almost turned into a scream. Sometimes,
too, I have remarked a peculiar vibration in the cooing of one of
these birds, due, I think, to there being hardly any pause between the
several notes, which are, usually, well separated. Such a difference
does this make in the character of the sound, that, at first, one
might hardly recognise it as belonging to the same species. Even in
the typical note, as uttered by any individual bird, there is not
so much sameness as one might think. It is repeated, but not exactly
repeated. Three similar, or almost similar, phrases, as one may call
them, are made to vary considerably by the different emphasis and
expression with which they are spoken. In the first of these the bird
says, “Roo, coo, oo-oo, oo-oo,” with but moderate insistence, as though
stating an undeniable fact. Then quickly, but still with a sufficiently
well-marked pause, comes the second, “Rōō, cōō, oo-ōō, oo-ōō,” with
very much increased energy, as though warmly maintaining a proposition
that had been casually laid down. In the third, “roo, coo,” &c., there
is a return to the former placidity, but now comes the last word on the
subject: “ook?” which differs in intonation from anything that has gone
before, there being a little rise in it, an upturning which makes it a
distinct and unmistakable interrogative, an “Is it not so?” to all that
has gone before.

[Illustration: “AT THE QUIET EVENFALL”

_Wood-Pigeons coming in to Roost_]

Considerable numbers of wood-pigeons roost, during winter, in the
various fir plantations which now make a feature of the country round
Icklingham. They retire somewhat early, so that it is still the
afternoon, rather than the evening, when one hears the first great
rushing sound overhead, and a first detachment come sweeping over the
tops of the tall, slender firs, and shoot, like arrows, into them.
Then come other bands, closely following one another. The birds fly in
grandly. Sailing on outspread wings, they give them but an occasional
flap, and descend upon the dark tree-tops from a considerable height.
The grand rushing sound of their wings, so fraught with the sense
of mystery, so full of hurry and impatience, has a fine inspiriting
effect; it sweeps the soul, one may say, filling it with wild elemental
emotions. What is this? Is it not a yearning back to something that one
once was, a backward-rushing tide down the long, long line of advance?
I believe that most of those vague, undefined, yet strongly pleasurable
emotions that are apt to puzzle us--such, for instance, as Wordsworth
looks upon as “intimations of immortality”--have their origin in the
ordinary laws of inheritance. What evidence of such immortality as is
here imagined do these supposed intimations of it offer? Do they not
bear a considerable resemblance to the feelings which music calls up in
us, and which Darwin has rationally explained?[1] “All these facts,”
says Darwin, “with respect to music and impassioned speech, become
intelligible to a certain extent, if we may assume that musical tones
and rhythm were used by our half-human ancestors during the season of
courtship, when animals of all kinds are excited, not only by love,
but by the strong feelings of jealousy, rivalry, and triumph. From
the deeply-laid principle of inherited associations, musical tones,
in this case, would be likely to call up, vaguely and indefinitely,
the strong emotions of a long-past age. Thus, in the Chinese annals
it is said, ‘Music’ (and this is Chinese music, by the way) ‘has the
power of making heaven descend upon earth’; and, again, as Herbert
Spencer remarks, ‘Music arouses dormant sentiments of which we had not
conceived the possibility, and do not know the meaning’; or, as Richter
says, ‘tells us of things we have not seen and shall not see.’” I have
little doubt myself that the feelings to which we owe our famous ode,
and those which were aroused by music in the breast of Jean Paul and
the Chinese annalist, were all much of the same kind, and due to the
same fundamental cause. We may, indeed, say with Wordsworth that the
soul “cometh from afar,” but what world is more afar than that of long
past time, which we may, yet, dimly carry about with us in our own
ancestral memories?

There is, I believe, no falser view than that which looks upon the
poet as a teacher, if we mean by this that he leads along the path of
growing knowledge; that he, for instance, and not Newton, gets first
at the law of gravitation, and so forth. If he ever does, it is by a
chance combination, merely, and not as a poet that he achieves this;
but, as a rule, poets only catch up the ideas of the age and present
them grandly and attractively.

“A monstrous eft was, of old, the Lord and Master of Earth,” &c.

Yet this very ode of Wordsworth “on intimations of immortality,” has
been quoted by Sir Oliver Lodge in his Presidential Address to the
Society for Psychical Research,[2] as though it were evidential. I
cannot understand this. Surely a feeling that a thing is, is not, in
itself, evidence that it is--and, if not, how does the beauty and
strength of the language which states the conviction, make it such? In
this famous poem there is no jot of argument, so that the case, after
reading it, stands exactly the same as it did before. No more has been
said now, either for or against, than if any plain body had expressed
the same ideas in his or her own way. For these mysterious sensations
are not confined to poets or great people. They are a common heritage,
but attract outside attention only when they find exalted utterance.
_Suum cuique_ therefore. The poet’s aptitude is to feel and express;
not, as a rule, to discover.

Besides the grand sweeping rush of the wood-pigeons over the
plantation, which makes the air full of sound, there is some fluttering
of wings, as the birds get into the trees; but this is less than one
might expect. It is afterwards, when they fly--first one and then
another--from the tree they have at first settled in to some other one,
that they think will suit them better, that the real noise begins. Then
all silence and solitude vanishes out of the lonely plantation, and
it becomes full of bustle, liveliness, and commotion. The speed and
impetus of the first downward flight has carried the birds smoothly on
to the branches, but now, flying under them, amongst the tree trunks,
they move heavily, make a great clattering of wings in getting up to
the selected bough, and often give a loud final clap with them, as they
perch upon it.

Wood-pigeons are in greater numbers in this part of Suffolk than one
might suppose would be the case, in a country for the most part so
open. However, even a small plantation will accommodate a great many.
I remember one cold afternoon in December going into one of young
oaks and beeches, skirting a grove of gloomy pines, where the rooks
come nightly to roost. My entry disturbed a multitude of the birds in
question, but after sitting, for some time, silently, under a tree
of the dividing row, they returned “in numbers numberless,” almost
rivalling the rooks themselves. Some trees seemed favourites, and,
from these, clouds of them would, sometimes, fly suddenly off, as if
they had become overcrowded. There was a constantly recurring clatter
and swish of wings, and then all at once the great bulk of the birds,
as it seemed to me, rose with such a clapping as Garrick or Mrs.
Siddons might have dreamed of, and departed--quantities of them, at
least--in impetuous, arrowy flight. I should have said, now, that the
greater number were gone, though the plantation still seemed fairly
peopled. Towards four, however, it became so cold that I had to move,
and _all_ the pigeons flew out of all the trees--a revelation as to
their real numbers, quite a wonderful thing to see. Some of the trees,
as the birds left them, just in the moment when they were going, but
still there, were neither oaks nor beeches--nor ashes, elms, poplars,
firs, sycamores, or any other known kind for the matter of that--but
_pigeon_-trees, that and nothing else.

For wrens, tits, and golden-crested wrens these fir plantations are as
paradises all the year round. The first-named little bird may often be
seen creeping about amongst the small holes and tunnels at the roots
of trees--especially overturned trees--going down into one and coming
out at another, as though it were a mouse. It is very pretty to see
it peep and creep and disappear, and then demurely appear again. Often
it will be underground for quite a little while--long enough to make
one wonder, sometimes, if anything has happened to it--but nothing
ever has. As soon as it has explored one labyrinth, it utters its
little chirruppy, chirpy, chattery note, and flits, a brown little
shadow, to another, into the first dark root-cavern of which it, once
more, disappears. House-hunting, it looks like--for the coming spring
quarter, to take from Lady Day, it being February now--but it is too
early for the bird to be really thinking of a nest, and no doubt
the finding of insects is its sole object. The golden-crested wrens
are more aerial in their search for food. They pass from fir-top to
fir-top, flitting swiftly about amongst the tufts of needles, owing to
which, and their small size, it is difficult to follow their movements
accurately. The pine-needles seem very attractive to them. I have often
searched these for insects, but never with much success, and I think,
myself, that they feed principally upon the tiny buds which begin to
appear upon them, very early in the year. In winter they may often be
seen about the trunks of the trees, and I remember, once, jotting down
a query as to what they could get there on a cold frosty morning in
December, when a spider, falling on the note-book, answered it in a
quite satisfactory manner.

Many spiders hibernate under the rough outer bark of the Scotch fir,
often in a sort of webby cocoon, which they spin for themselves;
numbers of small pupæ, too, choose--or have chosen in their
pre-existences--the same situations, especially that of the cinnabar
moth, which is extremely common about here. Its luridly-coloured
caterpillar--banded with deep black and orange--swarms upon the common
flea-bane, which grows something like a scanty crop over much of the
sandy soil; and when about to pupate, as I have noticed with interest,
it ascends the trunk of the Scotch fir, and undergoes the change in
one of the numerous chinks in its flaky bark. I have seen numbers of
these caterpillars thus ascending and concealing themselves, but I do
not know from how great a distance they come to the trees. Probably
it is only from quite near, for the majority, to get to them, would
have to travel farther than can be supposed possible, and, moreover,
fir-trees in these parts date, as I said, only from some fifty years
back. Doubtless it is mere accident, but when one sees such numbers
crawling towards the trees, and ascending as soon as they reach them,
it looks as though they were acting under some special impulse, such
as that which urges birds to migrate, or sends the lemmings to perish
in the sea. These caterpillars, however, as I now bethink me, are
nauseous to birds. I have thrown them to fowls who appeared not to see
them, so that they offer, I suppose, an example of warning coloration.
If, however, the caterpillar is unpalatable, the chrysalis probably is
also, so that it would not be for these that the golden wren, or the
coal-tit, its frequent companion, searches the bark in the winter.

Coal-tits, too, feed much--_ne m’en parlez point_--on the delicate
little buds at the ends of the clusters of spruce-needles, but they,
likewise, pull at and examine the needles themselves, so may, perhaps,
find some minute insects at their bases. They eat the buds of the
larch, too, and, as said before, whatever they can get by prying and
probing about, on the trunks of all these firs--especially that of the
Scotch one, which they search, sometimes, very industriously. Whilst
thus engaged they say at intervals, “Woo-tee, woo-tee, woo-tee” (or
“Wee-tee,” a sound between the two), and sometimes “Tooey, tooey,
tooey-too; tooey, tooey, tooey-too.” They flit quickly from place
to place, and, both in this and their way of feeding generally, a
good deal resemble the little golden wrens. The latter, however, are
brisker, more fairy-like, and still more difficult to watch. Yet, do
not let me wrong the coal-tit--he moves most daintily. Every little hop
is a little flutter with the wings, a little flirt with the tail. His
little legs you hardly see. He has a little game--not hop, skip, and
jump, but hop, flirt, and flutter. His motion combines all three--in
what proportions, how or when varying, that no man knoweth. How,
exactly, he gets to any place that he would, you do not see, you cannot
tell--he is there, that you see, but the rest is doubtful. He does not
know, himself, I believe. “_Aber frag’ mich nür nicht wie_,” he might
say, with Heine, if you asked him about it.

But if there is such a mystery in the movements of the coal-tit, what
is to be said about those of the long-tailed one? Most unfair would
it be to omit him, now that the other has been mentioned. Nor will I.
Dear little birdikins! The naturalist must be _blasé_, indeed, who
could ever be tired of noting your ways, though he might well be weary
of following you about amongst the delicate larches, which are most
your fairy home and in which you look most fairy-like. Such a dance as
you lead him! For always you are passing on, making a hasting, running
examination of the twigs of the trees you flit through, searching
systematically, from one to another, in a sort of aerial forced-march,
which makes you--oh, birdikins!--most difficult to watch. Like other
tits, you--Oh, but hang the apostrophe; I can’t sustain it, so must
drop, again--and I think for ever--into the sober third person. Like
other tits, then, these little long-tailed ones are fond of hanging,
head downwards, on the under side of a bough or twig: but I am not
sure if I have seen other tits come down on a bough or twig in this
way--at any rate not to the same extent. Say that a blue or a great
tit, and a long-tailed one, are both on the same bough, together. The
two former will fly, or flutter--fly, to another, alight upon its upper
side, and get round to its under one, by a process that can be seen.
The long-tailed tit will jump and arrive on the under side, hanging
there head downwards. That, at least, is what it looks like, as if he
had turned himself on his back, in the air, before seizing hold of his
twig. Really there is a little swing down, after seizing it--like an
acrobat on a trapeze--but this is so quick that it eludes the eye. It
is by his legerdemain and illusion, and by his jumping, rather than
flying, from bough to bough, that the long-tailed tit is distinguished.
He often makes a good long jump--a real jump--without appearing to
aid himself with his wings at all. The note of these tits is a “Zee,
zee--zee, zee, zee, zee,” but it is not of such a sharp quality as the
“zee” or “tzee” of the blue tit. It is more pleasing--indeed, there is
something very pleasing about it. What is there, in fact, that is not
pleasing about this little bird?

But I have something more to say upon the subject of the coal-tit’s
diet; for he eats, I believe, the seeds of the fir-cones, and manages
not only to pick them out of these, but to pick the cone itself to
pieces in so doing--a wonderful feat, surely, when one thinks how large
and hard the cone is, and how small the bird. It is not on the tree
that I have seen these tits feeding in this manner, but on the ground,
and the question, for me, is whether the cones that lay everywhere
about had been detached and then reduced, sometimes, almost to shreds,
by them or by squirrels. At first I unhesitatingly put it down to the
latter, but I soon noticed that in these particular firs--not part
of a plantation but skirting the road, as is common here--a squirrel
was never to be seen. Neither were coal-tits numerous, but still a
pair or two seemed to live here, and were often engaged with the
cones. Half-a-dozen of these I took home to examine at leisure. Two,
I found, had been only just commenced on, and the punctures upon them
were certainly such as might have been made by the beak of a small
bird, suggesting that the tit had here begun the process of picking
the cone to pieces, before any squirrel had touched it. One of the
outer four-sided scales had been removed, and as no cut or excoriation
was visible upon the surface thus exposed, this, again, looked
more as if the scale aforesaid had been seized with a pincers--the
bird’s beak--and torn off, than as though it had been cut away with
a chisel--the squirrel’s teeth--for, in this latter case, the plate
beneath would, in all probability, have been cut into, too, at some
point, and not left in its natural smooth state. Another two of these
cones consisted of the bases only, and from their appearance and the
debris around them, seemed to have been pecked and torn, rather than
gnawed to pieces. In five out of the six, the extreme base--that part
from the centre of which the stalk springs--had been left untouched.
In the sixth, however, this had been attacked, and presented a rough,
hacked, punctured appearance, the stalk itself--represented by just a
point--having apparently been pecked through, suggesting strongly that
the tits had commenced work while the cone hung on the tree, and had
severed it in this way. All round the basal circle the scales had been
stripped off, and the exposed surface was smooth and unexcoriated--as
in the other instance--except where a portion of it seemed to have
been torn, not cut, away. Two seed-cavities were exposed and empty. It
certainly looked as though these cones had been hacked and pulled to
pieces by the tits, and not gnawed by squirrels, so as this agreed with
the absence of the latter, and what I had actually seen the bird doing,
I came to the conclusion that they had been. Perhaps there is nothing
very wonderful in it after all, but, looking at a fir-cone, I should
have thought it clean beyond the strength of a coal-tit to tear it to
pieces. But what, now, is the origin of the name “coal-tit,” which
seems to have no particular meaning? Is it a corruption of “cone-tit,”
which, if the bird really feeds on the seeds of the fir, and procures
them in this manner, would have one? German _Kohlmeise_, however, is
rather against this hypothesis.

[Illustration: YOUNG NIGHTJARS]



CHAPTER II


One bird there is to whom these scattered fir plantations, with their
surrounding, sandy territory, dotted here and there with a gaunt
elder-bush or gnarled old hawthorn, are extremely dear, and that
bird is the nightjar. Nightjars are very common here. If spruces and
larches alternate with the prevailing Scotch fir, they love to sit on
the extreme tip-top of one of these, and there, sometimes, they will
“churr” without intermission for an extraordinary length of time.
Sometimes it seems as if the bird would never either move, or leave
off, but all at once, with a suddenness which surprises one, it rises
into the air, and goes off with several loud claps of the wings above
the back, and uttering another note--“quaw-ee, quaw-ee”--which is never
heard, save during flight. After a few circles it may be joined by
a companion--probably its mate--upon which, as in an excess of glad
excitement, it will clap its wings, again, a dozen or score of times
in succession. The two then pursue one another, wheeling in swiftest
circles and making, often, the most astonishing turns and twists, as
they strive either to escape or overtake. Often they will be joined
by a third or fourth bird, and more fast, more furious, then, becomes
the airy play. No words can give an idea of the extreme beauty of
the flight of these birds. In their soft moods they seem to swoon on
the air, and, again, they flout, coquette, and play all manner of
tricks with it. Grace and jerkiness are qualities quite opposite to
each other. The nightjar, when “i’ the vein,” combines them with easy
mastery, and to see this is almost to have a new sensation. It is as
though Shakespeare’s Ariel were to dance in a pantomime,[3] yet still
be Shakespeare’s Ariel. As one watches such beings in the deepening
gloom, they seem not to be real, but parts of the night’s pageant
only--dusky imaginings, shadows in the shapes of birds. What glorious
powers of motion! One cannot see them without wishing to be one of them.

I have spoken of the nightjar clapping its wings a dozen or score of
times in succession. This is not exaggerated. I have counted up to
twenty-five claps myself, and this was less than the real number, as
the first tumultuous burst of them was well-nigh over before I began to
count. It is not easy, indeed, to keep up with the bird, and when it
stops, one is, generally, a little behind. The claps are wonderfully
loud and distinct--musical they always sound to me--and I believe,
myself, that they are almost as sexual in their character as is the
bleating of the snipe. The habit has, indeed, become now so thoroughly
ingrained that any sudden emotion, as, say, surprise or fear, is apt to
call it forth, of which principle, in nature, many illustrations might
be given; but it is when two or more birds are sporting together--or
when one, after a long bout of “churring,” springs from the tree, and,
especially, in a swift, downward flight to the ground, where its mate
is probably reclining--that one hears it in its perfection. Why so
little has been said about this very marked and noticeable peculiarity,
why a work of high authority should only tell us that “in general
its flight is silent, but at times, when disturbed from its repose,
its wings may be heard to smite together,” I really do not know. The
expression used suggests that the sound made by the smiting of the
wings is but slight, whereas one would have to be fairly deaf not to
hear it. And why only “when disturbed”? Under such circumstances the
performance will always be a poor one, but it is not by startling the
bird, but by waiting, unseen and silent, that one is likely to hear it
in its perfection, and then not alarm or disquietude, but joy will have
produced it--it is a glad ebullition.

The domestic habits of the nightjar are very pretty and interesting.
No bird can be more exemplary in its conjugal relations, and in its
care and charge of the young. Both husband and wife take part in the
incubation of the eggs, and there is, perhaps, no prettier sight than
to see the one relieve the other upon them. It is the female bird, as I
believe, that sits during the day--which, to her, is as the night--and,
shortly after the first churring round about begins to be heard,
her partner may be seen flying up from some neighbouring clump of
trees, and, as he comes, uttering, at intervals, that curious note of
“quaw-ee, quaw-ee,” which seems to be the chief aerial vehicle of the
domestic emotions. As it comes nearer, it is evidently recognised by
the sitting bird, who churrs in response, but so softly that human ears
can only just catch the sound. The male now settles beside her, churrs
softly himself, and then pressing and, as it were, snoozling against
her, seems to insist that it is now his turn. For a few seconds the
pair sit thus, churring together, and, whilst doing so, both wag their
tails--and not only their tails, but their whole bodies also--from
side to side, like a dog in a transport of pleasure. Then all at once,
without any fondling or touching with the beak--which, indeed, I have
never seen in them--the female darts away, leaving the male upon the
eggs. She goes off instantaneously, launching, light as a feather,
direct from her sitting attitude, without rising, or even moving,
first. In other cases the cock bird settles himself a little farther
away, and the hen at once flies off. There are infinite variations in
the pretty scene, but the prettiest, because the most affectionate, is
that which I have described, where the male, softly and imperceptibly,
seems to squeeze himself on to the eggs, and his partner off them. I
have seen tame doves of mine act in just the same way, and here, too,
both would coo together upon the nest.

In regard to the two sexes churring, thus, in unison, I can assert,
in the most uncompromising manner, that they do so, having been
several times a witness of it, at but a few steps’ distance, and in
broad daylight, I may almost say, taking the time of the year into
consideration. The eyes, indeed, are as important as the ears in coming
to a conclusion on the matter, for not only is the tail wagged in these
little duets, but with the first breath of the sound, the feathers of
the bird’s throat begin to twitch and vibrate, in a very noticeable
manner. Various authorities, it is true, either state or imply that
the male nightjar alone churrs, or burrs, or plays the castanets,
however one may try to describe that wonderful sound, which seems to
become the air itself, on summer evenings, anywhere where nightjars
are numerous. But these authorities are all mistaken, and as soon as
they take to watching a pair of the birds hatching their eggs, they
will find that they were, but not before, for there is no other way
of making certain. It is true that the churr thus uttered, though as
distinct as an air played on the piano, is now extraordinarily subdued,
of so soft and low a quality that, remembering what it more commonly
is, one feels inclined to marvel at such a power of modulation. But it
is just the same sound “in little”--how, indeed, can such a sound be
mistaken?--and, after all, since a drum can be beaten lightly, there is
no reason why an instrument, which is part of the performer itself,
should be less under control. What is really interesting and curious
is to hear such a note expressing, even to one’s human ears, the soft
language of affection--for it does do so in the most unmistakable
manner.

Though, as we have seen, both the male and female nightjar help in the
hatching of the eggs, the female takes the greater part of it upon
herself, and is also much more _au fait_ in the business--I believe
so, at least. The sexes are, indeed, hard to distinguish, and, as the
light fades, it becomes, of course, impossible to do so. Still, one
cannot watch a sitting pair, evening after evening, for an hour or more
at a time, without forming an opinion on such a point; and this is
mine. We may assume, perhaps, that it is the female bird who sits all
day, without once being relieved. If so, it is the male who flies up
in the evening, and from this point one can judge by reckoning up the
changes, and timing each bird on the eggs. This I did, and it appeared
to me, not only that the hen was, from the first, the most assiduous
of the two, but, also, that the cock became less and less inclined to
attend to the eggs, as the time of their hatching drew near. So, too,
he seemed to me to sit upon them with less ease and to have a tendency
to get them separated from each other, which, in one case, led to a
scene which, to me, seemed very interesting, as bearing on the bird’s
intelligence, and which I will therefore describe. I must say that,
previously to this, when both birds were away, I had left my shelter
in order to pluck an intervening nettle or two, and thus get a still
clearer view, and I had then noticed that the two eggs lay rather
wide apart. Shortly afterwards one of the birds, which I judged to be
the male, returned, and in getting on to the eggs--which it did by
pushing itself along the ground--it must, I think, have moved them
still farther from one another. At any rate it became necessary, in
the bird’s opinion, to alter their relative position, and in order to
do this it went into a very peculiar attitude. It, as it were, stood
upon its breast, with its tail raised, almost perpendicularly, into
the air, so that it looked something like a peg-top set, peg upwards,
on the broad end, the legs being, at no time, visible. Thus poised, it
pressed with the under part of its broad beak--or, as one may say, with
its chin--first one egg and then the other against its breast, and, so
holding it, moved backwards and forwards over the ground, presenting a
strange and most unbirdlike appearance. The ground, however, was not
even, and despite the bird’s efforts to get the two eggs together,
one of them--as I plainly saw--rolled down a little declivity. At the
bottom some large pieces of fir-bark lay partially buried in the sand,
and under one of these the egg became wedged. The bird was unable to
get it out, so as to bring it up the hill again to where the other egg
lay, for the bark, by presenting an edge, prevented it from getting
its chin against the farther side of the one that was fast, so as to
press it against its breast as before--though making the most desperate
efforts to do so. Wedging its head between the bark and the ground, it
now stood still more perpendicularly upright on its breast, and, in
this position, shoved and shouldered away, most desperately. After
each effort it would lie a little, as if exhausted, then waddle to
the other egg, and settle itself upon it; then, in a minute or two,
return to the one it had left, and repeat its efforts to extricate it.
At last, however, after nearly half-an-hour’s labour, an idea seemed
to occur to it. It went again to the properly-placed egg, but instead
of settling down upon it, as before, began to move it to the other
one, in the way that I have described. “If the mountain will not go to
Mahomet, Mahomet must go to the mountain”--that was clearly the process
of reasoning, and seeing how set the bird’s mind had been on one course
of action--how it had toiled and struggled and returned to its efforts,
again and again--its subsequent, sudden adoption of another plan
showed, I think, both intelligence and versatility. It, in fact, acted
just as a sensible man would have done. It tried to do the best thing,
till convinced it was impossible, and then did the second best. Having
thus got the two eggs together again, it tried hard to push away the
piece of bark--which was half buried in the sand--backwards, with its
wings, feet, and tail, after the manner in which the young cuckoo--in
spite of the anti-vaccinationists[4]--ejects its foster brothers and
sisters from the nest. Finally, as it grew dark, it flew away. I then
went out to look, and found that the bird had been successful in its
efforts, to a certain extent. The two eggs now lay together, and
though not quite on the same level, and though the piece of bark was
still in the way of one of them, both might yet have been covered,
though not with ease, and so, possibly, hatched out. However, had I
left them as they were, I have no doubt that, assisted, perhaps, by its
partner, the bird would have continued to work away till matters were
quite satisfactory. But having seen so much, and since it would soon
have been too dark to see anything more, I thought I would interfere,
for once, and so removed the bark, and smoothing down the declivity,
laid the eggs side by side, on a flat surface. I must add that whilst
this nightjar was thus struggling to extricate its eggs, it uttered
from time to time a low querulous note.

When the eggs are hatched, both parents assist in feeding the chicks,
and the first thing that one notices--and to me, at least, it was
an interesting discovery--is that they feed them, not by bringing
them moths or cockchafers--on which insects the nightjar is supposed
principally to feed--in their bill, but by a process of regurgitation,
after the manner of pigeons. There is one difference, however, viz.,
that whereas the bill of the young pigeon is placed within that of the
parent, the young nightjar seizes the parent’s bill in its own. Those
peculiar jerking and straining motions, which are employed to bring
up the food--from the crop, as I suppose--into the mouth, are the
same, or, at least, closely similar, in either case. I have watched
the thing taking place so often, and from so near, that I cannot, I
think, have been mistaken. There was, usually, a good light, when the
first ministrations began, and even after it had grown dark I could
almost always see the outline of the bird’s head and beak, defined
against the sky, as it sat perched upon the bare, thin point of an
elder-stump, from which it generally flew to feed the chicks. Never
was this outline broken by any projection, as it must have been had an
insect of any size been held in the bill. A more conclusive argument
is, I think, that the chicks were generally fed, in the way I have
described, several times in succession. They would always come out
from under their mother, as the evening approached, and, jumping up
at her bill, try to insist on her feeding them. Whether she ever fed
them, then, before leaving the nest, I cannot, for certain, say. I
do not think she did, nor can I see how she could have had anything
in her crop after sitting, fasting, all day. As a rule, at any rate,
she first flew off, and fed them only on her return. When she flew,
I used to watch her for as long as I could, and would sometimes see
her, as well as the other one, circling and twisting about in the air,
in pursuit of insects, as it appeared to me. I never saw any insects,
however, as I should have done had they been of any size, nor did I
ever see anything, on the part of the birds, that looked like a snatch
in the air with open bill. But if insects were being caught at all,
the bill must, of course, have been opened to some extent, and this
shows, I think--for what else could the birds have been doing?--that
it is very difficult in the dusk of evening to see it opened, even
when it is. For my own part, I have found it difficult--not to say
impossible--to see swallows open their beaks, even in broad daylight,
when they were obviously hawking for insects. The point is an important
one, I think, in considering what kinds of insects the nightjar more
habitually feeds on, and how, in general, it procures them--questions
which, having been settled, as it seems to me, merely by assertion,
are entirely reopened by the fact that the young are fed in the way I
have described. For if moths and cockchafers are the bird’s principal
food, why should it not bring these to the young, in the ordinary way?
But if it swallows huge quantities of insects, so small that it cannot
seize them in the bill, but must engulf them, merely, as it flies, as
a whale does infusoria, we can then see a reason for its not doing
so. How else, but by disgorging it in the form of a pulp, could such
food as this be given to the chick? and if to do so became the bird’s
habitual practice, it would not be likely to vary it in any instance.
Now the green woodpecker feeds largely on ants, and, further on, I will
give my reasons for believing that it feeds its young by regurgitation.
The little woodpecker, however, I have watched coming, time and time
again, to its hole in the tree-trunk, with its bill full of insects of
various kinds, and of a respectable size, so that there is no doubt
that it gives these to its brood, as does a thrush or a blackbird. What
can make a difference, in this respect, between two such closely-allied
species, if it be not that the one has taken to eating ants, minute
creatures which it has to swallow wholesale, and could not well carry
in the bill? When, therefore, we find the parent nightjar regurgitating
food into the chick’s mouth, we may suspect that it also swallows
large quantities of insects of an equally small, or smaller size. The
beak need neither be widely nor continuously opened, for many such to
be engulfed as the bird sailed through a strata of them; but even if
it were both, we need not wonder at its not often being remarked, in a
species which flies and feeds, mostly, by night, when it is both dark,
and people are in bed. Still, I find in Seebohm’s “History of British
Birds” the following: “The bird has been said to hunt for its food,
with its large mouth wide open, but this is certainly an error.” The
first part of the sentence impresses me more than the last. Why _has_
the bird its tremendous, bristle-fringed gape? Does it not suggest a
whale’s mouth, with the baleen? Other birds catch individual insects as
cleverly, without it.

There is another consideration which makes me think that nightjars feed
much in this way. They hardly begin to fly about, before 8.30 in the
evening, and between 3 and 4, next morning, they have retired for the
day. Now I have watched them closely, on many successive evenings in
June and July, and, for the life of me, I could never make out what
food they were getting, or, indeed, that they were getting any, up to
at least 10 o’clock. For much of the time they would be sitting on a
bough, or perched on a fir-top, and churring, and, when they flew, it
was often straight to the ground, and then back, again, to the same
tree. They certainly did not seem to be catching insects when they
did this, and their longer flights were not, as a rule, round trees,
and often resolved themselves into chasing and sporting with one
another. That they occasionally caught moths or cockchafers seems, in
itself, likely, but I never had reason to suppose that these were their
particular quarry. It seems strange that I should have so rarely seen
them catch any large insect--I cannot, indeed, remember an instance;
but, on the other hand, they might well have engulfed crowds of small
ones, as they flew, without my being able to detect it, and without any
special effort to do so. That the air is often full of these--gnats,
little flies, &c.--may be conjectured by watching swallows, and also
bats. Indeed, one may both see and feel them oneself--in cycling, for
instance, when I have often had a small beetle, constructed on the
general plan of a devil’s coach-horse, sticking all over me. For all
the above reasons, my view is that it is the smaller things of the air
which form the staple of the nightjar’s food, and that its huge gape,
and, possibly, the bristles on either side of the upper jaw, stand in
relation to the enormous numbers of these which it engulfs. The bird,
in fact--and this would apply equally to the other members of the
family--plays, in my idea, the part of an aerial whale.

I have watched a pair of nightjars through the whole process of
hatching out their eggs and bringing up their young, as long as the
latter were to be found; for they got away from the nest--if the
bare ground may be called one--long before they could fly. It was
on the last day of June that the chicks first burst upon me. I had
been watching the sitting bird for some time, and had noticed that
the feathers just under her chin were quivering, while her beak was
held slightly--as slightly as possible--open. I thought she must be
churring, but no sound reached my ear, so I concluded she was asleep
merely, and dreaming that she was. She sat so still and close that I
never imagined she could have ceased incubating. I had seen her eggs,
too, as I thought, yesterday; but in this I may have been mistaken. All
at once, however, a strange little, flat, fluffy thing ran out from
under her breast, and, stretching up, touched its mother’s beak with
its own. She did not respond, however, on which the chick ran back,
disappointed. As soon as that queer little figure had disappeared, I
was all eagerness to see it again, but hour after hour went by, the
old bird drowsed and dreamed, and still there was no re-emergence. It
seemed as though I had had an hallucination of the senses, all looked
so still and unchangeable; but, at last, as the evening began to fall,
and churring to be heard round about, out, suddenly, came the little
apparition again, accompanied, this time, with an exact duplicate of
itself. The two appeared from opposite sides, and, with a simultaneous
jump, seized and struggled for the beak of the mother, who again
resisted, and then, suddenly, darted off, just as, with “quaw-ee,
quaw-ee,” the partner bird flew up. He settled himself beside the
chicks, and when they sprang up at him, as they had just before done
at the mother, he fed one thoroughly, but not the other, flying off
immediately afterwards. The hen soon returned, and fed both the chicks
several times, always, as I say, by the regurgitatory process. Between
the intervals of feeding them, she kept uttering a little croodling
note, expressive of quiet content and affection, whilst the chicks,
more rarely, gave vent to a slender pipe. One of them I now[5] saw to
be a little larger than the other, and of a lighter colour, and this
bird seemed always to be the more greedy. The difference, in all three
respects, increased from day to day, till at last, in regard to size,
it became quite remarkable. The two parent birds were much alike in
this respect, and as the two chicks had been born within a day of each
other, it seems odd that there should have been this disparity between
them. But so it was.

It appeared to me that, as the big chick was certainly the greedier
of the two, so both the parents tried to avoid the undue favouring of
it at the expense of the other. If so, however, their efforts were
not very effective. It was difficult, indeed, to avoid the eagerness
of whichever one first jumped up at them. As they got older, the
chicks were left more and more alone in the nest, or, rather, on
the spot where they were born. At first, they used to lie there in
a wonderfully quiescent way, not moving, sometimes, for hours at a
time, but gradually they became more active, and would make little
excursions, from which they did not always trouble to return. Thus,
by degrees, the old nesting-site became lost, for the parents, though
for some time they continued to show an affection for it, settled
more and more by the chicks, or, if they did not see them, somewhere
near about, and then called them up to them. This they did with the
little croodling note which I have spoken of, and which the chicks, on
hearing, would answer with a “quirr, quirr,” and run towards it, then
stop to listen, and run again, getting, all the while, more and more
excited. If the old bird was at any distance, which, as the chicks got
older, was more and more frequently the case, there would sometimes
be long intervals between these summoning notes--if we assume them
to be such--and, during these, the chicks lay still and, generally,
close together, as if they were in the nest. When I walked to them, on
these occasions, both the parent birds would start up from somewhere
in the neighbourhood, and whilst one of them flew excitedly about, the
other--which I took to be the hen--used always to spin, in the most
extraordinary manner, over the ground, looking more like an insect
than a bird, or, at any rate, suggesting, by her movements, those of a
bluebottle that has got its wings scorched in the gas, and fallen down
on the table. Whilst she was doing this, the chicks would, sometimes,
run away, but, quite as often, one or both of them would remain where
they were--apparently quite unconcerned--and allow me to take them up.
When, at last, the mother followed the example of her mate, and flew
off, she showed the same superior degree of anxiety in the air, as
she had, before, upon the ground. She would come quite near me, hover
about, dart away and then back again, sit on a thistle-tuft, leave it,
as though in despair, and, at last, re-alight on the ground, where she
kept up a loud, distressed kind of clucking, which, at times, became
shriller, rising, as it were, to an agony. The male was a little less
moved. Still, he would fly quite near, and often clap his wings above
his back. I cannot, now, quite remember whether the male ever began by
spinning over the ground, in the same way as the hen, but, if he did,
it did not last long, and he soon took to flight.

It will be seen from the above that the chicks are very well able to
get about. They run, indeed, as easily, if not quite so fast, as a
young duckling, and this power is retained by the grown bird, in spite
of its aerial habits, for I have seen my two pursuing one another over
the ground with perfect ease and some speed, seeming, thus, to run
without legs, for these were at no time visible. The ground-breeding
habits of the nightjar probably point to a time when it was, much more,
a ground-dwelling bird, and as these habits have continued, we can
understand a fair power of locomotion having been retained also. My own
idea is that the nuptial rite is, sometimes at least, performed on the
ground, but of this I have had no more than an indication.[6]

The nightjar utters many notes, besides that very extraordinary one by
which it is so well known, and which has procured for it many of its
names. I have made out at least nineteen others; but I do not believe
that any very special significance belongs to the greater number of
them, and I hold the same view in regard to many other notes uttered by
various birds, which are supposed, always, to have some well-defined,
limited meaning. Each, no doubt, has a meaning, at the time it is
uttered, but I think it is, generally, one of many possible ones which
may all be expressed by the same note, such note being the outcome, not
of a definite idea, but of a certain state of feeling. Surprise, for
instance, may be either a glad surprise or a fearful surprise, and very
varied acts spring from either joy or fear. With ourselves definite
ideas have become greatly developed; but animals may live, rather, in
a world of emotions, which would then be much more a cause of their
actions, and, consequently, of the cries which accompanied them, than
the various ideas appertaining to each. Because, for instance, a rabbit
stamps with its hind feet when alarmed, and other rabbits profit by
its doing so, why need this be done as a signal, which would involve a
conscious design? Is it not more likely that the stamp is merely the
reaction to some sudden, strong emotion, which need not always be that
of fear? If rabbits stamp, sometimes, in sport and frolic--as I think
they do--this cannot be a signal, and therefore we ought not to assume
that it is, when it has the appearance, or produces the effect, of
one. All we can say, as it seems to me, is that excitement produces a
certain muscular movement, which, according to the class of excitement
to which it belongs, may mean or express either one thing or another.
Such a movement, or such a cry, is like the bang of a gun, which may
have been fired either as a salute or with deadly intent. However, if
the nightjar’s nineteen notes really express nineteen definite ideas
in the bird’s mind, I can only confess that I have not discovered what
these are. Some of the sounds, indeed, are very good illustrations
of the view here brought forward--for instance, the croodling one
just mentioned, which, when it calls the chicks from a distance,
seems as though it could have no other meaning than this, but which
may also be heard when parent and young are sitting together, and,
again, between the intervals in the process of feeding the latter. Is
it not, therefore, a sound belonging to the soft, parental emotions,
from which sometimes one class of actions, and sometimes another, may
spring--the note being the same in all? From the number of sounds which
the nightjar has at command, I deduce that it is a bird of considerable
range and variety of feeling, which would be likely to make it an
intelligent bird also; and this, in my experience, it is. Two of the
most interesting notes, or rather series of notes, which it utters,
are modifications, or extensions, of the only one which has received
much attention--the churr, namely. One of these is a sort of jubilee
of gurgling sounds, impossible to describe, at the end of it; and the
other--much rarer--a beatification, so to speak, of the churr itself,
also towards the end, the sound becoming more vocal and expressive,
and losing the hard, woodeny, insect-like character which it usually
has. To these I will not add a mere list of sounds, as to the import
of which--not wishing to say more than I know--I have nothing very
particular to say.

These are days in which the theory of protective coloration has
been run--especially, in my opinion, in the case of the higher
animals--almost to death. It may not be amiss, therefore, that I
should mention the extraordinary resemblance which the nightjar
bears to a piece of fir-bark, when it happens to be sitting amidst
pieces of fir-bark, and not amidst other things, which, when it is,
it no doubt resembles as strongly. If, at a short distance, and for a
considerable time, one steadily mistakes one thing for another thing,
with the appearance of which one is well acquainted, this, I suppose,
is fair proof of a likeness, provided one’s sight is good. Such a
mistake I have made several times, and especially upon one occasion.
It was midday in June, and a sunny day as well. I had left the bird in
question, for a little while, to watch another, and when I returned,
it was sitting in the same place, which I knew like my study table. My
eye rested full upon it, as it sat, but not catching the outline of
the tip of the wings and tail, across a certain dry stalk, as I was
accustomed to do, I thought I was looking at a piece of fir-bark--one
of those amongst which it sat. I, in fact, looked for the eggs _upon_
the bird, for I knew the exact spot where they should be; but, as I
should have seen them, at once, owing to their light colour, I felt
sure they must be covered, and after gazing steadily, for some time,
all at once--by an optical delusion, as it seemed, rather than by
the passing away of one--the piece of fir-bark became the nightjar.
It was like a conjuring trick. The broad, flat head, from which the
short beak projects hardly noticeably, presented no special outline
for the eye to seize on, but was all in one line with the body. It
looked just like the blunt, rounded end, either of a stump, or of any
of the pieces of fir-bark that were lying about, whilst the dark brown
lines and mottlings of the plumage, besides that they blended with,
and faded into, the surroundings, had, both in pattern and colouring,
a great resemblance to the latter object; the lighter feathers exactly
mimicking those patches which are made by the flaking off of some of
the numerous layers of which the bark of the Scotch fir is composed.
This would only be of any special advantage to the bird when, as in the
present instance, it had laid its eggs amongst pieces of such bark,
fallen from the neighbouring Scotch fir-trees, and did it invariably
do so, a special protective resemblance might, perhaps, be admitted.
This, however, is not the case. It lays them, also, under beeches or
elsewhere, where neither firs nor fir-bark are to be seen.

Unless, therefore, it can be shown that a large majority of nightjars
lay, and have for a long time laid, their eggs in the neighbourhood
of the Scotch fir, the theory of a special resemblance in relation to
such a habit, due to the action of natural selection, must be given
up; as I believe it ought to be in some other apparent instances of
it, which have received more attention. Of course, there might be a
difference of opinion, especially if the bird were laid on a table, as
to the amount, or even the existence, of the resemblance which I here
insist upon. But I return to the essential fact. At the distance of two
paces I looked full at a nightjar sitting amongst flakes of fir-bark,
strewed about the sand, and, for some time, it appeared to me that it
was one of these. This is interesting, if we suppose, as I do, that
mere chance has brought about the resemblance, for here is a point
from which natural selection might easily go on towards perfection.
As I did make out the bird, at last, there is clearly more to be done.
It is, perhaps, just possible that we already see in the nightjar some
steps towards a special resemblance. The bird is especially numerous in
Norway, as I was told when I was there; and Norway is one great, pine
forest. However, not knowing enough in regard to its habitat, and the
relative numbers of individuals that resort to different portions of
it, to form an opinion on this point, I will suppose, in the meantime,
that its colouring has been made generally protective, in relation
to its incubatory habits; for the eggs are laid on the ground, and
commonly at the foot of a tree, stump, or bush--in the neighbourhood of
such objects, in fact, as have a more or less brownish hue.

It is during incubation that the bird would stand most in need of
protection, since it is then exposed, more or less completely, for a
great length of time. One bird, as far as I have been able to see,
sits on the eggs all day long, without ever once leaving them. Day,
however, is night to the nightjar, who not only sits on its eggs, but
sleeps, or, at least, dozes, on them as well. Drowsiness may, in this
case, have meant security both to bird and eggs; for the most sleepy
individuals would, by keeping still, have best safeguarded their
young, at all stages, as well as themselves, against the attacks of
small predatory animals. Flies used often to crawl over the face of
the bird I watched daily. They would get on its eyes; and once a large
bluebottle flew right at one of them. But beyond causing it just to
open or shut the eye, as the case might be, they produced no effect
upon the sleepy creature. The nightjar is a remarkably close sitter,
and both this special habit and its general drowsiness upon the nest
may have been fostered, at the same time, by natural selection. The
more usual view of the nightjar’s colouring is, I suppose, that it is
dusky, in harmony with night. But from what does a bird of its great
powers of flight require protection, either as against the attacks of
enemies or the escape of prey; and again, what colour, short of white,
would be a disadvantage to it, in the case of either, when _nox atra
colorem abstulit rebus_?

Questions of a similar nature may be asked in regard to the tiger,
lion, and other large feline animals, which, fearing no enemy, and
hunting their prey by scent, after dark, are yet supposed to be
protected by their coloration. These things are easily settled in the
study, where the habits of the species pronounced upon, not being
known, are not taken into account; but I may mention that my brother,
with his many years’ experience of wild beasts and their ways, and,
moreover, a thorough evolutionist, is a great doubter here. How, he
asks, as I do now, with him, can the lion be protected, in this way,
against the antelope, and the antelope against the lion, when the one
hunts, and the other is caught, by scent, after darkness has set in?
Of what use, for such a purpose, can colour or colour-markings be to
either of them? On the other hand, these go, in varying degrees, to
make up a creature’s beauty. Take, for instance, the leopard, jaguar,
or tiger.[7] Surely their coloration suggests adornment much more
obviously than assimilation; and though they hunt mostly, as I say,
by night, they are yet sufficiently diurnal to be able to admire
one another in the daytime. Darwin, who is often assumed to have
been favourable to the protective theory of coloration in the larger
animals, in instances where he was opposed to it, says this: “Although
we must admit that many quadrupeds have received their present tints,
either as a protection or as an aid in procuring prey, yet, with a host
of species, the colours are far too conspicuous, and too singularly
arranged, to allow us to suppose that they serve for these purposes.”
He then cites various antelopes, giving illustrations of two, and
continues: “The same conclusion may, perhaps, be extended to the
tiger, one of the most beautiful animals in the world, the sexes of
which cannot be distinguished by colour, even by the dealers in wild
beasts. Mr. Wallace believes that the striped coat of the tiger ‘so
assimilates with the vertical stems of the bamboo[8] as to assist
greatly in concealing him from his approaching prey.’ But this view
does not appear to me satisfactory.” (It seems opposed to the more
usual habits of the creature.) “We have some slight evidence that his
beauty may be due to sexual selection, for in two species of _felis_
the analogous marks and colours are rather brighter in the male than
in the female. The zebra is conspicuously striped, and stripes cannot
afford any protection on the open plains of South Africa.”[9] Yet, when
naturalists to-day refer every colour and pattern under the sun to the
principle of protection, the reviewers all agree that Darwin agrees
with them. Truly, nowadays, “_‘Darwin’ laudetur et alget_.”

The fact is that for some reason--I believe because it lessens the
supposed mental gap between man and other animals--Darwin’s theory of
sexual selection was, from the beginning, looked askance at; and even
those who may accept it, now, in the general, do so tentatively, and
with many cautious expressions intended to guard their own reputations.
This is not a frame of mind favourable to applying that theory, and,
consequently, all the applications and extensions go to the credit of
the more accepted, because less _bizarre_, one; for even if authorities
are mistaken here, they will, at least, have erred in the orthodox
groove, which is something. I believe, myself, that it is sexual
selection which has produced much of what is supposed to be due not
only to the principle of protective, but to that, also, of conspicuous,
or distinctive, coloration. Take, for instance, the rabbit’s tail. I
have never been able to make out that the accepted theory in regard to
it is borne out by the creature’s habits. Rabbits race and run not only
in alarm, but as an outcome of high spirits. How can the white tail
distinguish between these two causes; and if it cannot, why should it
be a sign to follow? One rabbit may indeed judge as to the state of
mind of another, but not by looking at the tail; and if too far off to
see anything else, it can form no opinion. Again, each rabbit has its
own burrow, and it does not follow that because one runs to it here,
another should there. Accordingly, I have noticed that white tails
in rapid motion produce no effect upon other tails, or their owners,
when these are some way off, but that rabbits, alarmed, make their
near companions look about them. Of course, in the case of a general
stampede, in the dusk, to the warren--from which numbers of the rabbits
may have strayed away--it is easy to imagine that the rearmost are
following the white tails of those in front of them; or rather that
these have given them the alarm, since all know the way to the warren.
But how can one tell that this is really so, seeing that the alarm in
such a case is generally due to a man stalking up? Would it not look
exactly the same in the case of prairie marmots, whose tails are not
conspicuously coloured? Young rabbits, it is true, would follow their
dams when they ran, in fear, to their burrows; not, however, unless
they recognised them, and this they could not do by the tail alone. If
they were near enough to recognise them, they would be able, probably,
to follow them by sight alone, tail or no tail, nor would another white
powder-puff be liable to lead them astray, as otherwise it might do.
With antelopes, indeed, which have to follow one another, so as not to
stray from the herd, a light-coloured patch, or wash upon the hinder
quarters, might be an advantage; but as some of the kinds that have[10]
it are handsomely ornamented on the face and body, and as the wash of
colour behind is often, in itself, not inelegant, why should not one
and all be for the sake of adornment, or, rather, is it not more likely
that they are so? No one, I suppose, who believes in sexual selection
at all, will be inclined to explain the origin of the coloured
posterior surface in the mandril, and some other monkeys, in any other
way. To me, having regard to certain primary facts in the sexual
relations of all animals, it does not appear strange that this region
should, in many species, have fallen under the influence of the latter
power. Can we, indeed, say, taking the Hottentots and some civilised
monstrosities of feminine costume that do most sincerely flatter them
into consideration, that it has not done so in the case of man?

The protective theory, as applied to animals that hunt, or are hunted,
by night, seems plausible only if we suppose that the enemies against
whom they are protected, are human ones. But even if man has been long
enough upon the scene to produce such modification, who can imagine
that he has had anything to do with the colouring of such an animal
as, say, the tiger, till recently much more the oppressor than the
oppressed, and, even now, as much the one as the other--in India, for
instance, or Corea, in which latter country things are certainly equal,
if we go by the Chinese proverb, which says, “Half the year the Coreans
hunt the tigers, and the other half the tigers hunt the Coreans.”

Tigers, indeed--especially those that are cattle-feeders--would
seem, often, to kill their prey towards evening, but when it is
still broad daylight. With regard, however, to the way in which they
accomplish this, I read some years ago, in an Indian sporting work, a
most interesting account of a tiger stalking a cow--an account full
of suggestiveness, and which ought to have, at once, attracted the
attention of naturalists, but which, as far as I know, has never since
been referred to. The author--whose name, with that of his work, I
cannot recall--says that he saw a cow staring intently at something
which was approaching it, and that this something presented so odd
an appearance that it was some time before he could make out what it
was. At last, however, he saw it to be a tiger, or, rather, the head
of one, for the creature’s whole body, being pressed to the ground,
with the fur flattened down, so as to make it as small as possible,
was hidden, or almost hidden, behind the head, which was raised, and
projected forward very conspicuously; so that, being held at about the
angle at which the human face is, it looked like a large, painted mask,
advancing along the ground in a very mysterious manner. At this mask
the cow gazed intently, as if spell-bound, seeming to have no idea of
what it was, and it was not till the tiger had got sufficiently near to
secure her with ease, that she took to her heels, only to be overtaken
and pulled down. Now here we have something worth all the accounts of
tiger-shootings that have ever been written, and all the tigers that
have ever been shot. So far from the tiger endeavouring to conceal
himself _in toto_, it would appear, from this, that he makes his great
brindled head, with its glaring eyes, a very conspicuous object, which,
as it is the only part of him seen or remarked, looks curious merely,
and excites wonder, rather than fear. I know, myself, how much nearer
to birds I am able to get, by approaching on my hands and knees, in
which attitude “the human form divine” is not at once recognised.
Therefore I can see no reason why the same principle of altering the
characteristic appearance should not be employed by some beasts of
prey, and long before I read this account I had been struck with the
great size of the head of some of the tigers in the Zoological Gardens.

The moral of it all, as it appears to me, is that, before coming to any
settled conclusion as to the meaning of colour and colour markings in
any animal, we should get accurate and minute information in regard to
such animal’s habits. As this is, really, a most important matter, why
should there not be scholarships and professorships in connection with
it? It is absurd that the only sort of knowledge in natural history
which leads to a recognised position, with letters after the name, is
knowledge of bones, muscles, tissues, &c. The habits of animals are
really as scientific as their anatomies, and professors of them, when
once made, would be as good as their brothers.

Space, after this disquisition, will not permit me to say much more
about the nightjars--only this, that they return each year to the same
spot, and have not only their favourite tree, but even their favourite
branch in it, to perch upon. I have seen one settle, after successive
flights, upon a particular point of dead wood, near the top of a small
and inconspicuous oak, surrounded by taller trees which had a much more
inviting appearance, and on coming another night, there were just the
same flights and settlings. It is not, however, my experience that the
eggs are laid, each year, just where they were the year before. It may
be so, as a rule, but there are certainly exceptions, and amongst them
were the particular pair that I watched.

[Illustration: ROOKS AT NEST]



CHAPTER III


The hooded crow is common in this part of the country, during the
winter; to the extent, indeed, of being quite a feature of it. With
the country people he is the carrion crow merely, and they do not
appear to make any distinction between him and the ordinary bird of
that name, which is not seen nearly so often. He is the one they have
grown up with, and know best, but his pied colouring does not seem to
have gained him any specially distinctive title. For the most part,
these crows haunt the open warren-lands, and, owing to their wariness
and the absence of cover, are very difficult to get near to. Like the
rooks, they spend most of the day in looking for food, and eating it
when found, their habit being to beat about in the air, making wider
or narrower circles, whilst examining the ground beneath for any
offal that may be lying there. This is not so much the habit of rooks,
for they, being more general feeders, march over the country, eating
whatever they can find. They would be neglecting too much, were they to
look for any class of thing in particular, though equally appreciative
of offal when it happens to come in their way. “The Lord be praised!”
is then their attitude of mind.

The crows, however, feed a good deal in this latter way, too, and, as
a consequence, mingle much with the rooks, from whom, perhaps, they
have learnt a thing or two. Each bird, in fact, knows and practises
something of the other’s business, so that, without specially seeking
one another’s society, they are a good deal thrown together. Were there
never any occasion for them to mingle, they would probably not feel the
wish to do so, but the slightest inducement will bring crows amongst
rooks, and rooks amongst crows, and then, in their actions towards
each other, they seem to be but one species. They fight, of course; at
least there are frequent disagreements and bickerings between them,
but these have always appeared to me to be individual, merely--not to
have any specific value, so to speak. Both of them fall out, amongst
themselves, as do most other birds. Rooks, especially, are apt to
resent one another’s success in the finding of food, but such quarrels
soon settle themselves, usually by the bird in possession swallowing
the morsel; they are seldom prolonged or envenomed. So it is with the
rooks and hooded crows, and, on the whole, I think they meet as equals,
though there may, perhaps, be a slightly more “coming-on disposition”
on the part of the latter, and a slightly more giving-way one on that
of the former bird. One apparent instance of this I have certainly
seen. In this case, two rooks who were enjoying a dead rat between
them, walked very tamely away from it, when a crow came up; and, later,
when they again had the rat, a pair of crows hopping down upon them,
side by side, in a very bold and piratical manner, again made them
retreat, with hardly a make-believe of resistance. But one of these two
crows may have been the bird that had come up before, and the rat may
have belonged to it and its mate, by right of first discovery, which,
in important finds, there is, I think, a tendency to respect, even if
it needs some amount of enforcing. I have observed this when rooks
and hooded crows have been gathered together about some offal which
they were devouring. One or, at most, two birds seemed always to be in
possession, whilst the rest stood around. For any other to insinuate
itself into a place at the table was an affair demanding caution, nor
could he do so without making himself liable to an attack, serious in
proportion to the hunger of the privileged bird. As it began to appear,
however, either from the latter’s languidness, or by his moving a
little away, that this was becoming appeased, another--either rook or
crow--would, at first warily, and then more boldly, fall to; and thus,
without, probably, any actual idea of the thing, the working out of
the situation was, more or less, to take it in turns. At least it was
always the few that ate, and the many that waited, and a general sense
that this should and must be so seemed to obtain. Always, at such
scenes, there will be many small outbreaks, and when these have been
between the two species, I have been unable to make out that one was
inferior to the other. But such ebullitions have more of threatening
in them than real fighting, so, taking into consideration the incident
just recorded, it may be that the crow, when really in earnest, is
recognised by the rook as the better bird, though, if anything, I think
he is a little the smaller of the two. Jackdaws, on the other hand,
seem conscious of their inferiority when with rooks, and slip about
demurely amongst them, as though wishing not to be noticed.

On the part of either rook or crow, a combative inclination is
indicated by the sudden bending down of the head, and raising and
fanning out of the tail. The fan is then closed and lowered, as the
head goes up again, and this takes place several times in succession.
If a bird come within slighting distance of one that has thus expressed
himself, there is, at once, an _affaire_, the two jumping suddenly
at one another. After the first pass or two, they pause by mutual
consent--just as duellists do in a novel--and then stand front to
front, the beaks--or rapiers--being advanced, and pointed a little
upwards, their points almost touching. Then, instantaneously, they
spring again, each bird trying to get above the other, so as to strike
him down. These fireworks, indeed, belong more to the rooks than
the crows, for the former, being more social birds, are also more
demonstrative. Not that the crows are without the gregarious instinct.
Here, at least, in East Anglia, one may see in them something like
the rude beginnings of the state at which rooks have arrived. They
do not flock in any numbers, but bands of six or seven, and upwards,
will sometimes fly about together, or sit in the same tree or group of
trees. On the ground, too, though they feed in a much more scattered
manner than do rooks, not seeming to think of one another, they yet get
drawn together by any piece of garbage or carrion that one or other of
them may find. In this we, perhaps, see the origin of the gregarious
instinct in most birds, if not in all. Self-interest first makes a
habit, which becomes, by degrees, a want, and so a necessity; for if
“custom is the king of all men,” as Pindar has pronounced it to be, so
is it the king of all birds, and, equally, of all other animals.

[Illustration: THE RULES OF PRECEDENCE

_Hooded Crows and Rooks Feeding_]

I think, myself, that their association with the rooks tends to make
these crows more social. They get to feed more as they do, and this
brings them more together. In the evening I have, sometimes, seen a few
fly down into a plantation where rooks roosted, and which they already
filled, and one I once saw flying, with a small band of them, on their
bedward journey. Whether this bird, or the others, actually roosted
with the rooks, for the night, I cannot say, but it certainly looked
like it. On the other hand, if one watches rooks, one will, sometimes,
see what looks like a reversion, on the part of an individual or two,
to a less advanced social state than that in which the majority now
are. Whether there are solitary rooks, as there are rogue elephants, I
do not know, but the gregarious instinct may certainly be for a time
in abeyance with some, if not with all of them. I have watched one
feeding, sometimes, for a length of time, quite by itself. Not only,
on such occasions, have there been no others with it, but often none
were in sight, nor did any join it, when it flew up. Nothing, in fact,
can look more solitary than these black specks upon the wide, empty
warrens, or the still more desolate marshes--fens, as they are called,
though, as I say, Icklingham is separated from the real fenlands by
some seven miles. These fens are undrained, and unless the weather has
been dry for some time, it is difficult to get about in them. At first
sight, indeed, it looks as though one could do so easily enough, for
the long, coarse grass grows in tufts, or cushions--one might almost
call them--each one of which is raised, to some height, upon a sort of
footstalk. But if one steps on these they often turn over, causing one
to plunge into the water between them, which their heads make almost
invisible. These curious, matted tufts were used here in old days
for church hassocks--called _pesses_--and several of them, veritable
curiosities, are now in the old thatched church at Icklingham, which
has been abandoned--why I know not--and is fast going to ruin.

Rooks sometimes visit these marshes for the sake of thistles which
grow there, or just on their borders, the roots of which they eat,
as do also, I believe, some of the hooded crows, since I have seen
them excavating in the same places. I know of no more comfortless
sight than one or two of these crows standing about on the sodden
ground, whilst another sits motionless, like an overseer, in some
solitary hawthorn bush, in the grey dawn of a cold winter’s morning.
In the dank dreariness they look as dank and dreary themselves, and
seem to be regretting having got up. There is, indeed, something
particularly shabby and dismal-looking in the aspect of the hooded
crow, when seen under unfavourable circumstances. They impress one,
I believe, as squalid savages would--as the Tierra del Fuegians did
Darwin. The rook, at all times, looks much more civilised, even when
quite alone. I am not sure whether the latter bird, to return to his
occasional adoption of less social habits, ever roosts alone, but I
have some reason to suspect that he does. I have seen one flying from
an otherwise untenanted clump of trees, before the general flight out
from the rook-roost, two or three miles distant, had begun; to judge by
appearances, that is to say, for the usual stream in one direction did
not begin till some little time afterwards. A populous roosting-place
drains the whole rook population of the country, for a considerable
distance all around it--far beyond that at which this rook was from
his--and in January, which was the date of the observation, such
establishments would not have begun to break up. This process, which
leads to scattered parties of the birds passing the night in various
new places, does not begin before March.

I had heard this particular rook cawing, for some time, before I saw
it, and, on other occasions, I have been struck by hearing solitary
caws, in unfrequented places, at a similarly early hour. Some rooks,
therefore, may be less social in their ways than the majority, and
if these could be separately studied, we might know what all rooks
had once been. The present natural history book contents itself with
a summary of the general habits of each species, as far as these are
known or surmised, or rather as far as one compiler may learn them
from another _sæcula sæculorum_. It is to be hoped that, some day in
the future, a work may be attempted which will record those variations
from the general mode of life, which have been observed and noted down
by successive generations of field-naturalists. A collection of these
would help as much, perhaps, to solve some of the problems of affinity,
as the dissection of the body, and there would be this advantage in the
method, viz., that any species under discussion would be less likely
to leave a still further gap in the various classificatory systems, by
disappearing during the process of investigation.

I have said that rooks and crows meet and mingle together, as though
they were of the same species, but is there, to the boot of this, some
special relation--what, it would puzzle me to say--existing between
them? I remember once, whilst standing under a willow tree by the
little stream here, my attention being attracted by a hooded crow,
which, whilst flying, kept uttering a series of very hoarse, harsh
cries, “Are-rr, are-rr, are-rr” (or “crar”)--the intonation is much
rougher and less pleasant than that of rooks. He did not fly right
on, and so away, but kept hovering about, in approximately the same
place, and still continuing his clamour. I fancied I heard an answer
to it from another hooded crow in the distance, and then, all at once,
up flew about a score of rooks and joined him. For some minutes they
hovered about, over a space corresponding with a fair-sized meadow,
the crow making one of them, and still, at intervals, continuing to
cry, the rooks talking much less. Then, all at once, they dispersed
again over the country. What, if anything, could have been the meaning
of this _rendezvous_? All I can imagine is that, when the rooks heard
the repeated cries of the crow, they concluded he had found something
eatable, and, therefore, flew up to share in it, but that, seeing
nothing, they hovered about for a time on the look-out and then gave
it up and flew off. I can form no idea, however, of what it was that
had excited the crow, for excited he certainly seemed--it was a sudden
burst of “are”-ing. He did not go down anywhere, so that it can have
had nothing to do with a find, and I feel sure from the way he came
up, and the place and distance at which he began to cry, that he had
not seen me. This, then, was my theory, at the time, to account for
the action of the rooks; but on the very next day something of the
same sort occurred, which was yet not all the same, and which could
not be explained in this way. This time, when a crow rose with his
“crar, crar” and flew to some trees, a number of rooks rose also from
all about, and after circling a little, each where it had gone up,
flew to a plantation, where shortly the crow flew also. Here, again,
there was no question of the crow having found anything, for he rose
from where he had for some time been, and flew straight away. Nor could
the rooks have imagined that he had, for they all rose as at a signal,
and, without going to where he had been, flew to somewhere near where
he had gone, and here they were shortly joined by him. Certainly the
rooks were influenced by the crow--the crow afterwards by the rooks, I
think--but in what way, or whether there was any definite idea on the
part of either of them, I am unable to say. Birds of different species
often affect one another, psychically, in some way that one cannot
quite explain. I have seen some small tits flying, seemingly full of
excitement, with the first band of rooks from the roosting-place in the
morning, and, evening after evening, a wood-pigeon would beat about
amongst the hosts of starlings, which filled the whole sky around their
dark little dormitory. He would join first one band and then another,
seeming to wish to make one of them, and this he continued to do almost
as long as the starlings remained. Peewits, again, seem to have an
attraction for starlings, and other such instances, either of mutual or
one-sided interest--generally, I think, the latter--may be observed.
We need not, I think, assume that every case of commensalism amongst
animals has had a utilitarian origin, even when we can now see the link
of mutual benefit.

Rooks, when once introduced, are not birds that can be lightly
dismissed. The most interesting thing about them, in my opinion, is
their habit of repairing daily to their nesting-trees during the
winter. Two visits are paid--at least two clearly marked ones--one in
the morning, the other in the later afternoon, taking the shortness
of the days into consideration. The latter is the longer and more
important one, and, to give a general idea of what happens upon it, I
will describe the behaviour of some birds on which I got the glasses
fixed, whilst watching, one Christmas, a small rookery, in some elms
near the house. It is always stated that rooks visit their nests,
during the winter, in order to repair them. The following slight but
accurate account of what the birds really do during these visits, is to
be read in connection with that statement, which, as it appears to me,
is either inaccurate, or, at least, not sufficiently full. Towards 3,
then, as I have it, like Mr. Justice Stareleigh, in my notes, the rooks
flew in, and of these a certain number settled in the largest elm of
the group. This contained, besides other nests, two, if not more, that
were built close against each other, making one great mass of sticks.
One rook perched upon the topmost of these nests, whilst another sat in
the lower one. The standing rook kept uttering deep caws, and, at each
caw, he made a sudden dip forward, with his head and whole body. At the
same time he shot up and spread open the feathers of his tail, which
he also arched, becoming, thus, a much finer figure of a bird. The
action seemed to express sexual emotion, with concomitant bellicosity,
and the latter element was soon manifested in a spirited attack upon
the poor sitting rook, who was, then and there, turned out of the
nest. Shortly afterwards, a pair of rooks peaceably occupied this same
lower nest, and continued there for some time. One of them sat in it,
and, looking long and steadily through the glasses, I could see the
tail of this bird thrown, at short intervals, spasmodically upwards.
Then, as the raised and spread feathers were folded and lowered, the
anal portion of the body was moved--wriggled--in a very special and
suggestive manner, about which I shall have more to say when I come
to the peewit. Whilst the sitting bird was behaving in this way, the
other one of the pair--which I put down as the female--stood beside
him, and as she occasionally bent forward towards him, the black of her
feathers becoming lost in his, I felt assured that she was cossetting
and caressing him, much as the hen pigeon caresses the male, whilst
he sits brooding on the place where the nest will be. There were also
several other combats, and more turnings of one bird out of the nest,
by another. At 3.15 four rooks sit perched on the boughs, all round the
great mass of sticks, but not one upon it. One of the four bends the
head, with a look and motion as though about to hop down. Instantly
there is an excited cawing--half, as it seems, remonstrative, half in
the tone of “Well, if you do, then I will, too,”--from the other three,
which is responded to, of course, by the first, the originator of the
uproar, and then all four drop on to the sticks, a pair upon each nest.
By 3.20 every rook is gone, but in ten minutes they are all back,
again, with much cawing. Four birds--the same four as I suppose--are
instantly on the great heap, but as quickly off it, again, amongst the
growing twigs, and this takes place three or four times in succession.
Two others, though they never come down upon the heap, remain close
beside it, and seem to feel a friendly interest in it. Sometimes they
fly away for a little, but they return, again, and sit there as before,
their right to do so seeming to be admitted. Thus there are six birds
in all, who seem primarily interested in the great heap of sticks,
which may, perhaps, indicate that it is composed of three rather than
of two nests. Once, however, for a little while, another rook is
associated with the six, making seven. At 3.45 the rooks again fly
off, but return in another ten minutes, and this time the tree with
the great communal nest in it is left empty. There is a great deal of
cawing, mingled with a higher, sharper note, all very different to
the cries made by the rooks, at this same time of the year, in their
roosting-places, or when leaving or returning to them in the morning
or evening. It was for this latter purpose, doubtless, that the final
exodus took place at a little past 4. During the last visit no nest was
entered by any bird.

Do the rooks, then, come to their nests in winter, in order to repair
them? Not once, so far as I could catch their actions, did I see
one of these lift a stick, and their behaviour on other occasions,
when I have watched them, has been more or less the same. On the
other hand we have the combats, the clamorous vociferation, the
caressing of one bird by another, the raising and fanning of the tail,
with the curious wriggling of it--bearing, in my mind, a peculiar
significance--everything, in fact, to suggest sexual emotion. To me it
appears that the nests are visited rather for the sake of sport and
play, than with any set business-like idea of putting them in order.
The birds come to them to be happy and excited, to have genial feelings
aroused by the sight of them--

  “Venus then wakes and wakens love”

They come, in fact, as it seems to me, in an emotional state a good
deal resembling that of the bower-birds of Australia, when they play
at their “runs” or “bowers”; nor do the nests now--though in the
spring they were true ones--differ essentially, as far as the purpose
to which they are put is concerned, from these curious structures, of
which Gould says: “They are used by the birds as a playing-house, and
are used by the males to attract the females.” This latter statement
is certainly true, in the case, at least, of the satin bower-bird
(_Ptilorhynchus violaceus_), which I have watched at the Zoological
Gardens. That the mainspring, so to speak, of this bird’s actions is
sexual, no naturalist, seeing them, could doubt. But was the “bower”
originally made for the purpose which it now serves? Did the idea of
putting it to such a use precede its existence in some shape or form,
or did it not rather grow out of something else, because about it, as
it then was, certain emotions were more and more indulged in, till at
last it became the indispensable theatre for their display? Then, as
the theatre grew, no doubt the play did also, and _vice versâ_, the two
keeping pace with each other. I believe that this original something
was the nest, and that when we see a bird toy, court, or pair upon
the latter--thus putting it to a use totally different from that of
incubation, but similar to that which is served by the bower--we get a
hint as to the process by which the one structure has given rise to the
other.

Wonderful as is the architecture and ornamentation of some of the
bowers, as we now know them, especially the so-called garden of
_amblyornis_, their gradual elaboration from a much simpler structure
presents no more difficulty than does that of a complicated nest from a
quite ordinary one. All that we want is the initial directing impulse,
and this we have when once a bird uses its nest, not only as a cradle
for its young, but, also, as a nuptial bed or sporting-place. In a
passage of this nature, the nest, indeed, must remain, but why should
it not? Let us suppose that, like the rooks, the bower-birds--or,
rather, their ancestors--used, at one time, to use their old nests
of the spring, as play-houses during the winter. If, then, they had
built fresh nests as spring again came round, might they not gradually
have begun to build fresh play-houses too? The keeping up of the old
nest--but for a secondary purpose--would naturally have passed into
this, and the playing about it would, as naturally, have led to the
keeping of it up. That duality of use should gradually have led to
duality of structure--that from one thing used in two different ways
there should have come to be two things, each used in one of these
ways--does not seem to me extraordinary, but, rather, what we might
have expected, in accordance with the principle of differentiation and
specialisation, which has played so great a part in organic evolution.
It is by virtue of this principle that limbs have been developed out of
the vertebral column, and the kind of advantage which all vertebrate
animals have gained by this multiplication and differentiation of
parts, in their own bodily structure, is precisely that which a bird of
certain habits would have gained, by a similar increase in the number
and kind of the artificial structures made by it. It is, indeed,
obvious that the “bower,” in many cases, could not be quite what it
is, if it had also to answer the purpose of a nest, and still more so,
perhaps, that the nest could never have made a good bower. The extra
structure, therefore, represents a greater capacity for doing a certain
thing--just as do the extra limbs--which makes it likely that it has
been evolved from the earlier one, in accordance with the same general
law which has produced the latter.

Thus, in our own rook we see, perhaps, a bower-bird _in posse_, nor is
there any wide gap, but quite the contrary, between the crow family and
that to which the bower-birds belong. “The bower-birds,” says Professor
Newton, “are placed by most systematists among the _Paradiseidæ_,” and
Wallace, in his “Malay Archipelago,” tells us that “the _Paradiseidæ_
are a group of moderate-sized birds allied, in their structure and
habits, to crows, starlings, and to the Australian honey-suckers.” It
is, surely, suggestive that the one British bird that uses its nest--or
nests, collectively--as a sort of recreation ground, where the sexes
meet and show affection, during the winter, should be allied to the
one group of birds that make separate structures, which they use in
this same manner. Of course there are differences, but what I suggest
is that there is an essential similarity, which, alone, is important.
Probably the common ancestor of the bower-birds was not social in
its habits like the rook, and this difference may have checked the
development of the bower in the latter bird. As far, however, as the
actions of the two are concerned, they do not appear to me to differ
otherwise than one might expect the final stages of any process to
differ from its rough and rude beginnings. The sexual impulse is, so
it seems to me, the governing factor in both, so that, in both, it may
have led up to whatever else there is. In regard to the rooks, they did
not, when I watched them, appear to be repairing their nests. I think
it quite likely, however, that they do repair them after a fashion,
though I would put another meaning upon their doing so. That, being at
the nest, there should often be some toying with and throwing about of
the sticks, one can understand, and also that this should have passed
into some amount of regular labour: for all these things--with the
emotional states from which they spring--are interconnected through
association of ideas, so that one would glide easily into another, and
it is in this, as I believe, that we have the rationale of that amount
of repairing which the rook does do. Personally, as said before, I have
seen little or nothing of it.

When we consider that many birds are in the habit of building one or
more supernumerary nests--not with any definite purpose, as it seems
to me, but purely in obedience to the, as yet, unsatisfied instinct
which urges them to build--we can, perhaps, see a line along which the
principle of divergence and specialisation, as applied to the nest
structure, may, on the above hypothesis, have been led. Given two
uses of a nest, and more nests made than are used, might not we even
prophesy that one of the redundant ones would, in time, serve one of
the uses, supposing these to be very distinct, and to have a tendency
to clash with one another? Now courting leads up to pairing, and I can
say positively from my own observation that rooks often pair upon the
nest. This is the regular habit with the crested grebes, and I have
seen it in operation between them after some, or at least one, of the
eggs had been laid--possibly they had all been. But this must surely be
to the danger of the eggs, so that, as these birds build several nests,
natural selection would favour such of them as used separate ones for
pairing and laying. It does not, of course, follow that a tendency to
make a secondary nest and use it for a secondary purpose would develop
itself in any bird that was accustomed to pair or court upon the true
one; but it might in some, and, whenever it did, the evolution of the
“run” or “bower” would be but a matter of time, if, indeed, it should
not be rather held to exist, as soon as such separation had come about.
There would be but a slight line of demarcation, as it appears to me,
between an extra nest, which was used for nuptial purposes only, and
the so-called bowers of the bower-birds. As for the ornamentation which
is such a feature of these latter structures, the degree of it differs
amongst them, and we see the same thing--also in varying degrees--in
the nest proper. The jackdaw, for instance--and the proclivity has been
embalmed in our literature--is fond of putting a ring “midst the sticks
and the straw” of his, and shags, as I have noticed, will decorate
theirs with flowers, green leaves, and bleached spars or sticks. It
seems natural, too, that an æsthetic bird, owning two domiciles, one
for domestic duties and the other for love’s delights, should decorate
the latter, more and more to the neglect of the former. We see the
same principle at work amongst ourselves, for even in the most artistic
households, the nursery is usually a plain affair compared with the
boudoir or drawing-room.

As bower-building prevails only amongst one group of birds--not being
shared by allied groups--and as birds, universally almost, make some
sort of nest, we may assume that the latter habit preceded the former.
If so, the ancestral bower-bird, from which the various present species
may be supposed to be descended, would have built a nest before he
built a bower. Is it not more probable, therefore, that the new
structure should have grown out of the old one, than that the two are
not in any way connected? The orthodox view, indeed, would seem to be
the reverse of this, for we read in standard works of ornithology that
the bowers have nothing to do with the nests of the species making
them; whilst, at the same time, complete ignorance as to their origin
and meaning is confessed. But if we know nothing about a thing, how do
we know that it has nothing to do with some other thing? One argument,
brought forward to show that the nests of the bower-bird are not in
any way connected with their bowers, is that the former present no
extraordinary feature. But if the bower has grown out of the nest, in
the way and by the steps which I suppose, there is no reason why the
latter--and the bird’s general habits of nidification--should not have
remained as they were. As long as a single structure was used for a
double purpose, the paramount importance of the original one--that of
incubation--would have kept it from changing in any great degree, and
when there had come to be two structures for two purposes, that only
would have been subjected to modification which stood in need of it.
For the rest, as incubation and courtship are very different things,
one might expect the architecture in relation to them to be of a very
different kind. For these reasons, and having watched rooks at their
nests in the winter, and the breeding habits of some other birds, I
think it possible (1) that the bower has grown out of the nest, and (2)
that the sexual activities of which it is, as it were, the focus, were
once displayed about the nest itself. On the whole, however--though
I suggest this as a possible explanation--it is perhaps more likely
that the cleared arena where so many birds meet for the purposes
of courtship--as, _e.g._ the blackcock, capercailzie, ruff, argus
pheasant, cock-of-the-rock, &c. &c.--is the starting-point from which
the bower-birds have proceeded, especially as one species of the family
has not got so very much farther than this, even now.

Rooks, then, to leave speculation and return to fact, are swayed,
even in winter, by love as well as by hunger--those two great forces
which, as Schiller tells us, rule the world between them. They wake,
presumably, hungry; yet, before they can have fed much, make shift to
spend a little while on the scene of their domestic blisses. Hunger
then looks after them till an hour or so before evening, when they
return to their rookeries, and love takes up the ball for as long as
daylight lasts. And so, with birds as men--

    “Erfüllt sich der Getriebe
    Durch Hunger und durch Liebe.”

But there is a third great ruling power in the life of both, which
Schiller seems to have forgotten--sleep--and as its reign, each day,
is as long, or longer, than that of the other two conjoined, and as it
long outlasts one of them, it may be called, perhaps, the greatest of
the three.

[Illustration: HERON FISHING]



CHAPTER IV


There is a heronry on an estate here, into which, in the early spring,
I have sometimes crept, coming before dawn, in silence and darkness, to
be there when it awoke. What an awakening! A sudden scream, as though
the night were stabbed, and cried out--a scream to chill one's very
blood--followed by a deep “oogh,” and then a most extraordinary noise
in the throat, a kind of croak sometimes, but more often a kind of
pipe, like a subdued siren--a fog-signal--yet pleasing, even musical.
Sometimes, again, it suggests the tones of the human voice--weirdly,
eerily--vividly caught for a moment, then an Ovid’s metamorphosis.
This curious sound, in the production of which the neck is as the long
tube of some metal instrument, is very characteristic, and constantly
heard. And now scream after scream, each one more harsh and wild
than the last, rings out from tree to tree. Other sounds--strange,
wild, grotesque--cannot even suffer an attempt to describe them. All
this through the darkness, the black of which is now beginning to be
“dipped in grey.” There is the snapping of the bill, too--a soft click,
a musical “pip, pip”--amidst all these uncouth noises. On the whole,
it is the grotesque in sound--a carnival of hoarse, wild, grotesque
inarticulations. Amidst them, every now and then, one hears the great
sweep of pinions, and a shadowy form, just thickening on the gloom, is
lost in the profounder gloom of some tree that receives it.

Most of the nests are in sad, drooping-boughed firs--spruces, a name
that suits them not--trees whose very branches are a midnight, as
Longfellow has called them,[11] in a great, though seldom-mentioned
poem. Others are in grand old beeches, which, with the slender white
birch and the maple, stand in open clearings amidst the shaggy firs,
and make this plantation a paradise. Sometimes, as the herons fly out
of one tree into another, they make a loud, sonorous beating with their
great wings, whilst at others, they glide with long, silent-sounding
swishes, that seem a part of the darkness. Two will, often, pursue
each other, with harshest screams, and, all at once, from one of
them comes a shout of wild, maniacal laughter, that sets the blood
a-tingling, and makes one a better man to hear. Whilst sweeping, thus,
in nuptial flight, about their nesting-trees, they stretch out their
long necks in front of them, sometimes quite straight, more often
bent near the breast like a crooked piece of copper wire. A strange
appearance!--everything stiff and abrupt, odd-looking, uncouth, no
graceful curves or sweeps. The long legs, carried horizontally, balance
the neck behind--but grotesquely, as one gargoyle glares at another.
Thus herons fly within the heronry, but as they sail out, _en voyage_,
the head is drawn back between the shoulders, in the more familiar way.
As morning dawns, the shadowy “air-drawn” forms begin to appear more
substantially. Several of the birds may then be seen perched about in
the trees, some gaunt and upright, others hunched up in a heap, with,
perhaps, one statuesque figure placed, like a sentinel, on the top of
a tall, slender larch, the thin pinnacle of the trunk of which is bent
over to form a perch.

Other, and much sweeter, sounds begin now to mingle with the harsh,
though not unpleasing screams, and, increasing every moment in volume,
make them, at last, but part of a universal and most divine harmony.
The whole plantation has become a song. Song-thrush and mistle-thrush
make it up, mostly, between them, but all help, and all is a music;
chatters and twitters seem glorified, nothing sounds harshly, joy
makes it melody. There is a time--the daylight of dawn, but not
daylight--when the birds sing everywhere, as though to salute it. As
the real daylight comes, this sinks and almost ceases, and never in
the whole twenty-four hours, is there such an hour again. The laugh,
and answering laugh, of the green woodpecker is frequent, now, and
mingles sweetly with the loud cooing of the wood-pigeons--not the
characteristic note, but another, very much like that of dovecot
pigeons, when they make a few quick little turns from one side to
another, moving the feet dancingly, but keeping almost in the same
place: a brisk, satisfied sound, not the pompous rolling coo of a
serious proposal, nor yet that more tender-meaning note, with which the
male broods on the nest, caressed by the female. But the representative
of this last, in the wood-pigeon--the familiar spring and summer
sound--is now frequently heard, and seems getting towards perfection.
So, at last, it is day, and the loud, bold clarion of the pheasant is
like the rising sun.

The above is a general picture of herons in a heronry. It is almost
more interesting to watch two lonely-sitting birds, upon each of whom,
in turn, one can concentrate the attention. They sit so long and so
silently, such hours go by, during which nothing happens, and one can
only just see the yellow, spear-like beak of the sitting bird pointing
upwards amidst the sticks. Only under such circumstances can one
really hug oneself in that ecstacy of patience which, almost as much
as what one actually sees, is the true joy of watching. But at length
comes that for which one has been waiting, and may wait and wait, day
after day, and yet, perhaps, not see--the change upon the nest. It
comes--“Go not, happy day.” There is a loud croak or two in the air,
then a welcoming scream, and in answer to it, as her mate flies in,
the sitting bird raises herself on the nest, and stretching her long
neck straight up--perpendicularly almost, and with the head and beak
all in one line with it--pours out a wonderful jubilee of exultant
sounds. Then, standing on the nest together, _vis-à-vis_, and with
their necks raised, both the birds intone hoarsely, and seem to glare
at one another with their great golden eyes. Then the male bends down
his head, raises his crest, snaps his bill several times, and, sinking
down, disappears into the nest; whilst the female, after giving all
her feathers and every portion of her person a very violent shake,
as though to scatter night and sleep to the four winds, immediately
flies off. The whole magnificent scene has lasted but a few seconds.
As by magic, then, it is gone, and this quickness in departing has a
strange effect upon one. The thing was so real, so painted there, as
it were--the two great birds, with their orange bills and pale-bright
colouring, clear in the morning air. It did not seem as if they could
vanish like that. They looked like permanent things, not vanishing
dreams. Yet before the eye is satisfied with seeing, or the ear with
hearing, the one has flown off silently like a shadow and the other
sunk as silently into invisibility. Now there is a great stillness,
a great void, and the contrast of it with the flashed vividness of
what has just been, impresses itself strangely. It is as though one
had walked to some striking canvas of Landseer or Snider, and, as one
looked, found it gone. That, however, would be magic. This is not, but
it seems so. One feels as though “cheated by dissembling nature.”

I have described the welcoming cry raised by the female heron on the
arrival of her mate as “a jubilee of exultant sounds,” which indeed it
is, or sounds like; but what these sounds are--or were--their vocalic
value--it is difficult to recall, even but a few minutes after they
have been uttered. Only one knows that they were harshly, screamingly
musical, for surely sounds full of poetry must be musical. The actions,
however--the alighting of the one bird with outstretched neck, the
leaping up at him, as one may almost say, with the marvellous pose, of
the other, the vigorous shake, in which inaction was done with, and
active life begun, and then that searching, careful contemplation of
the nest by the male, before sinking down upon it--all that is stamped
upon the memory, and will pass before me, many a night, again, as I lie
and look into the dark.

It is the female heron, one may, perhaps, assume, who sits all night
upon the nest, being relieved by the male in the morning. The first
change, in my experience, takes place between 6 and 9. The next is in
the afternoon--from 4 to 5, or thereabouts--and there is no other till
the following day. Well, therefore, may the mother bird shake herself
before flying swiftly off, after her long silent vigil. Perhaps,
however, as darkness reigns during most of this time it is the male
heron who really shows most patience, since his hours of duty include
the greater part of the day.

It must not be supposed that the above is a description of what
uniformly takes place when a pair of sitting herons make their change
upon the nest. On the contrary, the actions of both birds vary greatly,
and this is my experience in regard to almost everything that birds do.
Sometimes the scene is far less striking, at other times it is just
as striking, but all the details are different--other cries, other
posturings, all so marked and salient that one might suppose each to
be as invariable as it is proper to the occasion. The same general
character is, of course, impressed upon them all, but with this the
similarity is exhausted. This--and it is largely the case, I think, in
other matters--makes any general description of little value. My own
view is that, in describing anything an animal does, it is best to pick
a case, and give a verbal photograph. Two advantages belong to this
process. First, it will be an actual record of fact, as far as it goes,
and, in the second place, it will also be a better general description
than one given on any other principle. There will be more truth in it,
looked at as either the one thing or the other.

The particular pair of herons that supplied me with this particular
photograph had a plantation to themselves for their nest--at least,
though other herons sometimes visited it, they were the only ones that
bred there. I watched them from a little wigwam of boughs that I had
put against the trunk of a neighbouring tree, from which there was a
good view. They had built in the summit of a tall and shapely larch,
and beautiful it was to look up and see nest and bird and the high
tree-top set in a ring of lovely blue, so soft and warm-looking that
it made one long to be there. The air looked pure and delicate, and
the sun shone warmly down upon the nest and its patient occupant. But
the weather was not always like this. Once there was a hurricane. The
tree, with the nest in it, swayed backwards and forwards in the violent
gusts of wind, and now and again there was the crash and tearing sound
of a trunk snapped, or a large branch torn off. But the heron sat firm
and secure. There were several such crashes, nor was it much to be
wondered at, the plantation being full of quite rotten birches that
I might almost have pushed over, myself. In a famous gale here, one
Sunday, the firs in many of the plantations were blown down in rows and
phalanxes, falling all together as they had stood, and all one way, so
that, to see them, it looked as though a herd of elephants--or rather
mammoths--had rushed through the place. A tin church was carried away,
too--but I was in Belgium during all this stirring time.

A close, firm sitter was this heron, yet not to be compared with
White’s raven, since the entry of any one into the plantation was
sufficient to make her leave the nest. Unfortunately, the nest almost
hid her, as she sat, yet sometimes, as a reward for patience, she would
move the head, by which I saw it--or at least the beak--a little more
plainly. Sometimes, too, she would crane her neck into the air or even
stand up in the nest, which was as if a saint had entered the shrine.
When she did this it was always to look at the eggs, and, having done
so, she would turn a little round, before sitting down on them again.
Very rarely I caught a very low and very hoarse note--monosyllabic,
a sort of croak--but silence almost always reigned. At first, when I
came to watch the nest, I disturbed the bird each time, and again on
leaving: afterwards I used to crawl up to the wigwam, and then retire
from it on my hands and knees, and, in this way, did not alarm her.
Once in the wigwam, her suspicions soon ceased, and she returned to
the nest, usually from sailing high over the plantation, evidently on
the watch, but, sheltered as I was, I was invisible even to her keen
sight. On one occasion she flew out over the marshlands, and went down
upon them. I left the plantation almost at the same time as she did,
and, on my way home, I saw her rise and fly towards it again. Halfway
there she was joined by her mate, and the two descended upon it,
together, most grandly--a really striking sight. Slowly they sailed
up, on broad light wings that beat the air with regular and leisurely
strokes. Mounting higher and higher, as they neared the plantation,
they, at length, wheeled over it at a giddy height, from which, after
a few great circling sweeps, they all at once let themselves drop,
holding their wings still spread, but raised above their backs, so as
not to offer so much resistance to the air. At the proper moment the
wide wings drooped again, the rushing fall was checked, and with harsh,
wild screams, the two great birds came wheeling down, in narrower and
narrower circles, upon the chosen spot. Perhaps the swoop of an eagle
may be grander than this, but I doubt it. The drop, especially, gives
one, in imagination, the same sort of half-painful sensation that the
descent part of a switchback railway does, when one is in it--for one
substitutes oneself for the bird, but retains one’s own constitution.

[Illustration: A GRAND DESCENT

_Herons coming down on to Nest_]

Earlier in the year--in cold bleak February--I used to watch this
same pair of herons pursuing one another, in nuptial flight, over the
half-sandy, half-marshy wastes, that, with the moorland, lie about
the lonely, sombre spot that they had chosen for their home. This,
too, is “a sight for sair een.” How grandly the birds move “aloft,
incumbent on the dusky air,” beating it with slow measured strokes of
those “sail-broad vans” of theirs. They approach, then glide apart,
and, as they sweep in circles, tilt themselves oddly from one side to
another, so that now their upper, and now their under surface catches
the cold gloomy light--a fine sight beneath the snow-clouds. With a
shriek one comes swooping round upon the other, who, almost in the
moment of contact, glides smoothly away from him. The pursuer plies
his wings: slow-beating, swift-moving, they pass over the desolate
waste, one but just behind the other. Again a “wild, wild” cry from
the pursuing bird is answered by another from the one pursued, and
then, on set sails, they sink to earth, in a long, smooth, gently
descending line, reaching it without another wing-beat. Queer figures
they make when they get there. One sits as though on the nest, his
long legs being quite invisible beneath him. The other stands in
varying attitudes, but all very different from anything one ever sees
represented, either in a picture or a glass case. That elegant letter
S, which--especially under the latter hateful condition--the neck
is, of custom, put into, occurs in the living bird less frequently
than one might suppose it would. When resting or doing nothing in
particular, herons draw the head right in between the shoulders--or
rather wings--which latter droop idly down, and being, thus, partially
expanded, like a fan fallen open, cover, with their broad surface,
the whole body and most of the legs. The thighs, so carefully shown
in the cases, are quite hidden, and only about half the shank is seen
beyond the square, blunt ends of the wings. The beak points straight
forward, or almost so. It is a loose, hunched-up pose, not elegant,
but very nice; one can smack one’s lips over it; it is like a style in
writing--a little slipshod perhaps, like Scott’s, as we are told;[12]
but then _give_ me Scott’s “slipshod”(!) style--I prefer it to
Stevenson’s, though Stevenson himself did not. Then, again, when the
bird is alarmed or thrown on the alert about anything, the long neck is
shot, suddenly, forward and upward, not, however, in a curve, but in a
straight line, from the end of which another straight line--the head
and beak--flies out at a right angle. The neck, also, makes a somewhat
abrupt angle with the body, and the whole has a strange, uncouth
aspect, which is infinitely pleasing.

One might suppose that, with its great surface of wing, and the
slowness with which it is moved, the heron would rise with some
difficulty--as does the condor--and only attain ease and power when
at some little height. This, however, is not the case. It will rise,
on occasions, with a single flap of the great wings, and then float
buoyantly, but just above the ground, not higher than its leg’s
length--if this can be said to be rising at all. A single flap will
take it twenty paces, or more, like this, when, putting its legs down,
it stands again, and thus it will continue as long as it sees fit.

From the length of time which herons spend out on the marshes, or
adjoining warrens, they must, I suppose, feed a good deal on frogs,
or even less aquatic prey--moles, mice, shrews, as I believe, for I
have found the remains of these under their trees, in pellets which
seemed to me far too large, as well as too numerous, to be those of
owls, the only other possible bird: yet I have not observed them in the
pursuit of “such small deer,” and herons look for their food far more,
and wait for it far less than is generally supposed. See one, now, at
the river. For a minute or two, after coming down, he stands with his
neck drawn in between his shoulders, and then, with a stealthy step,
begins to walk along under the bank, advancing slowly, and evidently on
the look-out. Getting a little more into the stream, he stands a few
moments, again advances, then with body projecting, horizontally, on
either side of the legs--like the head of a mallet--and neck a little
outstretched, he stops once more. At once he makes a dart forward,
so far forward that he almost--nay, sometimes quite--overbalances,
the neck shoots out as from a spring, and instantly he has a
fair-sized fish in his bill, which, after a little tussling and quiet
insistence--gone through like a grave formal etiquette--he swallows.
Directly afterwards he washes his beak in the stream, and then drinks,
a little, as though for a sauce to his fish. There is, now, a brisk
satisfied ruffle of the plumage, after which he hunches himself up,
again, and remains thus, resting, for a longer or shorter time. In
swallowing the fish, the long neck is stretched forwards and upwards,
and, when it has swallowed it, the bird gives a sort of start, and
looks most comically satisfied. There is that about him--something
almost of surprise, if it could be, at his own deediness--which, in a
man, might be expressed by, “Come, what do you think of that, now? Not
so very bad, is it?” A curious sort of half-resemblance to humanics
one gets in animals, sometimes--like, but in an odd, _bizarre_ way,
more generalised, the thing in its elements, less consciousness of
what is felt. They wear their rue with a difference, but rue it is. It
is interesting, too, to see the way in which the fish is manipulated.
It is not tossed into the air, and caught, again, head downwards, nor
does it ever seem to be quite free of the beak, at all points; but
keeping always the point, or anterior part of the mandibles, upon it,
the heron contrives, by jerking its head about, to get it turned and
lying lengthways between them, _en train_ for swallowing. The whole
thing has a very tactile appearance; it is wonderful with what delicacy
and nicety, in nature, very hard, and, as one would think, insensitive
material may be used. How, in this special kind of handling, does the
human hand, about which so much has been said, excel the bird’s beak?
The superiority of the former appears to me to lie, rather, in the
number of things it can do, than in the greater efficiency with which
it can do any one of them. It is curious, indeed, that the advantage
gained here is due to the principle of generalisation, as against that
of specialisation, which last we see more in the foot.

In its manipulation of the fish the serratures in the upper mandible
of its bill must be a great help to the heron, and this may throw some
light on the use of the somewhat similar, though more pronounced,
ones in the claw of its middle toe. Concerning this structure, Frank
Buckland--whose half-part edition of White’s “Selborne” I have at
hand--says: “The use of it is certainly not for prehension, as was
formerly supposed, but rather, as its structure indicates, for a comb.
Among the feathers of the heron and bittern can always be found a
considerable quantity of powder. The bird, probably, uses this comb to
keep the powder and feathers in proper order.” Why “certainly”? And how
much of observation does “probably” contain? This is what Dickens has
described as making a brown-paper parcel of a subject, and putting it
on a shelf, labelled, “Not to be opened.” But, “By your leave, wax,”
and I shall open as many such parcels as I choose. It is possible,
indeed, that the heron’s serrated claw may not be, now, of any special
use. It may be a survival, merely, of something that once was. If,
however, it is used in a special manner, what this manner is can only
be settled by good affirmative evidence, and of this, as Frank Buckland
does not give any, we may assume he had none to give. Instead we have
“certainly” and “probably.” But I, now, have “certainly” seen the heron
use his foot to secure an eel, which had proved too large and vigorous
for him to retain in the bill, and which he had dropped, after just
managing to fly away with it to the mud of the shore. Here, therefore,
“probably” the serrated claw was of some assistance, and the fact that
this heron flew to the shore, whenever he caught an unwieldy eel, and
dropped it there, goes to show that this was his regular plan, viz. to
put it down and help hold it with his foot, or two feet. There was
always a little water where the eel was dropped--it was not the shore,
to be quite accurate, but only the shallow, muddy water near it--and
therefore it was only on one occasion that I saw the foot used in this
way, with absolute certainty. But as I did see it this once, I cannot
doubt that it was so used each time, as indeed it always appeared to me
to be. It is the inner side of each of the two claws that is serrated,
and one can imagine how nicely an eel, or fish, thus dropped into
the mud, could be pinched between them. This, then, is affirmative
evidence. Negatively, I have seen the heron preen itself very
elaborately, without once raising a foot so as to touch the feathers.
On these occasions the bird often, apparently, does something to its
feet, with the beak, what, exactly, it is difficult to say, inasmuch as
a heron’s feet are hardly ever visible, except while it walks. But the
head is brought right down, and then moves slightly, yet nicely, as a
hand might that held some long, fine instrument, with which a delicate
operation was being performed. Were the extreme tip of the bill to be
passed between the serratures of the claw, the motion would be just
like this, at least I should think it would.

People about here talk of a filament which they say grows out of
one of the heron’s toes, and by looking like a worm in the water,
attracts fish within his reach, in the same way as does the lure of the
angler-fish. In Bury, once, seeing a heron--a sad sight--hanging up
in a fishmonger’s shop, I looked at its feet, but did not notice any
filament. This, indeed, was before I had heard the legend, but my idea
is that it has sprung up in accordance with the popular view that the
heron always waits, “like patience on a monument,” for his prey to
come to him; whereas my own experience is that he prefers to stalk it
for himself. I suspect, myself, that when the bird stands motionless,
for any very great length of time, he is not on the look-out for a
fish or eel, as commonly supposed, but resting and digesting merely.
Certainly, should one approach, he might find himself under the
necessity of securing it--his professional pride would be touched--but
why, if he were hungry, should he wait so long? Why should he not
rather do what, as we have seen, he is very well able to do, set out
and find his own dinner? It need not take him five minutes to do so.
One use, probably, of the long neck is that, from the height of it, the
bird can peer out into the stream, as from a watch-tower, which is the
simile that Darwin[13] has made use of in regard to the giraffe, an
animal whose whole structure has been adapted for browsing in trees,
but which has thereby gained this incidental advantage, with the result
that no animal is more difficult to approach.

I have given a picture--or, rather, a photograph--of how a pair of
sitting herons relieve each other on the nest. It is interesting, also,
to see one of them come to it, and commence sitting, when the other is
away. Alighting on one of the supporting boughs that project from the
mass of sticks, he walks down it with stealthy step and wary mien, the
long neck craned forward, yet bent into a stiff, ungraceful S. Upon
reaching the nest, he stands for some seconds on its brim, in a curious
perpendicular attitude, the legs, body, and neck being almost in one
straight line, from the top of which the snake-like head and spiked
bill shoot sharply and angularly out. Standing thus, he raises himself
a-tip-toe once or twice, as though it were St. Crispin’s Day, or to
get the widest possible view of the landscape, before shutting himself
out from it, then stepping into the nest, and sinking slowly down in
it, becomes entirely concealed in its deep, capacious cavity. Both
here, and, still more, in alighting, one cannot but notice the strange
rigid aspect that the bird presents. “Cannot but,” I say, because one
would like it to be otherwise--graceful, harmonious--but it is not.
There are no subtle bends or curves--no seeming symmetry--but all is
hard, stiff, and angular. Even the colours look crude and harsh, as
they might in a bad oil painting. Nature _is_ sometimes “a rum ’un,” as
Squeers said she was. Here she looks almost unnatural, very different
from what an artist who aimed at being pleasing, merely, or plausible,
would represent her as. This shows how cautious one ought to be in
judging of the merits, or otherwise, of an animal artist. There are
many more human than animal experts, and the latter, as a rule, are not
artistic, so that, between critical ignorance and uncultured knowledge,
good work may go for long before it gets a just recognition. Those who
talk about Landseer having stooped to put human expressions into his
animals, seem to me to be out of touch at any rate with dogs. Probably
the thought of how profoundly the dog’s psychology has been affected by
long intercourse with man has not occurred to them, it being outside
their department. Sure I am that the expression of the dog in that
picture, “The Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” and of the two little King
Charles spaniels lying on the cavalier’s hat, are quite perfect things.
Even in that great painting of Diogenes and Alexander--removed, Heaven
knows why, and to my lasting grief, from the National Gallery--though
here there is an intentional humanising, yet it is wonderful how close
Landseer has kept to _civilised_ canine expression--though one would
vainly seek for even the shadows of such looks in the dogs of savages.
As for Diogenes, the blending of reality with symbolical suggestion
is simply marvellous. Never, I believe, will any human Diogenes, on
canvas, approach to this animal one. Yet this masterpiece has been
basely spirited away from its right and only worthy place--its true
home--in our national collection, to make room, possibly, for some
mushroom monstrosity of the time, some green-sick Euphrosyne or
melancholy, snub-nosed Venus (the _modern_-ancient Greek type has often
a snub nose). However, no one seems to mind.

I think some law ought to be enacted to protect great works against
the changes of fashion. Has not the view that succeeding ages judge
better than that in which a poet or artist lived, been pressed a great
deal too far, or, rather, has it not for too long gone unchallenged?
If something must be gained by time in the power of forming a correct
estimate, much also may be lost through its agency. It is true that the
slighter merit--that dependent on changing things--dies in our regard,
whilst the greater, which is independent of these, lives on in it and
may be better understood as time goes by. But this better understanding
belongs to the _élite_ of many ages, not to each succeeding age as
a whole. And what, too, is understanding, without feeling? Must not
the one be in proportion to the other--in all things, at least, into
which feeling enters? But if an age sinks, it sinks altogether, both
heart and head. We know how Shakespeare fared in the age of Charles
the Second, when time had run some fifty years. It would be very
interesting, I think, if we could compare an Elizabethan audience with
one of our own--full of languid press critics--at a Shakespearean
play--King Lear, for instance. Should we not have to confess that the
age which produced the thing responded to it--that is, understood
it--best? And this, indeed, we might expect--it was in Molière’s own
day, and he himself was on the stage, when that cry from the pit
arose: “Bravo Molière! Voilà la bonne comédie!” But all Shakespeare’s
excellences--Molière’s as well--were of the permanent order, the high
undying kind, so that it was of this that his age had to judge, and
judged, there can be little doubt--for King Lear, _as he wrote it_, was
a popular play--much better than our later one. If we will not confess
this with Shakespeare, take Spenser, the delight of his age, whose
glorious merits none will deny, though few, now, know anything about
them. Why, then, must we think that time is the best judge of men’s
work, or dwell only on the truth contained in this proposition? There
is a heavy _per contra_ against it. At the time when a man’s reputation
is most established, his work may be quite neglected, showing that
there is knowledge, merely, accumulated and brought down through the
ages, but no real appreciation--a husk with nothing inside it. That
best judgment which we think we get through time, even where it exists,
is too often of the head only, whilst more often still it is nothing at
all, a mere assurance received without question--as we take any opinion
from anybody, when we neither know nor care anything about the subject
of it. How easy to agree that Milton’s greatness is more recognised,
now, than it was, when we have never yet been able, and never again
intend to try, to read the “Paradise Lost”! It is the same with our
detractions. If all the inappreciative, silly things said about Pope
are really meant by the people who say them--as they seem to wish us to
believe, and, as for my part, I do not doubt--if they really _cannot_
enjoy “The Rape of the Lock,” “The Dunciad,” or the various “Essays,”
then, in the matter of Pope, what a dull age this must be, compared to
that of Queen Anne! And are we really to believe that Goethe, Scott,
Shelley, with the rest of their generation, were mistaken about Byron,
whilst we of to-day are not? What was it that Scott’s, that Shelley’s
organism thrilled to, when they read him, with high delight, if some
microscopic creature who reads him now is right when he finds him
third-rate? It is very odd, surely, if the most gifted spirits of an
age do really “see Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt” in this way. To
me it seems less puzzling to suppose that successive generations have,
as it were, varying sense organs, which are acted upon by different
numbers of vibrations of the ether, so that for one to belittle the
idol of another, is as it would be for the ear to fall foul of
millions in a second, it being sensitive, itself, only to thousands. We
do, indeed, admit the “_Zeitgeist_,” but if ever we allow for it when
we play the critic, it is always in favour of our own perspicuity--and
this against any number of past spiritual giants. This is an age in
which most things are questioned. Is it not time for that dogma of what
we call “the test of time”--by which everybody understands his own
time--to be questioned, too?

“In April,” says the rhyme, “the cuckoo shows his bill.” Somewhat
late April, in my experience, at least about this bleak, open part
of Suffolk, which, however, contrary to what might be expected,
seems loved by the bird. Almost opposite to my house, but at some
little distance from it, across the river, there is a wide expanse of
open, sandy land, more or less thinly clothed with a long, coarse,
wiry grass, and dotted, irregularly, at very wide intervals, with
elder and hawthorn trees and bushes--a desolate prospect, which I
prefer, myself, to one of cornfields, unless the corn is all full of
poppies and corn-flowers, which, indeed, it is here, and I am told
it is bad agriculture. If that be so, then, _à bas_ the good! Part
of this space, where the sand encroaches on the grass, till it is
shared, at last, only by short, dry lichen, which the rabbits browse,
I call the amphitheatre, it being roughly circular in shape. One
solitary crab-apple tree--from the seed, no doubt, of the cultivated
kind--growing on its outer edge, is a perfect glory of blossom in the
spring, and becomes, then, quite a landmark. This barren space is a
favourite gathering-ground of the stone-curlews; whilst cuckoos seem
to prefer the more grassy expanse, flying about it from one lonely bush
or tree to another, and down a wild-grown hedge that tops a raised bank
on one side, running from a tangled plantation standing sad and sombre
on the distant verge. Beyond, and all around, is the moorland; whilst
nearer, through a reedy line, the slow river creeps to the fenlands. I
have seen sights, here, to equal many in spots better known for their
beauty, not meaning to undervalue these; but as long as there is sun,
air, and sky, one may see almost anything anywhere. Take an early May
morning--fine, but as cold as can be. Though the sun is brilliant in a
clear, blue sky, the earth is yet white with frost, and over it hang
illuminated mists that rise curling up, like the smoke from innumerable
camp-fires. A rabbit, sitting upright with them all around him, looks
as though he were warming his paws at one, and cuckoos, flitting
through the misty sea, appearing and fading like the shades of birds
in Hades, make the effect quite magical. Nature’s white magic this--oh
short, rare glimpses of a real fairyland, soon to be swallowed up in
this world’s great tedium and commonplace! It is in the afternoon,
however, from 5 o’clock or thereabouts, and on into the evening,
that the cuckoo playground is best worth visiting. Quite a number of
cuckoos--a dozen sometimes, or even more--now fly continually from bush
to bush, or sit perched in them, sometimes two or more in the same one.
They fly irregularly over the whole space, and, by turns, all are with
one another, and on every bush and tree that there is. Two will be
here, three or four there, half-a-dozen or more somewhere else, whilst
the groups are constantly intermingling, the members of one becoming
those of another, two growing into four or five, these, again, thinning
into two or one, and so on. But during the height of the play or sport,
or whatever we may term it, there is hardly a moment when birds may not
be seen in pursuit, or, rather, in graceful following flight, of one
another, over some or other part of the space. This space--an irregular
area of about 1100 paces in circumference--they seldom go beyond or
leave, except for good, and as they repair to it daily, at about the
same times, this makes it, in some real sense, their playground, as I
have called it.

But, now, what is the nature of the play, and in what does the pleasure
consist? If it be sexual, as I suppose, then it would seem as if the
passions of the cuckoo were of a somewhat languid nature. The birds,
even when there is most the appearance of pursuit, do not, in a
majority of cases, seem to wish to approach each other closely. The
rule is that when the pursued or leading cuckoo settles in a tree or
bush, the pursuing or following one flies beyond it, into another.
Should the latter, however, settle in the same bush, the other, just
as he alights--often on the very same twig--flies on to the next. This
certainly looks like desire on the part of the one bird; but where two
or more sit in the same tree, or in two whose branches interpenetrate,
they show no wish for a very near proximity. The delight seems to be
in flying or sitting in company, but the company need not be close.
That the sexual incentive is the foundation-stone of all, can hardly
be doubted, but this does not appear to be of an ardent character,
and perhaps social enjoyment, independent of sex, may enter almost as
largely. After all, however, the same may be said of the sportings of
peewits and other birds, when the breeding-time is only beginning, so
that, perhaps, there is not really any very distinctive feature. Be it
as it may, this sporting of cuckoos is a very pretty and graceful thing
to see. Beginning, as I have said, in the latter part of the afternoon,
it is at its height between 6 and 7 o’clock, then gradually wanes, but
lasts, as far as odd pairs of birds are concerned, for another hour or
more. As may be imagined, it does not proceed in silence; but what is
curious--yet very noticeable--is that the familiar cuckoo is not so
often heard. Far more frequent is a noisy “cack-a-cack, cack-a-cack,”
a still louder “cack, cack, cack”--a very loud note indeed--the loud,
single “cook” disjoined from its softening syllable, and the curious
“whush, whush” or “whush, whush, whush-a-whoo-whoo.” The last is very
common, seems to express everything, but is uttered, I think, oftenest
when the bird is excited. Again, instead of “cuckoo,” one sometimes
hears “cuc-kew-oop,” the last syllable being divided, with a sort of
gulp in the throat, making it a three-syllabled cry. This difference
is very marked, and, moreover, the intonation is different, being much
more musical. All these notes, and others less easy to transcribe, are
uttered by the bird, either flying or sitting. Another one, different
from all, and very peculiar, is generally heard under the latter
condition, but by no means invariably so. It is a sharp, thin “quick,
quick, quick-a-quick,” or “kick, kick, kick-a-kick,” pronounced very
quickly, and in a high tone. Whether this is the note of the female
cuckoo only, I cannot say. I have often heard it in answer to a
“cuckoo,” but I am not yet satisfied that even this last is uttered by
the male bird alone. To this point, however, I will recur.

Now, all the above variants of the familiar “cuckoo”--the “cook,”
“cack,” “cack-a-cack,” “cuc-kew-oop,” &c.--I have heard both in May
and April, as any one else may do who will only listen. But in what
other way does the cuckoo “change his tune,” which, according to the
old rhyme, he does “in June”? “In June he changes his tune.” This, at
least, is what I take it to mean, and it is so understood, about here.
It can, I think, only mean this, and if it means anything else it is
equally false in my experience. I think, before putting faith in old
country jingles of this sort, one ought to remember two things. First,
that ordinary country people are not particularly observant, except,
perhaps, of one another; and then, that, as a general principle--this
at least is my firm belief--a rhyme will always carry it over the
truth, if the latter is not too preposterously outraged. Something,
in this case, was wanted to rhyme with June, as with all the other
months, in which it happened to come pretty pat. Oh, then, let the
cuckoo change his _tune_, for you may hear him do it then as well
as at another time. And many poets, too--most, perhaps, now and
again--led by this same bad necessity of rhyming, run counter to truth
in just the same way. Rhyme, indeed, is in many respects a pernicious
influence. It is constraining, cramps the powers of expression, checks
effective detail, and coarsens or starves the more delicate shades and
touches. Yet, with all the limitations and shacklings which its use
must necessarily impose, we have amongst us a set of purists who are
always crying out against any rhyme which is not absolutely exact,
though that it is sufficiently so to please the ear--and what more is
required?--is proved by this, that many of our best-loved couplets
rhyme no better--and by this, that the ear is pleased with rhythm
alone, as in blank verse. And so the fetters, instead of being widened,
as they ought to be, are to be pulled closer and closer, and, to get
an absolute jingle, all higher considerations--and there can hardly
be one that is not higher--are to be sacrificed. I doubt if there has
ever been a poet whose own ear would have led him to be so nice in
this way; but so-called critics--for the most part the most artificial
and inappreciative of men--weave their net of nothing around them.
Happy for our literature, and for peoples still to be moved by it,
to whom what was thought by the old British pedants to constitute a
cockney rhyme will be a matter but of learned-trifling interest--if of
any--when “these waterflies” are disregarded! By great poets I would
be understood to mean. As for the other ones, “_de minimis_”--yes, and
“_de minoribus_,” too, here--“_non curat lex_.” _Mais laissons tout
cela._

There can hardly be a better place for observing the ways of cuckoos
than this open amphitheatre which I have spoken of. It is not only
their playing-ground, but their feeding-ground, too, and the way in
which they feed is very interesting--at least, I think it so. The few
hawthorns and elders that are scattered about, serve them as so many
watch-towers. Sitting, usually, on some top bough of one, they seem
to be resting, but really keep a watch upon the ground. The moment
their quick eye catches anything “of the right breed” there, they fly
down to it, swallow it on the spot, and then fly back to their station
again. When they have exhausted one little territory they fly to a
bush commanding another, and so from bush to bush. They always fly
down to a particular spot, and in a direct line, without wavering.
This proves that they have seen the object from where they were
sitting, though often it is at a distance which might make one think
this impossible. Their eyesight must be wonderfully good, but that,
of course, one would expect. I have seen a cuckoo fly from one bush
like this, and return to it, again, eight or nine times in succession,
at short, though irregular, intervals. Both on this and on other
occasions, whenever I could make out what the bird got, it was always a
fair-sized, reddish-coloured worm, very much like those one looks for
in a dung-heap, to go perch or gudgeon fishing. When the bush was near
I could see this quite easily through the glasses, if only the bird
showed the worm in its bill, as it raised its head. As a rule, however,
it bolted it too quickly, whilst it was still indistinguishable amidst
the grass. Now, from time to time, we have accounts of cuckoos
arriving in this country somewhat earlier than usual--in March, say,
instead of April--and these have been discredited on the ground that
the proper insects would not then be ready for the bird, so that it
would starve; though as birds, like the poor in a land of blessings,
sometimes do starve, I can hardly see the force of this argument.
However, here is the cuckoo feeding--largely, as it seems to me--upon
worms, which are not insects, and this might make it possible for it to
arrive, sometimes, at an earlier season, and yet find enough to eat.
It is easy to watch cuckoos feeding in this way in open country, such
as we have here, and a fascinating sight it is. Were I to see it every
day of my life, I think I should be equally interested, each time. But
is it an adaptation to special surroundings, or the bird’s ordinary way
of getting its dinner? I think the latter, for I have seen it going on
in one of the plantations, here, from shortly after daybreak. Here the
birds flew from the lower boughs of oaks and beeches, and their light
forms, crossing and recrossing one another in the soft, pure air of
the early morning, had a very charming effect. Indeed, I do not know
anything more delightful to see. Though, usually, the cuckoo eats what
it finds where it finds it, yet, once in a while, it may carry it to
the bush, and dispose of it there. I have, also, seen it fly up from
the bush, and secure an insect in the air, returning to it, then, like
a gigantic fly-catcher. Such ways in such a bird are very entertaining.

My idea is that the cuckoo is in process of becoming
nocturnal--crepuscular it already is--owing to the persecution which
it suffers at the hands of small birds. This is at its worst during
the blaze of day. It hardly begins before the sun is fairly high, and
slackens considerably as the evening draws on. Accordingly, as it
seems to me, the cuckoo likes, in the between-while, to sit still,
and thus avoid observation, though it by no means always succeeds
in doing so. It is frequently annoyed by one small bird only, which
pursues it, from tree to tree, in a most persevering manner, perching
when it perches, sometimes just over its head, but very soon flying
at it, again, and forcing it to take flight. This is not like the
shark and the pilot-fish, but yet it always reminds me of it. I am
not quite sure, however, whether the relation may not sometimes be a
friendly one, not, indeed, on the part of the cuckoo, but on that of
its persevering attendant. All over the country cuckoos are, each year,
being reared by small birds of various species. When the spring comes
round again, have these entirely forgotten their experience of the
season before? If not, would not the sight, and, perhaps, still more,
the smell of a cuckoo, rouse a train of associations which might induce
them to fly towards it, in a state of excitement, and would it not be
difficult to distinguish this from anger? Moreover, the probability,
perhaps, is that the young cuckoos, as well as the old ones, return to
the localities that they were established in before migration, and,
in this case, they would be likely to meet their old foster parents
again. It is true that the real parent and offspring, amongst birds,
meet and mingle, in after life, without any emotion upon either side,
as far, at least, as we can judge; but we must remember what a strange
and striking event the rearing of a young cuckoo must be in the life
of a small bird, at least the first time it occurs. The smell, also,
would not be that of its own species, so that there would be more
than appearance to distinguish it. In fact, the thing having been
peculiar, the feelings aroused by it may have been stronger, in which
case the memory might be stronger too, and revive these feelings, or,
at least, it might arouse some sort of emotion, possibly of a vague
and indistinct kind. Smell is powerful in calling up associations, and
I speculate upon the possibility of its doing so, here, because the
plumage of the young cuckoo, when it left its foster-parents, would
have been different to that in which it must return to them. However,
these are dreams. There is certainly much hostility on the part of
small birds to the cuckoo, but perhaps it is just possible that _l’un
n’empêche pas l’autre_.

The cuckoo, when thus mobbed and annoyed, is supposed to be mistaken
for a hawk. But do his persecutors fear him, as a hawk? My opinion is
that they do not, and that even though they may begin to annoy him,
under the idea that he is one, they very soon become aware, either
that he is not, or, at least, that they need not mind him if he is.
It is even possible that small birds may, long ago, have found out
the difference between a hawk and a cuckoo, but that the habit, once
begun, continues, so that it is, now, as much the thing to mob the
one as the other. Be this as it may, I do not think that hawks suffer
from this sort of annoyance, to anything like the same extent that
cuckoos do. They have always seemed to me to be pretty indifferent,
and the _canaille_ to keep at a wary distance, whereas I have seen a
chaffinch plunge right down on the back of a cuckoo, who ducked his
head, and moved about on the branch where he was sitting, in a manner,
and with a look, to excite pity, before flying off it, pursued by his
petty antagonist. But hawks--even kestrels--may sit in trees for hours
unmolested, though the whole grove know of their presence there.

Whilst watching the cuckoos sporting in their playground, and on other
occasions, I have tried to come to a conclusion as to whether the
male only, or both the sexes cuckoo. I have not, however, been able
to make up my mind, and to me the point seems difficult to settle.
(It has been settled, I know, but I don’t think that settles it.) The
sexes being indistinguishable in field observation, we have to apply
some test whereby we may know the one from the other, before we can
say which of the two it is that cuckoos on any one occasion. But what
test can we apply, other than the bird’s actions, and until we know
how these differ in the sexes, how can we apply it? For how long,
too, as a rule, can we watch any one bird, and when two or more are
together how can we keep them distinct? Some crucial acts, however,
there are, which one sex alone can perform, and if a man could spend
a week or two in watching, for a reasonable length of time each day,
cuckoos that in this way had declared themselves to be females, he
would then be able to speak, on this point, with authority. One way,
indeed, he might prove the thing in a moment, but not the other way.
For instance, if he were to see a cuckoo lay an egg, and if that cuckoo
cuckooed, the assumption that the male bird alone can do so would be,
at once, disproved; but if it merely did not cuckoo, the question
would lie open, as before. The chance, however, of making such an
observation as this is an exceedingly small one. We must think of some
other that would be equally a test. Certain activities may bring the
sexes together, by themselves, but nidification, incubation, and the
rearing of the young, are all non-existent in the case of the cuckoo.
The problem cannot be solved in the way that I have solved it, with
the nightjar. There is, however, the nuptial rite, and if we could see
this performed, and were able to keep the sexes distinct, for some time
afterwards, something, perhaps, might be got at. Let us suppose, then,
that two cuckoos are observed under these circumstances, and that the
male, only, cuckoos. Here, again, this would be mere negative evidence,
in regard to the point in dispute. Either both the birds, or the female
only, must cuckoo, or else the observation, so difficult to make, must
be repeated indefinitely, and, moreover, each time that neither bird
cuckooed--which might very often be the case--nothing whatever would
have been gained.

This is the view I take of the difficulties which lie in the way of
really knowing whether the male and female cuckoo utter distinct
notes. Short of the test I have suggested, one can only, I believe,
come to a conclusion by begging the question--which has accordingly
been done. Personally, as I say, I have not made up my mind; but I
incline to think that both the sexes cuckoo. On one occasion, when the
behaviour of a pair that I was watching seemed emphatically of a sexual
character, the bird which I should have said was the female did so,
several times, in full view; and the other, I think, cuckooed also. But
here, again, I could not say for certain that the two were not males,
and that conduct, which seemed to me eager and amorous, especially on
the part of one bird--it was the other that certainly cuckooed--was
not, really, of a bellicose character. Another pair I watched for many
days in succession, from soon after their first arrival, as I imagine,
and when not another cuckoo was to be seen or heard far or near. They
took up their abode in a small fir plantation, and were constantly
chasing and sporting with one another. That, at least, is what it
looked like. If what seemed sport was really skirmishing, then it seems
odd that two males should have acted thus, without a female to excite
them. Would it not be odd, too, for two males to repair, thus, to the
same spot, and to continue to dwell there, being always more or less
together and following one another about? Though it was early in April,
therefore, and though we are told that the male cuckoo arrives, each
year, before the female, I yet came to the conclusion that these birds
were husband and wife. At first it seemed to me that only one of them
cuckooed, but afterwards I changed my opinion, though the two never did
so at the same time, or answered each other, whilst I had them both
in view. This, however, had they both been males, they probably would
have done. Space does not allow of my giving these two instances _in
extenso_, so I will here conclude my remarks about the cuckoo; for I
have nothing to say--at least nothing new and of my own observation--in
regard to its most salient peculiarity--though for saying nothing, upon
that account, I think I deserve some credit.

[Illustration: MALE WHEAT-EAR]



CHAPTER V


Another bird, very characteristic, whilst it stays, of the steppes of
Icklingham, is the wheat-ear. A blithe day it is when the first pair
arrive, in splendid plumage always--the male quite magnificent, the
female, with her softer shades, like a tender afterglow to his fine
sunset. Both are equally pleasing to look at, but the cock bird is by
much the more amusing to watch.

Who shall describe him and all his nice little ways--his delicate
little hops; his still more delicate little pauses, when he stands
upright like a sentinel; his little just-one-flirt of the wings,
without going up; his little, sudden fly over the ground, with his
coming down, soon, and standing as though surprised at what he had
done; or, lastly and chiefly, his strange, mad rompings--one may almost
call them--wherein he tosses himself a few yards into the air, and
comes pitching, tumultuously, down, as though he would tumble all of a
heap, yet never fails to alight, cleanly, on his dainty little black
legs? This last is “Ercles’ vein, a tyrant’s vein”: and yet he has
higher flights, bolder efforts. In display, for instance, before the
female, he will fly round in circles, at a moderate height, with his
tail fanned out, making, all the while, a sharp little snappy sort of
twittering, and clapping his wings from time to time. He does this
at irregular, but somewhat long intervals, but sometimes, instead of
a roundabout, he will mount right up, and then, at once, descend, in
that same tumultuous, disorderly sort of way, as though he were thrown,
several times, by some unseen hand, in the same general direction--it
looks much more like that than flying. But there is variation here,
too, and the bird’s ruffling, tousled descent, may be exchanged for a
drop, plumb down, till, when almost touching the ground, it slants off,
and flits over it, for a little, before finally settling. The ascent
is by little spasms of flight, divided from one another by a momentary
cessation of effort, during which the wings are pressed to the sides.

Larks will mount something in this way, too, and, after descending
for some time, parachute-wise, and singing, one will often fold his
wings to his sides, and shoot down, head first--a little “jubilee
plunger”--for his song is a jubilee. Another way to come down is at
a tangent, and sideways, the tip of one wing pointing the way, like
the bowsprit of a little ship. Yet another is by terraces, as I call
it; that is to say, after the first dive down from where it has hung
singing, the bird sweeps along, for a little, at one level--which is a
terrace--then dives, again, to another one, a little below it, sweeps
along on that, descends to a third, and so on, down to the ground.
There is, indeed, a good deal of individual variety in the way in
which larks fly--at least between any two or more that one may see
doing the same thing at the same time--soaring, descending, and so on.
The flight itself is of many kinds--as the ordinary, the mount up to
the watch-tower (“from his watch-tower in the skies”), the hanging,
motionless, on extended wings, the descent, the serene on-sailing,
without a stroke, as of the eagle; and, again, the suspension, with
wings lightly quivering, as the kestrel hovers. But how different
is the character impressed upon these last! What the eagle does in
majesty, and the hawk in rapine, that the lark does in beauty only, in
music of motion and song.

All this, of course, is in the spring and summer only. In the winter,
when they flock, larks fly low over the land, and this they all do in
much the same way. Though most of their poetry is now gone, or lies
slumbering, yet they are still interesting little birds to watch. They
walk or run briskly along the ground, and continually peck down upon
it, with a quick little motion of the head. They appear to direct
each peck with precision, and to get something each time, but what I
cannot say. It may be anything, as long as it is minute; that seems to
be the principle--so that, as one sees nothing, it is like watching a
barmecide feast. Larks never hop, I believe, when thus feeding, though
sometimes the inequalities of the ground give them the appearance of
doing so. They look and move like little quails, crowd not, but keep
together in a scattered togetherness, and fly, all together, over the
hard earth, often seeming to be on the point of alighting, but changing
their minds and going on, so that no man--“no, nor woman either”--can
say whether, or when, they will settle. Creeping thus--for, however
fast they go, they seem to creep--over the brown fields in winter,
the very shape of these little birds seems different to what one has
known it. They look flatter, less elongated; their body is like a small
globe, flattened at the poles, and the short little tail projects from
it, clearly and sharply. A staid tail it is in winter. I have never
seen it either wagged or flirted; for between the wagging and flirting
of a bird’s tail, there is, as Chaucer says about two quite different
things, “a long and largé difference.” Much charm in these little
birdies, even when winter reigns and

    “Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind.”

Occasionally one hears, from amongst them, a little, short, musical,
piping, note--musical, but

    “Oh tamquam mutatus ab illo.”

By February, however, larks are soaring and singing, though, at
this time, they do not mount very high. The song, too, is not fully
developed, and is, often, no more than a pleasant, musical twittering,
especially when two or more chase one another through the air. It is
curious how often just three birds together do this, a thing I have
many times noticed--not with larks only--and which I believe to lie at
the base of any antic--such, for instance, as that of the spur-winged
lapwing of La Plata--in which three, and no more, take a part. These
trios look like a pair in love, and an interloper, but it may be two
wanting, and one not caring; or again, as it has often seemed to me,
none of the three may be very much in earnest. Be it as it may, with
the larks, at this time, there are some delightful chasings, delightful
skimmings and flutterings, and then all three mount into the air, and
sing delightfully--a little _Lobegesang_. Nature--wild nature--has two
voices, a song of joy and a shriek of agony. Eternally they mingle and
sound through one another, but, on the whole, joy largely predominates.
But when we come to man we get the intermediates; the proportions
change, the shadows lengthen, the sky becomes clouded, one knows not
what to think.

In winter the larks, here, as one might expect, keep entirely to
the agricultural part of the country that encircles or intersects
the numerous barren stretches. As the spring comes on, they spread
over these, too, but here they are much outnumbered by their poor
relations, the titlarks, to whom such wildernesses are a paradise.
Indeed, by his pleasing ways, and, especially, by the beauty of his
flight, this sober-suited, yet elegant little bird helps to make them
so. With his little “too-i, too-i” note, he soars to a height which,
compared, indeed, to the skylark’s “pride of place,” is as mediocrity
to genius; but having attained it, he comes down very prettily--more
prettily, perhaps, than does his gifted relative. The delicate little
wings are extended, but raised, especially when nearing the ground,
to some height above the back, and the fragile body, suspended between
them like the car of a tiny balloon, seems to swing and sway with the
air. The tail, though downward-borne with the rest of the bird, feels
still some “skyey influences,” for it is “tip-tilted,” and as “like
the petal of a flower,” I fancy, as any nose on any face. As the bird
nears the heather from which he started--for he especially loves the
moorlands--he, too (perhaps all birds have), has a way of gliding a
little onwards above it, poised in this manner, which adds much to the
grace of his descent. Then, softly sinking amidst it, he sits elastic
on a springy spray, or walks with dainty, picked steps over the sandy
shoals that lie amidst its tufty sea. This, indeed, is one of his
show descents. Not all of them are so pretty. In some the wings are
not quite so raised, so that their lighter-coloured under-surface--an
especial point of beauty--is not seen. Sometimes, too, the titlark
plunges and sweeps earthwards almost perpendicularly, his tail trailing
after him like a little brown comet. But, whatever he does, he is a
dainty little bird with a beauty all his own, and which is none the
less for being of that kind which is not showy, but “sober, steadfast,
and demure.”

Now does this flight, which I have described--the mounting and return
to earth again--more resemble that of a lark or a wagtail? It is the
new way to class the pipits with the latter birds, instead of with the
former, which, now, they “only superficially resemble.” Had they been
classed, hitherto, with the wagtails, it would, probably, have been
discovered that they only superficially resembled _them_, and were
really larks--and so it goes on, in that never-ending change-about,
called classification. If the pipits are not larks, why, first, do
they fly like them, and then, again, why do they sing like them? There
is a certain resemblance of tone, even in the poor, weak notes of the
meadow-pipit, and no one can listen to the rich and beautiful melody of
the tree-pipit, as it descends to earth, in a very lark-like manner,
singing all the time, without recognising its affinity with that of
the skylark, to which--in Germany, at any rate--it is hardly inferior.
Is song, then, so superficial? To me it seems a very important
consideration in settling a bird’s family relationship. How strange it
would be to find a dove, duck, crow, gull, eagle, parrot, &c., whose
voice did not, to some extent, remind one of the group to which it
belonged! Is there anything more distinctive amongst ourselves? The
members of a family will often more resemble one another in the tone
of their voice than in any other particular, even though there may be
a strong family likeness, as well. Structure is _quelque chose_, no
doubt; especially as, dissection not being a popular pastime, one has
to submit to any statement that one reads, till the professor on whose
authority it rests is contradicted by some other professor--as, in due
time, he will be, but, meanwhile, one has to wait. Classification,
however, should take account of everything, and, for my part, having
heard the tree-pipit sing, and seen both it and the titlark fly, I
mistrust any system which declares such birds to be wagtails and not
larks.

I think our caution in accepting merely adaptive resemblances as tests
of relationship may be pushed a little too far. A bat flies in the same
general way as a bird, but we do not find it practising little tricks
and ways--with an intimate style of flight, so to speak--resembling
that of some particular group of birds. All men walk; yet a man, by his
walk, may proclaim the family to which he belongs. A thousand points of
similarity may meet to make any such resemblance, but it is not likely
that they should unless they were founded on a similarity of structure.
Surely, too, the resemblances of notes and tones must rest upon
corresponding ones in the vocal organs, though these may be too minute
to be made out. To some extent, indeed, these principles may be applied
to get the titlarks into either family. It is a question of balance.
That there is something in common between them and the wagtails I do
not deny, and the fact that when the two meet on the Icklingham steppes
neither seems to know the other, proves nothing in regard to the
nearness or otherwise of the relationship.

The male of the pied- or water-wagtail may often be seen courting
the female here, and a pretty sight it is to see. He ruffles out his
feathers so that his breast looks like a little ball, and runs to her
in a warm, possession-taking way, with his wings drooped, and his tail
expanded and sweeping the ground. She, quite unmoved, makes a little
peck at him, as though saying, “Be off with you!” whereat he, obeying,
runs briskly off, but turning when hardly more than a foot away, comes
down upon her, again, even more warmly than before. She may relent,
then, or she may not, but, at this point, another male generally
interferes, when all three fly away together. There is a good deal
of similarity between the courtship of the wagtail and that of the
pheasant, for, having run up to the hen, the little bird, if not too
brusquely repulsed, will run about her in a semicircle, drooping his
wing upon that side, more especially, which is turned towards her, so
as to show all that she can see--and this I have seen the pheasant do,
time after time, with the greatest deliberation.

Having noticed this method in the wagtail, I have looked for it in the
wheat-ear, also--the two may often be studied together--but I have not
yet seen him act in quite the same way. His chief efforts, no doubt,
are those aerial ones of which I have spoken, but having exhausted
these, or after sitting for some time on the top twig of an elder,
singing quite a pretty little song, he will often pursue the object of
his adoration over the sunny sand, with ruffled plumage, and head held
down. He is reduced to it, I suppose, but it seems quite absurd that he
should be. He _ought_ to be irresistible, dressed as he is, for what
more can be wanted? Nothing can be purer, or more delicately picked
out, than his colouring--his back cream-grey, his breast greyey-cream.
Divided by the broad, black band of the wings, these tintings would
fain meet upon the neck and chin, but, here, a lovely little chestnut
sea, which neither can o’erpass, still keeps them apart. They cannot
cross it, to mingle warmly with each other and make, perhaps, a richer
hue. _Fas obstat_--but fate, in chestnut, is so soft and pretty that
neither of them seems to mind. Then there are pencilled lines of black
and chastened white upon the face, a softening into white upon the
chin, and a dab of pure white above the tail--but this you only see in
flight. The tail itself seems black when it disports itself staidly,
for it is the black tip, then, beyond the black of the wings, that you
see. Marry, when it flirteth itself into the air, as it doth full oft,
then it showeth itself white, cloaked in a chestnut. The pert little
bill and affirmative legs are black. This is how I catch the bird,
running over the warrens, it is not from a specimen on a table; not
so exact, therefore, and yet, perhaps, more so--“lesser than Macbeth,
yet greater.” Truly these wheat-ears, at 7 o’clock in the morning,
with the sun shining, are splendid--which is what General Buller said
his men were--but I prefer their uniform to khaki; I am not sure,
however, whether I prefer it to that of the stone-chat, which, though
less salient, is superior in warmth and richness. Both these handsome
little birds sometimes flash about together in sandy spaces over the
moorlands, or may even be seen perched on the same solitary hawthorn or
elder. Then is the time to compare their styles, and not to know which
to like best.

The stone-chat, by virtue of his little, harsh, twittering “char,”
which, as long as you are near him, never leaves off, seems always to
be an angry bird. With this assumed state of his mind, his motions,
when he chars like this, seem exactly to correspond. There is something
in his quick little flights about, from one heather-tuft to another, in
the way he leaves and the way he comes down upon them, in the little
impatient flutter of the wings, and bold assertive flirt of the tail,
supported--in spite of a constant threat of overbalancing--by a firm
attitude, that suggests a fiery temper. You get this, more especially,
through the tail. It is flirted _at you_, that tail. You feel that,
and, also, that the intention, if questioned, would be avouched,
that were you to say to the bird, sternly and firmly--in the manner
of Abraham accosting Samson--“Do you flirt your tail at me, sir?”
the answer, instead of a pitiful, shuffling evasion--a half-hearted
quibble--would be an uncompromising, “I do flirt my tail at you, sir.”
One cannot doubt this--at least I cannot. So sure, in fact, have I
always felt about it, that I have never yet asked the question. Why
should I--_knowing_ what the answer would be? But though this seems to
be the stone-chat’s mental attitude, when bob and flirt and flutter are
as the gesticulations accompanying hot utterance--the impatient “char,
char, charring”--yet, when this last is wanting--which is when he
doesn’t see you--all seems changed, and such motions, set in silence,
assume a softened character. Now, instead of to the harsh chatter, it
is to the soft purity of the bird’s colouring that they seem to respond.

Of all the birds that we have here, the peewits, for a great part of
the year, give most life to the barren lands. In the winter, as I
say, they disappear entirely, going off to the fens, though, here and
there, their voice remains, mimicked, to the life, by a starling. In
February, however, they return, and are soon sporting, and throwing
their fantastic somersaults, over their old, loved breeding-grounds.
Pleasant it is to have this breezy joy of spring-time, once again,
to have the accustomed tilts and turns and falls and rushing sweeps,
before one’s eyes, and the old calls and cries in one’s ears--the
sound of the wings, too, free as the wild air they beat, and sunlight
glints on green and white, and silver-flying snowflakes. “What a piece
of work is a _peewit_!” The glossy green of the upper surface--smooth
and shining as the shards of a beetle--glows, in places, with purple
burnishings, and, especially, on each shoulder there is an intensified
patch, the last bright twin-touch of adornment. The pure, shining white
of the neck and ventral surface--shining almost into silver as it
catches the sun--is boldly and beautifully contrasted with the black
of the throat, chin, and forehead. The neat little, corally stilt-legs
are an elegant support for so much beauty, and the crest that crowns
it is as the fringe to the scarf, or the tassel to the fez. There is,
besides, the walk, pose, poise, and easy swing of the whole body.

On the sopped meadow-land, near the river, in “February fill-dyke”
weather, it is pleasant to see peewits bathing, which they do with
mannerisms of their own. Standing upright in a little pool, one of
them bobs down, into it, several times, each time scooping up the
water with his head, and letting it run down over his neck and back.
This is common; but he keeps his wings all the time pressed to his
sides, so that they do not assist in scattering the water all over him,
after the manner in which birds, when they wash, usually do. Nor does
he sink upon his breast--which is also usual--but merely stoops, and
rises bolt upright, again, every time. Having tubbed in this clean,
precise, military fashion, he steps an inch or so to one side, and
then jumps into the air, giving his wings, as he goes up, a vigorous
flapping, or waving rather, for they move like two broad banners. He
descends--the motion of the wings having hardly carried him beyond
the original impulse of the spring--jumps up in the same way, again,
and does this some three or four times, after which he moves a little
farther off, and preens himself with great satisfaction. Either this is
a very original method of washing, on the part of peewits in general,
or this particular peewit is a very original bird. Apparently the
latter is the explanation, for now two other ones bathe, couched on
their breasts in the ordinary manner. Still the wings are not extended
to any great degree, and play a less part in the washing process than
is usual. Both these birds, too, having washed, which takes a very
little while, make the little spring into the air, whilst, at the same
time, shaking or waving their wings above their backs, in the way that
the other did, though not quite so briskly, so that it has a still more
graceful appearance. It is common for birds to give their wings a good
shake after a bathe, but, as a rule, they stand firm on the ground,
and this pretty aerial way of doing things is something of a novelty,
and most pleasing. It is like the graceful waving of the hands in the
air, by which the Normans--as Scott tells us--having had recourse to
the finger-bowl, at table, suffered the moisture to exhale, instead of
drying them, clumsily, on a towel, as did the inelegant Saxons. The
peewit, it is easy to see, is of gentle Norman blood.

[Illustration: A STATUESQUE FIGURE

_Snipe, with Starlings Bathing, and Peewits_]

Towards evening, a flock of starlings come down amongst the peewits,
and some of them bathe, too, in one of the little dykes that run across
the marshlands. There is a constant spraying of water into the air,
which, sparkling in the sun’s slanting rays, makes quite a pretty
sight. On the edge of the dyke, with the _jets d’eaux_ all about him,
a snipe stands sunning himself, on a huge molehill of black alluvial
earth. He stands perfectly still for a very long time, then scratches
his chin very deftly with one foot, and stands again. Were I an artist
I would sketch this scene--this solitary statuesque snipe, on his
great black molehill, against the silver fountains rising from the
dark dyke; beyond, through the water-drops, peewits and starlings,
busy or resting, all in the setting sun--“_im Abendsonnenschein_.”
The starlings are constantly moving, and often fly from one part of
the land to another. With the peewits it is different. They do not
move about, to nearly the same extent. To watch and wait seems to be
their principle, and when they do move, it is but a few steps forward,
and then stationary again. It appears as if they waited for worms to
approach the surface of the ground, for, sometimes, they will suddenly
dart forward from where they have long stood, pitching right upon their
breasts, securing a worm, and pulling it out as does a thrush--herons,
by the way, will often go down like this, in the act of spearing a
fish--or they will advance a few steps and do the same, as though their
eye commanded a certain space, in which they were content to wait.

Starlings, as I have often noticed, seem to enjoy the company of
peewits. They feed with them merely for their company, as I believe,
and, when they fly off, will often go, too. They think them “good
form,” I fancy; but the peewits do not patronise. They are indifferent,
or seem to be so. They may, however, have a complacent feeling in
being thus followed, and, as it were, fussed about, which does not
show itself in any action. I have seen, a little after sunrise, a
flock of some forty or fifty peewits go up from the marshlands, and,
with them, a single starling, which flew from one part of the flock
to another, making, or appearing to make, little dives at particular
birds. After a minute or so, it flew back to the place it had left, and
where other starlings were feeding. One of these flew to meet it, and
joining it, almost midway, made delighted swoops about it, sheering
off and again approaching, and so, as it were, brought it back. Now,
here, the general body of the starlings remained feeding when the
peewits went up. One, only, went with them, and this one must have felt
something which we may assume the others to have felt also, though they
resisted. What was this feeling of the starling towards the peewits?
Was it sympathy--a part joyous, part fussy participation in their
affairs--or something less definable; or, again, was the attraction
physical merely, having to do, perhaps, with the scent of the latter
birds. Something there must have been, and in such obscure causes we,
perhaps, see the origin of some of those cases of commensalism in the
animal world, where a mutual benefit is, now, given and received. The
subject seems to me to be an interesting one, and I think it might
gradually add to our knowledge and enlarge the range of our ideas, were
naturalists always to note down any instance of one species seeming
to like the society of another, where a reason for the preference was
not discernible. How interesting, too, to see this glad welcoming back
of one speck in the air, by another!--for that was the construction
I placed upon it. Was there individual recognition here? Were the
two birds mated? If this were so, then--as it was September at the
time--starlings must mate for life, as most birds do, I believe. In
this case, the vast flocks, in which they fly, to roost, through the
winter, are only a mantle that masks more intimate relations, and so it
may be with other birds.

This I know, that starlings have hearts even in winter. Sitting, in
January, amidst the branches of a gnarled old walnut tree that tops a
sandy knoll overlooking the marshes, I have often seen them wave their
wings in an emotional manner, whilst uttering, at the same time, their
half-singing, all-feeling notes. They do this, especially, on the long,
whistling “whew”--the most lover-like part--and as the wings are waved,
they are, also, drooped, which gives to the bird’s whole bearing a
sort of languish. The same emotional state which inspires the note,
must inspire, also, its accompaniment, and one can judge of the one by
the other. Though of a different build--not nearly so “massive”--these
starlings might say, with Lady Jane, “I despair droopingly.” But no,
there is no despair, and no reason for it. One of them, now, enters
a hole in the hollow branch where he has been sitting, thus showing,
still more plainly, the class of feelings by which he is dominated.
But how spring-in-winteryfied is all this!--

    “And on old Hiem’s thin and icy crown
    An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
    Is, as in mockery, set.”

And then, all at once, from the midst of the walnut tree, comes the
cry of a peewit, rendered to the life by one of these birds. There are
no peewits near, nor, though the wide waste around is their very own,
have they been seen there for months. The fenlands have long claimed
them, and the fenlands are seven miles distant. Most strange--and
pleasing strange--it is, to hear their absolute note, when they are all
departed. I have sat and heard a particular starling, on which my eyes
were fixed, thus mimic the unmistakable cry of the peewit, eight or
nine times in succession. It was the spring note, so that, this being
in January, also, it would have been still more remarkable had the
peewit itself uttered it.

Over the more barren parts of the Sahara, here, and even where some
thin and scanty-growing wheat crops struggle with the sandy soil, the
great plovers, or stone-curlews, may often be seen feeding, cheek by
jowl, with the peewits. Scattered amongst them both, are, generally,
some pheasants, partridges, fieldfares, thrushes, and mistle-thrushes,
and all these birds are apt, upon occasions, to come into collision
with one another--or, rather, the stone-curlews and mistle-thrushes,
being the most bellicose amongst them, are apt to fall out between
themselves, or with the rest. For the stone-curlew, he is, certainly,
a fighter. A cock pheasant that approaches too near to one is attacked,
and put to flight by it. The rush of this bird along the ground, with
neck outstretched, legs bent, and crouching gait--a sort of stealthy
speed--is a formidable affair, and seems half to frighten and half
to perplex the pheasant. But what a difference to when rival male
stone-curlews advance against each other to the attack! Then the
carriage is upright--grotesquely so, almost--and the tail fanned out
like a scallop-shell, which, now, it is not. This is interesting, I
think, for in attacking birds of another species there would not be so
much, if any, idea of rivalry, calling up, by association, other sexual
feelings, with their appropriate actions. The combats of rival male
birds seem, often, encumbered, rather than anything else, by posturings
and attitudinisings, which do not add to the kind of efficiency
now wanted, but, on the other hand, show the bird off to the best
advantage--_e.g._ the beautiful spread of the tail, and the bow, as
with the stock-dove, where both are combined and make a marked feature
of the fiercest fights. All these, in my view, are, properly, displays
to the female, which have been imported, by association of ideas, into
the combats of the birds practising them. But in this attack on the
pheasant there is nothing of all this, and the action seems, at once,
less showy and more pertinent. After routing the pheasant, this same
stone-curlew runs _à plusieurs reprises_ at some mistle-thrushes, who,
each time, fly away, and come down a little farther on. _En revanche_
a mistle-thrush attacks a peewit, actually putting it to flight. It
then advances three or four times--but evidently nervous, and making
a half retreat, each time--upon a stone-curlew, who, in its turn, is
half frightened and half surprised. Another one comes up, as though
to support his friend, so that the last dash of the mistle-thrush is
at the two, after which he retreats with much honour. As he does so,
both the stone-curlews posturise, drawing themselves up, gauntly, to
their full height--an attitude of haughty reserve--then curving their
necks downwards, to a certain point, at which they stand still and
slowly relax. There is no proper sequence or proportion in all this. A
stone-curlew chases a mistle-thrush, a mistle-thrush a peewit, and then
the stone-curlew himself is half intimidated by the mistle-thrush that
he chased. Yet, just before, he routed a pheasant, whilst the other
day he ran away from a partridge. “Will you ha’ the truth on’t?” It
depends on which is most the angry bird, has most some right infringed,
some wrong done, or imagined done to him. He, for that moment, is the
prevailing party, and the others give him way.

The stone-curlew is an especial feature of the country
hereabout--indeed its most distinctive one, ornithologically speaking.
It begins to arrive in April and stays till October, by the end of
which month it has, usually, left us, all but a few stragglers which
I have, sometimes, seen flying high in February--how sadly their
cry has fallen, then, and yet how welcome it was! I am always glad
when the voice of these birds begins to be heard, again, over the
warrens. One can never tire of it--at least, I never can. With Jacques
I say, always, “More, more, I prythee, more,” and I can suck its
melancholy--for it is a sad note enough--“as a weasel does eggs.”
There are several variants of the cry, which seems to differ according
to the circumstances under which it is uttered. The “dew-leep,
dew-leep”--thin, shrill, and with a plaintive wail in it--comes
oftenest from a bird standing by itself, and it is astonishing for what
a length of time he will utter it, unencouraged by any response. He
does not embellish the remark with any appropriate action or gesture,
but just stands, or sits, and makes it. That is enough for him. “It
is his duty and he will.” But the full cry, or _clamour_, as it is
called, proceeds, usually, from several birds together, as they come
down over the warrens. That is a beautiful thing to hear--so wild and
striking--and the spread solitudes amidst which it is uttered seem
always to live in it. I have seen two birds running, and thus lifting
up their voices, almost abreast, with another one either just in front
of or just behind them, the three looking, for all the world, like
three trumpeters on the field of battle--for they carry their heads
well raised, and have a wild look of martial devotion. But it is more
the wailing sounds of the bagpipes than the blast of the trumpet.

    “Pibroch of Donuil Dhu,
      Pibroch of Donuil,
    Wake thy wild voice anew,
      Summon Clan-Conuil.”

And the wails grow and swell from one group to another, and all come
running down as though it were the gathering of the clans.

Then there is a note like “tur-li-vee, tur-li-vee, tur-li-vee,” quickly
repeated--sometimes very quickly, when it sounds more like “ker-vic,
ker-vic, ker-vic”--and for such a length of time that it seems as
though it would never leave off. All these notes, though differing,
have the same general quality of sound, the same complaining wail in
them, but one there is which is altogether different, and which I
have only heard in the autumn, when the birds were flying in numbers,
preparatory to migration. Though plaintive, it has not that drear
character of the others; a whistling note it is, with a tremulous
rise and fall in it--“tir-whi-whi-whi-whi-whi”--very pleasant to
hear, and bringing the sea and seashore to one’s memory. It bears a
resemblance--a striking one, it has sometimes seemed to me--to the
long, piping cry of the oyster-catcher, but is very much softer. I have
heard this note uttered by a bird that a hawk was closely pursuing,
but also on other occasions, so that it is not, specially, a cry of
distress. The hawk in question, as I remember, was a sparrow-hawk, and
therefore not as big as the stone-curlew. The two were close together
when I first saw them--almost touching, in fact--the hawk spread
like a fan over the stone-curlew, following every deviation of its
flight--upwards, downwards, to one or another side--sometimes falling
a little behind, but not as much as to leave a space--the two were
always overlapping. I can hardly say why--perhaps it was the easy,
parachute-like flight of the hawk, with nothing like a swoop or pounce,
and the bright, clear sunshine diffusing a joy over everything--but
somehow the whole thing did not impress me as being in earnest, but,
rather, as a sport or play--on the part of the hawk more particularly;
and, strange as this theory may appear, it is, perhaps, somewhat in
support of it, that, a few mornings afterwards, I saw a kestrel, first
flying with a flock of peewits, and then with one alone. I could not
detect any fear of the hawk in the peewits, and it is difficult to
suppose--knowing the kestrel’s habits--that he seriously meditated
an attack on one of them. In the same way--or what seemed to be the
same way--I have seen a hooded crow flying with peewits,[14] and a
wood-pigeon with starlings: to the latter case I have already alluded.
The stone-curlew in the above instance, though separated, for a time,
by the hawk, as I suppose, was one of a great flock, amounting, in
all, to nearly three hundred, which used to fly up every morning over
the moor, where I have often waited to see them. Lying pressed amidst
heather and bracken, I once had the band fly right over me, at but a
few feet above the ground, so that, when I looked up, I seemed to raise
my head into a cloud of birds. A charming and indescribable sensation
it was, to be thus suddenly surrounded by these free, fluttering
creatures. They were all about me--and so near. The delicate “whish,
whish” of their wings was in my ears, and in my spirit too. I seemed in
flight myself, and felt how free and how glorious bird life must be.

Almost as interesting is it to see the stone-curlews fly back to their
gathering-grounds, in the very early mornings, after feeding over the
country, during the night. They come either singly or in twos and
threes--grey, wavering shadows on the first grey of the dawn. Sometimes
there will be a wail from a flying bird, and sometimes the sharper
ground-note comes thrilling out of the darkness--from which I judge
that some run home--but silence is the rule. By the very earliest
twilight of the morning, when the moon, if visible, is yet luminous,
and the stars shining brightly, the _Heimkehr_ is over, and now, till
the evening, the birds will be gathered together on their various
assembly-grounds. With the evening come the dances, which I have
elsewhere described,[15] and then off they fly, again, to feed, not now
in silence, but with wail on wail as they go. Such, at least as far as
I have been able to observe, are the autumn habits of these birds. In
the spring they are far more active during the daytime. Di-nocturnal
I would call the stone-curlew--that is to say, equally at home, as
occasion serves, either by day or night. Nothing is pleasanter than
to see them running over the sand, with their little, precise, stilty
steps. Sometimes one will crouch flat down, with its head stretched
straight in front of it, and then one has the Sahara--a desert scene.
This habit, however, does not appear to me to be so common in the grown
bird--in the young one, no doubt, it is much more strongly developed.

The migration of the stone-curlew begins early in October, but it is
not till the end of that month that all the birds are gone. About half
or two-thirds of the flock go first, in my experience, and are followed
by other battalions, at intervals of a few days. A few stay on late
into the month, but every day there are less, and with October, as a
rule, all are gone.

[Illustration: A “MURMURATION” OF STARLINGS]



CHAPTER VI


Starlings are not birds to make part of an _olla podrida_ merely--as
in my last chapter--so I shall devote this one to them, more or
less entirely. I will begin with a defence of the bird, in regard
to his relations with the green woodpecker. Not, indeed, that he
can be acquitted on the main charge brought against him, viz. that
he appropriates to himself the woodpecker’s nest. This he certainly
does do, and his conduct in so doing has aroused a good deal of
indignation, not always, perhaps, of the most righteous kind. The
compassionate _oologist_, more especially, who may have found only
starling’s eggs where he thought to find woodpecker’s, cannot speak
patiently on the subject. His feelings run away with him, in face of
such an injustice. The woodpecker is being wronged--by the starling;
it will be exterminated--all through the starling. It makes his blood
boil. To console himself he looks through his fine collection, which
contains not only woodpecker’s eggs--say a roomful--but woodpeckers
themselves--in the fluff.[16] It is something--balm in Gilead--yet had
it not been for the starling there might have been more.

Personally, I do not share in the panic, and if the green woodpecker
should disappear from this island--as, indeed, it may--the starling,
I am confident, will have had but little to do with it. The result,
as I believe, of the present friction between the two birds, will
be of a more interesting and less painful character. For say that a
woodpecker be deprived of its first nest, or tunnel, it will assuredly
excavate another one. Not, however, immediately: it is likely, I think,
that there would be an interval of some days--perhaps a week, or
longer--and, by this time, a vast number of starlings would have laid
their eggs. Consequently, the dispossessed woodpecker would have a far
better chance of laying and hatching out his, this second time, and a
better one still, were he forced to make a third attempt. No doubt, a
starling wishing to rear a second brood would be glad to misappropriate
another domicile, but, as the woodpecker would be now established,
either with eggs or young, it would probably--I should think, myself,
certainly--be unable to do so, but would have to suit itself elsewhere.
The woodpecker should, therefore, have reared its first brood some time
before the starling had finished with its second, and so would have
time to lay again, if this, which I doubt, is its habit. Thus, after
the first retardation in the laying of the one species, consequent upon
the action of the other, the two would not be likely again to come
into collision; nor would the woodpecker be seriously injured by being
forced, in this way, to become a later-breeding bird. As long as there
are a sufficient number of partially-decayed trees for both starlings
and woodpeckers--and any hole or hollow does for the former--I can
see no reason why the latter should suffer, except, indeed, in his
feelings; and even if a time were to come when this were no longer
the case, why should he not, like the La Plata species, still further
modify his habits, even to the extent, if necessary, of laying in a
rabbit burrow? Love, I feel confident, would “find out a way.”

[Illustration: INDIGNANT!

_Starling in possession of Woodpecker’s Nesting Hole_]

But there is another possibility. May not either the woodpecker or the
starling be a cuckoo _in posse_? If one waits and watches, one may see
first the one bird, and then the other, enter the hole, in each other’s
absence, and it is only when the woodpecker finds the starling in
possession--and this, as I am inclined to think, more than once--that
he desists and retires. Now, the woodpecker having made its nest, is,
we may suppose, ready to lay, and, if it were to do so, it is at least
possible that the starling might, in some cases, hatch the egg. True,
the latter would still have his nest, or a part of it, to make, but
it is of loose material--straw for the most part--and the cow-bird of
America has, I believe, been sometimes brought into existence under
similar circumstances. Some woodpeckers, too--evolution, it must be
remembered, works largely through exceptions--might be sufficiently
persistent to lay an egg in the completed nest of the starling. In this
latter case, at any rate, it seems more than likely that the original
parasite would become the dupe of his ousted victim, “and thus the
whirligig of time” would have “brought in his revenges.”

Whether in speculating upon the various possible origins of the
parasitic instinct, as exhibited in perfection by the cuckoo, this
one has ever been considered, I do not know, but it does not appear
to me to be in itself improbable. It is not difficult to understand a
bird seizing another one’s nest, first as a mere site for, and then,
gradually, as its own. That the dispossessed bird should still strive
to lay in its own appropriated nest, and, often, succeed in doing so,
is also easy to imagine; and if this should be its only, or most usual,
solution of the difficulty, it would lose, through disuse, the instinct
of incubation, and become a cuckoo _malgré lui_. All feeling of
property would, by this time, be gone; the parasitic instinct would be
strongly developed, and that it should now be indulged, at the expense
of many, or several, species instead of only one--once the robber, but
whose original theft would be no longer traceable--is a sequel that
one might expect. In a process like this there would have been no very
abrupt or violent departure, on the part of either species--of the dupe
or of the parasite--from their original habits. All would have been
gradual, and naturally brought about. Therefore, as it appears to me,
all might very well have taken place. Let me add to these speculations
one curious fact in regard to the two birds whose inter-relations have
suggested them, which extremely close observation has enabled me to
elicit. I have noticed that a woodpecker which has abandoned its hole,
always lays claim to magnanimity, as the motive for such abandonment,
whereas the starling as invariably attributes it to weakness. I have
not yet decided which is right.

But the starling may be regarded in a nobler light than that of a
parasitical appropriator, or even a mere finder of, dwellings. He is,
and that to a very considerable extent, a builder of them, too. I have
some reason to think that he is occasionally, so to speak, his own
woodpecker, for I have seen him bringing, through an extremely rough
and irregular aperture, in a quite decayed tree, one little beakful of
chips after another, whilst his mate sat singing on the stump of the
same branch, just above him. The chips thus brought were dropped on the
ground, and had all the appearance of having been picked and pulled out
of the mass of the tree. Possibly, therefore, the aperture had been
made in the same way.

It is in gravel-or sand-pits, however, that the bird’s greatest
architectural triumphs are achieved. Starlings often form colonies
here, together with sand-martins, and the holes, or, rather, caverns,
which they make are so large as to excite wonder. A rabbit--nay,
two--might sit in some of them; two would be a squeeze, indeed, but
one would find it roomy and comfortable. The stock-dove certainly
does, for she often builds in them, as she does in the burrows of
rabbits, and can no more be supposed to make the one than the other.
Besides, I have seen the starlings at work in their vaults, and the
latter growing from day to day. But no, I am stating, or implying,
a little too much. Properly, satisfactorily at work I have not seen
them, though I have tried to; I have been unfortunate in this respect.
But there were the holes, and there were the starlings always in and
about them, and, sometimes, hanging on the face of the sand-pit, like
the sand-martins themselves. That the latter had had anything to do
with these great, rounded caves, or that the starlings had merely
seized on the last year’s martin-holes, and enlarged them, I do not
believe. That may be so in some cases, but here, as it seems to me,
it would have been impossible. Sand-martins, as is well known, drive
their little narrow tunnels, for an immense way, into the cliff--nine
feet sometimes, it is said, but this seems rather startling. Large and
roomy and cavernous as are the chambers of the starlings, yet they are
not quite so penetrating, so bowelly, as this. Therefore--and this
would especially apply in the earlier stages of their construction--the
original martin-holes ought always to be found piercing their backward
wall, if the starlings had merely widened the shaft for themselves.
This, however, has not been the case in the excavations which I
have seen, even when they were mere shallow alcoves in the wall of
the cliff--but just commenced, in fact. Moreover, some of these
starling-burrows were several feet apart, the cliff between them being
unexcavated. Sand-martins, however, drive their tunnels close together,
and in a long irregular line, or series of lines, so that if, in these
instances, starlings had seized upon them, there ought to have been
many small holes in the interstices between the large ones. Lastly,
if a starling can do such a prodigious amount of excavation for
himself, why should he be beholden to a sand-martin, or any other bird,
for a beginning or any part of it? That he will, sometimes, commence
at a martin’s hole, just as he might at any other inequality of the
surface--as where a stone has dropped out--and, so, widen a chink into
a cavern, a fine, roomy apartment (as Shakespeare ennobled inferior
productions, which was not plagiarism), I am not denying, nor that he
might enjoy work, all the more, when combined with spoliation. But,
with or without this, the starling appears to me to be an architect of
considerable eminence, and, as such, not to have received any adequate
recognition.

To return to these wonderful sand-caves--his own work--it seems
curious, at first, considering their size, how he can get them so
rounded in shape. Here there is no question of turning about, in a
heap of things soft and yielding, pressing with the breast, to all
sides, moulding, as it were, the materials, like clay upon the potter’s
wheel--the way in which most nests are made cup-shaped; but we have a
large, airy, beehive-like chamber, somewhat resembling the interior
of a Kaffir hut, except that the floor is not flat, but more like a
reversed and shallower dome. The entrance, too, is small, compared
to the size of the interior, in something like the same proportion.
Here, on the outside, where the birds have clung, the sand looks
scratched, as with their claws, or, sometimes, as though chiselled with
their beaks; but within, the walls and rounded dome have a smooth and
swept appearance, almost as if they had been rubbed with sandpaper.
Sometimes I have wondered if the starlings scoured, so to speak, or
fretted the inside of their caverns, by rapidly vibrating their wings
against them, so as to act like a stiff brush on the soft, friable
sandstone. One of my notings, when watching in the sand-pits, was this:
“A starling appears, now, at the mouth of a hole, waving his wings most
vigorously. Then disappearing into it, again, he quickly returns, still
waving them, and moves, so, along the face of the cliff, for there
is something like a little ledge below the row of holes.” This bird,
indeed, waved its wings so long and so vigorously that I began to think
it must have a special and peculiar fondness for so doing--that here
was an exaggeration, in a single individual, of a habit common to the
species, for starlings during the nesting season are great performers
in this way. But if the wings were used as suggested, they would
certainly, I think, be sufficiently strong, and their quill-feathers
sufficiently stiff, to fret away the sand; and as their sweeps would
be in curves, this would help to explain the domed and rounded shape
of these bird cave-dwellings. Only, why have I not seen them doing it?
Though many of the holes were unfinished--some only just begun--and
though the birds were constantly in them, I could never plainly see any
actual excavation being done by them, except that, sometimes, one, in a
perfunctory sort of manner, would carry some nodules of sand or gravel
out of a hole that seemed nearly finished; yet still they grew and
grew. The thing, in fact, is something of a mystery to me.

It is easier to see how, when the chambers are completed, the starlings
build their nests in them; and, especially, the fact of their entering
and plundering each other’s is open and apparent. They seem to chance
the rightful owner being at home, or in the near neighbourhood. There
is no stealth, no guilty shame-faced approach. Boldly and joyously they
fly up, and if unopposed, “so,” as Falstaff says (using the little
word as the Germans do now); if not, a quick wheel, a gay retreat, and
a song sung at the end of it. Such happy high-handedness, careless
guilt! A bird, issuing from a cave that is not his own, is flown after
and pecked by another, just as he plunges into one that is. The thief
soon reappears at the door of his premises, and sings, or talks, a
song, and the robbed bird is, by this time, sing-talking too. Both
are happy--_immer munter_--all is enjoyment. A bird, returning with
plunder, finds the absent proprietor in his own home. Each scolds, each
recognises that he has “received the dor”; but neither blushes, neither
is one bit ashamed. Happy birdies! They fly about, sinning and not
caring, persist in ill courses, and _how_ they enjoy themselves! There
is no trouble of conscience, no remorse. “Fair is foul, and foul is
fair,” with them. It is topsy-turvyland, a kind of right wrong-doing,
and things go on capitally. Happy birdies! What a bore all morality
seems, as one watches them. How tiresome it is to be human and high
in the scale! Those who would shake off the cobwebs--who are tired
of teachings and preachings and heavy-high novellings, who would see
things anew, and not mattering, rubbing their eyes and forgetting their
dignities, missions, destinies, virtues, and the rest of it--let them
come and watch a colony of starlings at work in a gravel-pit.

But starlings are most interesting when they flock, each night, to
their accustomed roosting-place; in autumn, more especially, when
their numbers are greatest. It is difficult to say, exactly, when the
more commonplace instincts and emotions, which have animated the birds
throughout the day, begin to pass into that strange excitement which
heralds and pervades the home-flying. Comparatively early, however, in
the afternoon many may be seen sitting in trees--especially orchard
trees--and singing in a very full-throated manner. They are not eating
the fruit; a dead and fruitless tree holds as many, in proportion to
its size, as any of the other ones. Presently a compact flock comes
down in an adjacent meadow, and the birds composing it are continually
joined by many of the singing ones. Whilst watching them, other flocks
begin to sweep by on hurrying pinions, and one notices that many of
the high elm trees, into which they wheel, are already stocked with
birds, whilst the air begins, gradually, to fill with a vague, babbling
_susurrus_, that, blending with the stillness or with each accustomed
sound, is perceived before it is heard--a felt atmosphere of song. One
by one, or mingling with one another, these flocks leave the trees,
and fly on towards the wood of their rest; but by that principle which
impels some of any number, however great, to join any other great
number, many detach themselves from the main stream of advance, and
fly to the ever-increasing multitudes which still wheel, or walk, over
the fields. It seems strange that these latter should, hitherto, have
resisted that general movement which has robed each tree with life, and
made a music of the air; but all at once, with a whirring hurricane of
wings, they rise like brown spray of the earth, and, mounting above one
of the highest elms, come sweeping suddenly down upon it, in the most
violent and erratic manner, whizzing and zigzagging about from side to
side, as they descend, and making a loud rushing sound with the wings,
which, as with rooks, who do the same thing, is only heard on such
occasions. They do not stay long, and as all the flocks keep moving
onwards, the immediate fields and trees are soon empty of birds. To
follow their movements farther, one must proceed with all haste towards
the roosting-place. About a mile’s distance from it, at the tail of a
little village, there is a certain meadow, emerald-green and dotted
all over with unusually fine tall elms. In these, their accustomed
last halting-place, the starlings, now in vast numbers, are swarming
and gathering in a much more remarkable manner than has hitherto been
the case. It is, always, on the top of the tree that they settle, and,
the instant they do so, it becomes suddenly brown, whilst there bursts
from it, as though from some great natural musical box, a mighty volume
of sound that is like the plash of waters mingled with a sharper,
steelier note--the dropping of innumerable needles on a marble floor.
On a sudden the sing-song ceases, and there is a great roar of wings,
as the entire host swarm out from the tree, make a wheel or half-wheel
or two, close about it, and then, as though unable to go farther, seem
drawn back into it, again, by some strong, attractive force. Or they
will fly from one tree to another of a group, swarming into each, and
presenting, as they cluster in myriads about it, before settling, more
the appearance of a vast swarm of bees, or some other insects, than
of birds. These flights out from the trees, always very sudden, seem,
sometimes, to be absolutely instantaneous; whilst in every case it is
obvious that vast numbers must move in the same twinkle of time, as
though they were threaded together.

All this time, fresh bands are continuing to arrive, draining different
areas of the country. From tree to field, from earth to sky, again, is
flung and whirled about the brown, throbbing mantle of life and joy;
nature grows glad with sound and commotion; children shout and clap
their hands; old village women run to the doors of cottages to gaze and
wonder--the starlings make them young. Blessed, harmless community!
The men are out, no guns are there, it is like the golden age. And now
it is the final flight, or, rather, the final many flights, for it is
seldom--perhaps never--that all, or even nearly all, arrive together at
the roosting-place. As to other great things, so to this daily miracle
there are small beginnings; the wonder of it grows and grows. First a
few quite small bands are seen flying rapidly, yet soberly, which, as
they near or pass over the silent wood--their pleasant dormitory--sweep
outwards, and fly restlessly round in circles--now vast, now
narrow--but of which it is ever the centre. “Then comes wandering by”
one single bird--apart, cut off, by lakes of lonely air, from all
its myriad companions. Some three or four follow separately, but not
widely sundered; then a dozen together, which the three or four join;
then another small band, which is joined by one of those that have gone
before it, itself now, probably, swollen by amalgamation. Now comes a
far larger band, and this one, instead of joining, or being joined by,
any other, divides, and, streaming out in two directions, follows one
or other of those circling streams of restless, hurrying flight, that
girdles, as with a zone of love and longing, the darksome, lonely-lying
wood. A larger one, still, follows; and now, more and faster than
the eye can take it in, band grows upon band, the air is heavy with
the ceaseless sweep of pinions, till, glinting and gleaming, their
weary wayfaring turned to swiftest arrows of triumphant flight--toil
become ecstasy, prose an epic song--with rush and roar of wings, with
a mighty commotion, all sweep, together, into one enormous cloud. And
still they circle; now dense like a polished roof, now disseminated
like the meshes of some vast all-heaven-sweeping net, now darkening,
now flashing out a million rays of light, wheeling, rending, tearing,
darting, crossing, and piercing one another--a madness in the sky. All
is the starlings’ now; they are no more birds, but a part of elemental
nature, a thing affecting and controlling other things. Through them
one sees the sunset; the sky must peep through their chinks. Surely
all must now be come. But as the thought arises, a black portentous
cloud shapes itself on the distant horizon; swiftly it comes up,
gathering into its vast ocean the small streams and driblets of flight;
it approaches the mighty host and is the mightier--devours, absorbs
it--and, sailing grandly on, the vast accumulated multitude seems now
to make the very air, and be, itself, the sky.

As a rule, this great concourse separates, again, into two main, and
various smaller bodies, and it is now, and more especially amongst the
latter, that one may witness those beautiful and varied evolutions
which are, equally, a charm to the eye and a puzzle to the mind. Each
band, as it circles rapidly round, permeated with a fire of excitement
and glad alacrity, assumes diverse shapes, becoming, with the quickness
of light, a balloon, an oil-flask, a long, narrow, myriad-winged
serpent, rapidly thridding the air, a comet with tail streaked suddenly
out, or a huge scarf, flung about the sky in folds and shimmers. A
mass of flying birds must, indeed, assume some shape, though it is
only on these occasions that one sees such shapes as these. More
evidential, not only of simultaneous, but, also, of similar motion
throughout a vast body, are those striking colour changes that are
often witnessed.[17] For instance, a great flock of flying birds will
be, collectively, of the usual dark-brown shade. In one instant--as
quickly as Sirius twinkles from green to red, or red to gold--it has
become a light grey. Another instant, and it is, again, brown, and
this whilst the rapidly-moving host seems to occupy the same space in
the air, so lightning-quick have been the two flashes of colour and
motion--for both may be visible--through the living medium; as though
one had said, “One, two,” or blinked the eyes twice. Yet in the sky
all is a constant quantity; the sinking sun has neither rushed in nor
out, on all the wide landscape round no change of light and shade has
fallen, and other bands of moving birds maintain their uniform hue.
Obviously the effect has been due to a sudden change of angle in each
bird’s body, in regard to the light--as when one rustles a shot-silk
dress--and this change has shot, in the same second of time, through
myriads of bodies. Sometimes the light of the sky will show, suddenly,
like so many windows, through a multitude of spaces, which seem to
be at a set and regular distance from one another; and then, again,
be as suddenly not seen, the whole mass becoming opaque to the eye,
as before. Here, again, the effect, which is beautiful, can only be
produced by a certain number of the birds just giving their wings a
slant, or otherwise shifting their posture in the air, all at the same
instant of time. This, at least, is the only way in which I can explain
it.

What the nature of the psychology is, that directs such movements, that
allows of such a multitudinous oneness, must be left to the future to
decide; but to me it appears to offer as good evidence for some form of
thought-transference--containing, moreover, new points of interest--as
does much that has been collected by the Psychical Research Society,
which, in its investigations, seems resolved to treat the universe as
though man only existed in it. This is a great error, in my opinion,
for even if greater facilities for investigation are offered by one
species than by any other, yet the general conclusions founded on these
are almost certain to be false, if the comparative element is excluded.
How could we have acquired true views in regard to the nature and
meaning--the philosophy--of any structure in our human anatomy, through
human anatomy alone? How should we know that certain muscles, found
in a minority of men, were due to reversion, if we did not know that
these same muscles were normally present in apes or other animals?[18]
Exactly the same principle applies to the study of psychology, or
what is called psychical research: and it is impossible not to get
exaggerated, and, as one may say, misproud ideas of our mental
attributes, and consequently of ourselves, if we do not pay proper
attention to the equivalents, or representatives, of these in our blood
relations, the beasts.

In fact, if we study man, either mentally or physically, as one species
amongst many, we have a science. If we study him only, or inordinately,
we very soon have a religion. The Psychical Research Society appears to
me to be going this way. Its leading members are becoming more and more
impressed by certain latent abnormal faculties in the human subject,
but they will not consider the nature and origin of such faculties, in
connection with many equally mysterious ones scattered throughout the
animal kingdom, or pay proper attention to these. The wonder of man,
therefore, is unchecked by the wonder of anything else: no monkey, bat,
bird, lizard, or insect pulls him up short: he sees himself, only, and
through Raphaels and Virgils and genius and trances and ecstasies--soon
sees himself God, or approaching, at least, to that size. So an image
is put up in a temple, and joss-sticks lighted before it. Service is
held. There are solemn strains, reverential attitudes, and “Out of the
deeps,” and “Cometh from afars,” go up, like hymns, from the lips of
officiating High Priests--the successive Presidents of the Society. It
is church, in fact, with man and religion inside it. Outside are the
animals and science. In such an atmosphere field natural history does
not flourish. You may not bring dogs into church. That, however, is
what I would do, and it is just what the Society ought to do. With man
for their sole theme they will never, it seems likely, get beyond a
solemn sort of mystic optimism. If they want to get farther they should
let the dogs into church.

Whilst starlings are thus flying to the roosting-place, they often
utter a peculiar, or, at any rate, a very distinctive note, which
I have never heard them do, upon any other occasion, except in the
morning, on leaving it. It is low, of a musical quality, and has in
it a rapid rise and fall--an undulatory sound one might call it,
somewhat resembling that note I have mentioned of the great plover,
which, curiously enough, is also uttered when the birds fly together
in flocks. But whilst there is no mistaking the last, this note of the
starlings is of a very elusory nature, and I have often been puzzled
to decide whether it was, indeed, vocal or only caused by the wings.
Sometimes there seems no doubt that the former is the case, but on
other occasions it is more difficult to decide. I think, however, that
it is a genuine cry, and, as I say, I have only heard it upon these
occasions, nor have I ever heard or read any reference to it. It is
usually stated that starlings fly, together, in silence, but besides
the special note I have mentioned, and which is totally unlike any of
their other ones, they often make a more ordinary twittering noise. It
is not loud, and does not seem to be uttered by any large proportion
of the birds, at once. Still, their numbers being so great, the volume
of sound is often considerable; and no one could watch starlings going
to roost, for long, without hearing it. Those, therefore, who say that
they always fly in silence cannot have watched them for long.

The final end and aim of all the gatherings, flights, circlings, and
“skiey” evolutions generally, which are gone through by starlings, at
the close of each day, is, of course, the entry into that dark wood
where, in “numbers numberless,” yet packed into a wonderfully small
space, they pass the night, clinging beneath every leaf, like those
dreams that Virgil speaks of. This entry they accomplish in various
ways. Sometimes, but rarely, they descend out of the brown firmament
of their numbers, in one perpetual rushing stream, which seems to
be sucked down by a reversed application of the principle on which
the column of a waterspout is sucked up from the ocean. More often,
however, they fly in, in detachments; or again, they will swarm into
one of the neighbouring hedges, forming, perhaps, the mutual boundary
of wood and meadow, and, commencing at the remote end, move along it,
flying and fluttering, like an uproarious river of violent life and
joy, the wood at last receiving them. But should there be another
thicket or plantation, a field or so from their chosen dormitory, it is
quite their general habit to enter this, first, and fly from it to the
latter. The passage from the one to the other is an interesting thing
to see, but it does not take place till after a considerable interval,
during which the birds talk, and seem to be preparing themselves for
going to bed. At last they are ready, or the proper time has come. The
sun has sunk, and evening, in its stillness, seems to wait for night.
The babbling sing-song, though swollen, now, to its greatest volume,
seems--such are the harmonies of nature--to have more of silence in it
than of sound, but, all at once, it changes to a sudden roar of wings,
as the birds whirl up and fly across the intervening space, to their
final resting-place. It seems, then, as though all had risen, at one
and the same moment, but, had they done so, the plantation would now
be empty, and the entire sky, above it, darkened by an immense host of
birds. Such, however, is not the case. There is, indeed, a continuous
streaming out, but, all or most of the while that it is flowing, the
plantation from which it issues must be stocked with still vaster
numbers, since it takes, as a rule, about half-an-hour for it to become
empty. It is drained, in fact, as a broad sheet of water would be, by a
constant, narrower outflow, taking the water to represent the birds.

Thus, though the exodus commences with suddenness, it is gradually
accomplished, and this gives the idea of method and sequence, in
its accomplishment. The mere fact that a proportion of the birds
resist, even up to the last moment, the impulse to flight, which so
many rushing pinions, but just above their heads, may be supposed
to communicate, suggests some reason for such self-restraint, and
gradually, as one watches--especially if one comes night after
night--the reason begins to appear. For a long time the current of
flight flows on, uninterruptedly, hiding with its mantle whatever of
form or substance may lie beneath. But, at last, the numbers begin to
wane, the speed--at least in appearance--to flag, and it is then seen
that the starlings are flying in bands, of comparatively moderate size,
which follow one another at longer or shorter intervals. Sometimes
there is a clear gap between band and band, sometimes the leaders
of the one are but barely separated from the laggards of the other,
sometimes they overlap, but, even here, the band formation is plain
and unmistakable. This, as I have said, is towards the end of the
flight. On most occasions, nothing of the sort is to be seen at its
beginning. There is a sudden outrush, and no division in the continuous
line is perceptible. Occasionally, however, the exodus begins in much
the same way as it ends, one troop of birds following another, until
soon there ceases to be any interval between them. But though the
governing principle is now masked to the eye, one may suppose that
it still exists, and that as there are unseen currents in the ocean,
so this great and, apparently, uniform stream of birds, is made up
of innumerable small bands or regiments, which, though distinct,
and capable, at any moment, of acting independently, are so mingled
together that they present the appearance of an indiscriminate host,
moving without order, and constructed upon no more complex principle
of subdivision than that of the individual unit. There is another
phenomenon, to be observed in these last flights of the starlings,
which appears to me to offer additional evidence of this being the
case. Supposing there to be a hedge, or any other shelter, in the
bird’s course, one can, by stooping behind it, remain concealed or
unthought of, whilst they pass directly overhead. One then notices that
there is a constant and, to some extent, regular rising and sinking of
the rushing noise made by their wings. It is like rush after rush, a
maximum roar of sound, quickly diminishing, then another roar, and so
on, in unvarying or but little varying succession. Why should this be?
That, at more or less regular intervals, those birds which happened
to be passing just above one, should fly faster, thereby increasing
the sound made by their wings, and that this should continue during
the whole flight, does not seem likely. It would be method without
meaning. But supposing that, at certain points, the living stream
were composed of greater multitudes of birds than in the intermediate
spaces, then, at intervals, as these greater multitudes passed above
one, there would be an accentuation of the uniform rushing sound. Now
in a moderate-sized band of starlings, flying rapidly, there is often a
thin forward, or apex, end, which increases gradually, or, sometimes,
rather suddenly, to the maximum bulk in the centre, and a hinder or
tail end, decreasing in the same manner. If hundreds of these bands
were to fly up so quickly, one after another, that their vanguards
and rearguards became intermingled, yet, still, the numbers of each
main body ought largely to preponderate over those of the combined
portions, so that here we should have a cause capable of producing
the effect in question. The starlings then--this, at least, is my own
conclusion--though they seem to fly all together, in one long string,
really do so in regiment after regiment, and, moreover, there is a
certain order--and that a strange one--by which these regiments leave
the plantation. It is not the first ones--those, that is to say, that
are stationed nearest the dormitory--that lead the flight out to it,
but the farthest or back regiments, rise first, and fly, successively,
over the heads of those in front of them. Thus the plantation is
emptied from the farther end, and that part of the army which was, in
sitting, the rear, becomes, in flying, the van. This, at least, seems
to be the rule or tendency, and precisely the same thing is observable
with rooks, though in both it may be partially broken, and thus
obscured. One must not, in the collective movements of birds, expect
the precision and uniformity of drilled human armies. It is, rather,
the blurred image, or confused approximation towards this, that is
observable, and this is, perhaps, still more interesting.

One more point--and here, again, rooks and starlings closely resemble
each other. It might be supposed that birds thus flying, in the dusk
of evening, to their resting-place, would be anxious to get there, and
that the last thing to occur to them would be to turn round and fly in
the opposite direction. Both here, however, and in the flights out in
the morning, we have that curious phenomenon of breaking back, which,
in its more salient manifestations, at least, is a truly marvellous
thing to behold. With a sudden whirr of wings, the sound of which
somewhat resembles that of a squall of wind--still more, perhaps, the
crackling of sticks in a huge blaze of flame--first one great horde,
and then another, tears apart, each half wheeling round, in an opposite
direction, with enormous velocity, and such a general seeming of storm,
stir, and excitement, as is quite indescribable. This may happen over
and over again, and, each time, it strikes one as more remarkable.
It is as though a tearing hurricane had struck the advancing host of
birds, rent them asunder, and whirled them to right and left, with the
most irresistible fury. No act of volition seems adequate to account
for the thing. It is like the shock of elements, or, rather, it is a
vital hurricane. Seeing it produces a strange sense of contrast, which
has a strange effect upon one. It is order in disorder, the utmost
perfection of the one in the very height of the other--a governed
chaos. Every element of confusion is there, but there is no confusion.
Having divided and whirled about in this gusty, fierce fashion, the
birds, for a moment or so, seem to hang and crowd in the air, and
then--the exact process of it is hardly to be gathered--they reunite,
and continue to throng onwards. Sometimes, again, a certain number,
flashing out of the crowd, will wheel, sharply, round in one direction,
and descend, in a cloud, on the bushes they have just left. In a second
or two they whirl up, and come streaming out again. In these sudden and
sharply localised movements we have, perhaps, fresh evidence of that
division into smaller bodies, which may, possibly, underlie all great
assemblies either of starlings or other birds.

If anything lies in the way of the starlings, during this, their last
flight, to the dormitory--as, say, a hedge--the whole mass of them,
in perfect order and unison, will, as they pass it, increase their
elevation, though why, as they were well above it before, one cannot
quite say. However they do so, and the brown speeding cloud that they
make, whirling aloft and flashing into various sombre lights against
the darkening sky, has a fine stormy effect. It would make the name of
any landscape painter, could he put on canvas the stir and spirit of
these living storms and clouds that fill, each morning and evening, a
vast part of the heavens with their hurrying armies, adding the poetry
of life to elemental poetry, putting a heartbeat into sky and air. Were
Turner alive, now, I would write to him of these wondrous sights; for,
unless he despaired, surely he can never have seen them. He who gave
us “Wind, steam, and speed” might, had he known, have given us a “Sky,
air, and life,” to hang, for ever (if the trustees would let it) on
the walls of the National Gallery. But who, now, is there to write to?
Who could give us not only the thing, but the spirit of the thing--the
wild, fine poetry of these starling-flights? It is strange how much
poetry lies in mere numbers, how they speak to the heart. What were
one starling, winging its way to rest, or even a dozen or so? But all
this great multitude filled with one wish, one longing, one intent--so
many little hearts and wings beating all one way! It is like a cry
going up from nature herself; the very air seems to yearn and pant for
rest. And yet there is the precise converse of this. The death of one
child--little Paul Dombey, for instance--is affecting to read about:
thousands together seem not to affect people--no, not even ladies--at
all.

It is interesting to sit in the actual roosting-place of the starlings,
after the birds have got there. They are all in a state of excitement,
hopping and fluttering from perch to perch, from one bush to another,
and always seeming to be passing on. One is in the midst of a world of
birds, of a sea of sound, which is made up, on the whole, of a kind
of chuckling, chattering song, in which there are mingled--giving it
its most characteristic tones--long musical whews and whistles, as
well as some notes that may fairly be called warblings--the whole very
pleasing, even in itself; delightful, of course, as a part of all the
romance. As one sits and watches, it becomes more and more evident
that a disseminating process is going on. The birds are ever pushing
forward, and extending themselves through the thick undergrowth, as
though to find proper room for their crowded numbers. There is, in
fact, a continual fluttering stream through the wood, as there has
been, before, a flying stream through the air, but, in the denseness
of the undergrowth, it is hard to determine if there is a similar
tendency for band to follow band. The universal sing-song diminishes
very slowly, very gradually, and, when it is almost quite dark, there
begin to be sudden flights of small bodies of birds, through the
bushes, at various points of the plantation, each rush being followed
by an increase of sound. Instead of diminishing, these scurryings,
with their accompanying babel, become greater and more numerous, as
the darkness increases, but whether this is a natural development,
or is caused by an owl flying silently over the plantation, I am not
quite sure, though I incline to the former view. Night has long fallen,
before silence sinks upon that darker patch in darkness, where so many
hearts, burdened with so few cares, are at rest.

Next morning, whilst it is still moonlight, there is a subdued
sing-songing amongst the birds, but by crawling, first on one’s hands
and knees, and then flat, like a snake, one is able to get, gradually,
into the very centre of their sleeping-quarters, where, sitting still,
though one may create a little disturbance at first, one soon ceases
to be noticed. As daylight dawns, there is some stretching of the
wings, and preening, and then comes an outburst of song, which sinks,
and then again rises, and so continues to fluctuate, though always
rising, on the whole, until the sound becomes a very din. At length
comes a first wave of motion, birds fluttering from perch to perch,
and bush to bush, then a sudden roar of wings, as numbers fly out, a
lull, and then a great crescendo of song, another greater roar, a still
greater crescendo, and so on, roar upon roar, crescendo on crescendo,
as the tide of life streams forth. The bushes where the birds went up
are completely empty, but soon they fill again, and the same excited
scene that preceded the last begins to re-enact itself. Birds dash from
their perches, hang hovering in the air, with rapidly-vibrating wings,
perch again, again fly and flutter, the numbers ever increasing, till
the whole place seems to seethe. “_Fervet opus_,” as Virgil says of
the bees. Greater and greater becomes the excitement, more and more
deafening the noise, till, as though reaching the boiling-point, a
great mass of the birds is flung off, or tears itself from the rest,
and goes streaming away over the tree-tops. The pot has boiled over:
that, rather than an art of volition, is what it looks like. There is
a roar, thousands rise together, but the greater part remain. It is as
though, from some great nature-bowl of dancing, bubbling wine, the most
volatile, irrepressible particles--the very top sparkles--went whirling
joyously away; or as though each successive flight out were a cloud
of spray, thrown off from the same great wave. It will thus be seen
that the starlings fly out of their bedroom, as they fly into it, in
successive bodies, namely, and not in one cloud, all together.

In the plantation are many fair-sized young trees, but it is only now,
when the birds have begun to fly, that they may be seen dashing into
them. They have been empty before, standing like uninhabited islands
amidst an ocean of life. When roosting, starlings seem to eschew trees
that are at all larger than saplings, or whose tops project much above
the level of the undergrowth. Tall, thin, flexible bushes--such as
hazel or thorn--closely set together, seem to be what they demand
for a sleeping-place. They sit on or near the tops of these, and
it is obvious that a climbing animal, of any size--say a cat or a
pole-cat--would find it difficult, or impossible, to run up them,
and would be sure to sway or shake the stem, even if it succeeded.
Whether this has had anything to do, through a long course of natural
selection, with the choice of such coverts, I do not know, nor, do I
suppose, does anybody. It is matter of conjecture, but what I have
mentioned in regard to the many small trees, scattered through the
plantation, seems to me curious. How comfortably, one would think,
could the birds roost in these, but, again, how easily could a cat run
up them. Of course a habit of this kind, gained in relation to such
possibilities as these, would have been gained ages ago, when there
might have been great differences both in the numbers and species of
such animals as would have constituted a nightly danger. Certain it is
that starlings, during the daytime, much affect all ordinarily-growing
trees. They roost, also, in reed-beds, where they would be still safer
from the kind of attack supposed.

Even whilst this book is going through the press, have come the
usual shoutings of the Philistines--their cries for blood and fierce
instigations to slaughter. The starlings, they tell us, do harm, but
what they really mean is this, that, seeing them in abundance, their
fingers itch to destroy. It is ever so. These men, having no souls in
their bodies, have nothing whatever to set against the smallest modicum
of injury that a bird or beast (unless it be a fox or a pheasant) may
do--against any of those sticks, in fact, that are so easily found to
beat dogs with. In one dingle or copse of their estate a pheasant or
two is disturbed. Then down with the starlings who do it, for what good
are the starlings to them? _They_ do not care about grand sights or
picturesque effects. They would sooner shoot a pheasant nicely, to see
it shut its eyes and die in the air--a subject of rapture with them,
they expatiate to women upon that--than gaze on the Niagara Falls--nay,
they would sooner shoot it anyhow. Were it a collection of old masters
that swept into their plantations, to flutter their darlings, they
would wish to destroy them too--unless indeed they could sell them:
there would be nothing to _look at_. Pheasants are their true gods.
To kill them last, they would kill everything else first--dogs, men,
yea women and children--but not liking, perhaps, to say so, they talk,
now, about the song-birds. The starlings, forsooth, disturb them. Oh
hypocrites who, for a sordid pound or two, which your pockets could
well spare, would cut down the finest oak or elm that ever gladdened
a whole countryside--yes, and have often done so--would you pretend
to an _aesthetic_ motive? This wretched false plea, with an appeal
for guidance in the matter of smoking out or otherwise expelling the
starlings from their sleeping-places, appeared lately in the _Daily
Telegraph_. In answer to it I wrote as follows--for I wish to embody my
opinion on the matter with the rest of this chapter, nor can I do so in
any better way:--

“SIR,--Will you allow me to make a hasty protest--for I have
little time, and write in the railway-train--against the cruel and
ignorant proposition to destroy the starlings, or otherwise interfere
with their sleeping arrangements, under the mistaken idea that they
do harm to song-birds? I live within a few miles of a wood where a
great host of these birds roost, every night. The wood is small, yet
in spite of their enormous numbers, they occupy only a very small
portion of it, for they sleep closely packed--and consider the size
of a starling. In that small wood are as many song-birds as it is
common to find in others of similar size belonging to the district,
and they are as indifferent to the starlings as the starlings are
to them--or, if they feel anything as they come sailing up, it is
probably a sympathetic excitement; for small birds, as I have seen and
elsewhere recorded,[19] will sometimes associate themselves joyously
with the flight out of rooks from their woods in the morning, and I
know not why they should more fear the one than the other. That they
do not care to roost amidst such crowds may be true; but what of that?
Were their--the song-birds’--numbers multiplied by a thousand, there
would still be plenty of room for them, even in the same small wood or
plantation; and, if not, there is no lack of others. What, then, is the
injury done them? It exists but in imagination. How many of those who
lightly urge the smoking out of these poor birds from their dormitories
(must they not sleep, then?) have seen starlings fly in to roost?
Night after night I have watched them sail up, a sight of surpassing
grandeur and interest--nay, of wonder too; morning after morning I
have seen them burst forth from that dark spot, all joyous with their
voices, in regular, successive hurricanes--a thing to make the heart
of all but Philistines rejoice exceedingly. Moreover, these gatherings
present us with a problem of deep interest. Who can explain those
varied, ordered movements, those marvellous aerial manœuvrings, that,
at times, absolute simultaneousness, as well as identity of motion and
action amidst vast crowded masses of birds, flying thick as flakes in a
snow-storm? Is there nothing to observe here, nothing to study? Are we
only to disturb and destroy? Our island offers no finer, no more grand
and soul-exalting sight than these nightly gatherings of the starlings
to their roosting-places. Who is the barbarian that would do away with
them? Why, it would take a Turner to depict what I have seen, to give
those grand effects--those living clouds and storms, those skies of
beating breasts and hurrying wings. Will no artist lift up his voice?
Will no life-and-nature lover speak? I call upon all naturalists with
souls (as Darwin says somewhere, feeling the need of a distinction),
upon all who can see beauty and poetry where these exist, upon all
who love birds and hate their slayers and wearers, to protest against
this threatened infamy, the destruction of our starling-roosts. How
should these gatherings interfere with the song-birds? The latter must
be numerous indeed if some small corner of a wood--or even some small
wood itself--to which all the starlings for ten or twenty miles around
repair, can at all crowd them for room. Such an idea is, of course,
utterly ridiculous, and in what other way can they be incommoded? In
none. They do not fear the starlings. Why should they? They are not
hawks, not predaceous birds, but their familiar friends and neighbours.
The whole thing is a chimera, or, rather, a piece of unconscious
hypocrisy, born of that thirst for blood, that itching to destroy,
which, instead of interest and appreciation, seems to fill the breasts
of the great majority of people--men, and women, too, those tender
exterminators--as soon as they see bird or beast in any numbers. It is
so, at least, in the country. How well I know the spirit! How well I
know (and hate) the kind of person in which it most resides. They would
be killing, these people--so they talk of ‘pests,’ and ‘keeping down.’”

Ever since I came to live in the west of England, I have watched the
starlings as opportunity presented, and I believe, of all birds,
they are the greatest benefactors to the farmer, and to agriculture
generally. Spread over the face of the entire country, they, all day
long, search the fields for grubs, yet because, at night, they roost
together in an inconsiderable space, they “infest” and are to be got
rid of. As to the smallness of the space required, and the wide area of
country from which the birds who sleep in it are drawn, I may refer to
a letter which appeared, some time ago, in the _Standard_,[20] in which
the opinions of Mr. Mellersh, author of “The Birds of Gloucestershire,”
are referred to. That starlings eat a certain amount of orchard
fruit is true--that is a more showy performance than the constant,
quiet devouring of grubs and larvæ. Such as it is, I have watched it
carefully, and know how small is the amount taken, compared with the
size of the orchards and the abundance of the fruit. Starlings begin
to congregate some time before they fly to their roosting-place. They
then crowd into trees--often high elm-trees, but often, too, into
those of orchards. The non-investigating person takes it for granted
that they are there, all for plunder, and that all are eating--but
this is a wrong idea. The greater number--full of another kind of
excitement--touch nothing, and dead barkless trees may be seen as
crowded as those which are loaded with fruit. Some fruit, as I say,
they do destroy, and this, in actual quantity, may amount to a good
deal. But let anybody see the orchards in the west of England--where
starlings are most abundant--during the gathering-time, and he may
judge as to the proportion of harm that the birds do. It is, in fact,
infinitesimal, not worth the thinking of, a negligeable quantity. Yet
in the same year that mountains of fruit are thrown away, or left
ungathered, when it may rot rather than that the poor--or indeed
anybody--should buy it cheap, you will hear men talk of the starlings.

Why, then, do the starlings “infest”? Why should they be persecuted?
Because they sleep together, in the space of, perhaps, a quarter of an
acre here and there--one sole dormitory in a large tract of country? Is
that their crime? For myself I see not where the harm of this can lie,
but supposing that a thimbleful does lie somewhere, that a pheasant or
two--for whose accommodation the country groans--is displaced, is not
the pleasure of having the birds, and their grub-collecting all day
long, sufficient to outweigh it? Is there nothing to love and admire
in these handsome, lively, friendly, vivacious birds? They do much
good, little harm, and none of that little to song-birds. Indeed they
are song-birds too, or very nearly. How pleasant are their cheery,
sing-talking voices! How greatly would we miss them--the better part
of us, I mean--were they once gone! Harm to the song-birds! Why, when
do these grand assemblages take place? Not till the spring is over, and
our migratory warblers gone or thinking of going. They are autumn and
winter sights. Are our thrushes and blackbirds alarmed, then?--or bold
robin? Perish the calumny! “Infest!” No, it is not the starlings--loved
of all save clods--who infest the country. It is rather, our country
gentlemen. “Song-birds!” No, _they_ have nothing to do with it. “Will
you ha’ the truth on’t?” To see life, and to wish to take it, is one
and the same thing with the many, so that the greater the numbers, the
greater seems the need to destroy.

[Illustration: PEEWITS AND NEST]



CHAPTER VII


Peewits, besides those aerial antics which are of love, or appertaining
to love, have some other and very strange ones, of the same nature,
which they go through with on the ground. A bird, indulging in these,
presses his breast upon the ground, and uses it as a pivot upon which
he sways or rolls, more or less violently, from side to side. The
legs, during this process, are hardly to be seen, but must, I suppose,
support the body, which is inclined sharply upwards from the breast.
The wings project like two horns on either side of the tail, which
is bent down between them, in a nervous, virile manner. All at once,
a spasm or wave of energy seems to pass through the bird, the tail
is bent, still more forcibly, down, the body and wings remaining as
before; and, with some most energetic waggles of it, from side to
side, the generative act appears to be performed. That, at any rate, is
what it looks like--the resemblance could hardly be more exact.

What is the meaning of this strange performance? The cock bird, say
the handbooks, is displaying before the hen. But where is the hen? In
nine cases out of ten she is not there; and this, and, still more, the
peculiarity of the actions, have convinced me that a wish to please
is not the real motive of them. Again, it is assumed that the cock
bird, only, rolls in this way. But is this the case? Some further
observations, as recorded by me in my field notes, may serve to answer
this question. “Two peewits have just paired.” I noticed no prior
antics, but, immediately after coition, one of the two--I am not quick
enough with the glasses to say which--runs a little way over the sand,
and commences to roll. In a moment or two, the other runs up, looking
most interested, and, on the first one’s rising and standing aside,
immediately sits along, in the exact spot where it was, and in the same
sort of attitude, though without rolling. Then this bird rises also,
and both stand looking at the place where they have just lain, and
making little pecks at it--or just beside it--with their bills. One of
the two then walks a little away, so that I lose her, whilst the other
one, on which I keep the glasses, and which I now feel sure is the
male, rolls, again, in the same place, and in the most marked manner.
Then, rising, he runs, for some way, with very short precise little
steps, which have a peculiar character about them. His whole pose and
attitude is, also, peculiar. The head and beak are pointed straight
forward, in a line with the neck, which is stretched straight out, to
its fullest extent, the crest lying flat down upon it. In this strange,
set attitude, and with these funny little set, formal steps, he
advances, without a pause, for some dozen or twenty yards, then stops,
resumes his ordinary demeanour, and, shortly, flies off. In a little
while the same thing occurs again, and, though still not quick enough
with the glasses to be quite certain which bird it is that leads the
way, immediately after the nuptial rite has been accomplished, I yet
think it is the male; and he rolls now in two different places, making
a run to some distance, in the way described, after the first time of
doing so. It is only on the second occasion that the other bird runs up
to him. The actions of the two are, then, as before, except that the
last comer--the female, as I think--rolls this time, slightly, also. It
is in a very imperfect and, as one may say, rudimentary manner, but I
catch the characteristic, though subdued, motion with the tail.

My glass is now upon a peewit standing negligently on the warrens,
when another one, entering its field, flies right down upon and pairs
with this bird, without having previously alighted on the ground.
Immediately afterwards he (the male) makes his funny little run
forward, starting from by the side of the female, and, at the end of
it, pitches forward and commences to roll. The female, shortly, comes
up to him, with the same interested manner as on the other occasions,
and, on his moving his length forward, and sinking down again, she sits
in the spot where he has just rolled, pecking on the ground, as before
described, whilst he rolls, again, just in front of her. The two birds
then rise, and stand together, making little desultory pecks. After a
while the hen walks away, leaving the cock, who rolls a little more
before following her. A strange performance this rolling is, when seen
quite plainly through the glasses. The whole body is lifted up, so that
the bird often looks not so much sitting as standing on his breast,
the rest of him being in the air. The breast is, thus, pressed into
the sand, whilst a rolling or side-to-side movement of it, varying in
force, helps to make a cup-shaped hollow. This curious raised attitude,
however, alternates with a more ordinary sitting posture, nor is the
rolling motion always apparent. After each raising of the wings and
tail, they are depressed, then again raised, and so on, whilst, at
intervals, there is the curious waggle of the tail, before described,
suggesting actual copulation.

In none of the above instances did I walk to examine the place where
the birds had rolled after they had left them. They would, indeed,
have been difficult to find, but upon another occasion, when the
circumstances made this easy, I did so, and found just such a little
round basin in the sand as the eggs are laid in. No eggs, however,
were ever laid here, whilst the bird was afterwards to be seen rolling
in other parts. It is easy, under such circumstances, to keep one
peewit--or at least one pair of them--distinct from others, for they
appropriate a little territory to themselves, which they come back to
and stand about in, however much they may fly abroad. And here the
birds return, in my experience, spring-time after spring-time, to lay
their eggs, so that I judge them to pair for life. It is well known
that the peewit does produce hollows in the way described--as, indeed,
he could hardly avoid doing--and as he is constantly rolling in various
places numbers of such little empty cups are to be found about the
bird’s breeding haunts. Mr. Howard Saunders, in his “Manual of British
Birds,” says, alluding to the spring-tide activities of the peewit,
“The ‘false nests’ often found are scraped out by the cock in turning
round, when showing off to the female.” I have shown what the bird’s
movements on these occasions really are. They have upon them, in my
opinion, the plain stamp of the primary sexual impulse, and it is out
of this that anything which can be looked upon as in the nature of a
conscious display must have grown. There is, indeed, evidence to show
that one bird performing these actions may be of interest to another,
but in spite of this and of the bright colour of the under tail-coverts
(which I have seen apparently examined, even touched, by one peewit,
whilst another, their owner, was rolling), it may be said that, in the
greater number of cases, the performing bird is paid no attention to,
and does not, itself, appear to wish to be, being often, to all intents
and purposes, alone. What relation, then, do such actions, which are
not confined to the peewit, bear to the more pronounced and undoubted
cases of sexual display? They are, I believe, the raw material out of
which these latter have arisen--sometimes, at least, if not always. I
have, also, shown that it is not the male peewit, only, that rolls.
As usual, it has been assumed that this is so, because here, as in
other cases, it is impossible, in field observation, to distinguish
the one sex from the other, and to assume is a much easier process
than to find out. Immediately after coition, however, one has both the
male and the female bird before one, and under these circumstances
I have seen them both act in the same way, as just described. It is
true that the actions of the female were less pronounced than those of
the male, but it does not follow that this is always the case, and,
moreover, it is of no great importance if it is. The essential fact
is that both the sexes go through the same movements, and, therefore,
if these movements are, as I believe them to be, the basis of sexual
display, one can see why, in some cases, there might be an inter-sexual
display, and, as a consequence, an inter-sexual selection. But I
leave this question, which has been profoundly neglected, to come to
another. In the passage I have quoted, the term “false nest” is put in
inverted commas, showing, I suppose, that it has often been used, and,
consequently, that the close resemblance of the false nest to the real
one has been generally recognised. I suggest that the false nest _is_
the real one--by which I mean that there is no essential difference in
the process by which each is produced; and, further, that the origin of
nest-building generally, amongst birds, has been the excited nervous
actions to which the warmth of the sexual feelings give rise, and the
activity of the generative organs.

My theory is based upon two assumptions, neither of which, I think, is
in itself improbable. The first of these assumptions is that birds,
in early times, made no nests, and the second that the eggs were
originally laid upon the ground only. Assuming this, and that these
ancient birds, like many modern ones, gave themselves up, during the
breeding time, to all sorts of strange, frenzied movements over the
ground, I suppose the eggs to have been laid in some place which had
been the scene of such movements. For, by a natural tendency, birds,
like other animals, get to connect a certain act with a certain place,
or with certain places. Thus they are wont to roost in the same tree,
and often on the same bough of it, to bathe in the same pool or bend
of the stream, &c. &c. In accordance with this disposition, their
antics, or love-frenzies, would have tended to become localised also;
the places where they had been most frequently indulged in would have
called up, by association, the nuptial feelings, and, consequently,
the eggs would have been more likely to have been laid in such places
than in other ones having no special significance. Like every other act
that is often repeated, this one of laying in a certain spot would have
passed into a habit, and thus the place of mutual dalliance--perhaps
of pairing, also--would have become the place of laying, therefore
the potential nest. Having got thus far, let us now suppose that one
chief form of these frenzied movements, which I suppose to have been
indulged in by both sexes, was a rolling, buzzing, or spinning round
upon the ground, by which means the bird so acting produced, like the
peewit, a greater or lesser depression in it. If the eggs were laid in
the depression so formed, they would then have been laid in a nest,
but such nest would not have been made with any idea of receiving the
eggs, or sheltering the young. Its existence would have been due to
excited and non-purposive movements, springing out of the violence of
the sexual emotions. Now, however, comes a further stage, which, it
might well be thought, could only have grown out of deliberate and
intelligent action--I mean at every slight step in the process--on
the part of the bird. I allude to the lining of grass, moss, sticks,
or even stones or fragments of shells, with which many birds that lay
their eggs in a hollow, made by them in the ground, further improve
this. That the nature and object of this process is now, through
memory, more or less understood by many birds, I, for one, do not
doubt; but, as every evolutionist will admit, it is the beginnings of
anything, which best explain, and are most fraught with significance.
Is it possible that even the actual building of the nest may have had a
nervous--a frenzied--origin? Lions and other fierce carnivorous animals
will, when wounded, bite at sticks, or anything else lying within their
reach. That a bird, as accustomed to peck as a dog or a lion is to
bite, should, whilst in a state of the most intense nervous excitement,
do the same, does not appear to me to be more strange, or, indeed, in
any way peculiar; and that such a trick would be inherited, and, if
beneficial, increased and modified, who that has Darwin in his soul can
doubt? Now if a bird, whilst ecstatically rolling on the ground, were
to pick up and throw aside either small sticks or any other loose-lying
and easily-seized objects--such as bits of grass or fibrous roots--I
can see no reason why it should not, by stretching out its neck to such
as lay just within its reach, and dropping them, again, when in an
easier attitude, make a sort of collection of them close about it--of
which, indeed, I will quote an instance farther on. Then if the eggs
were laid where the bird had rolled, they would be laid in the midst of
such a collection.

Now, I submit that these curious actions of the peewit, during the
breeding time, support the theory of the origin of nest-building, which
I have here roughly sketched, if not entirely, at least to a certain
extent. They point in that direction. Here we have movements, on the
part of both the male and female bird, which are, obviously, of a
sexual character, having upon them, I would say, the plain stamp of
the primary sexual instinct. They are most marked--or, at any rate,
most elaborate--immediately after the actual pairing, commencing,
then, in the curious little run and set attitude of the male. Out
of, and as a result of, these movements, a depression in the ground,
greatly resembling--if not, as I believe, identical with--that in
which the eggs are laid, is evolved, and in or about this is shown a
tendency to collect sticks, grass, or other loose substances. But how
different are these collecting movements to those which we see in a
bird whose nest-building instinct has become more highly developed!
They seem to be but just emerging from the region of blind forces, to
be only half-designed, not yet fully guided by a distinct idea of doing
something for a definite end. Yet it is just _these_ actions that most
resemble those which seem so purposive, in the ordinary building of a
nest. All the others seem to me to belong to that large and important
class of avine movements, which may be called the sexually ecstatic, or
love-mad, group. Nor can these two classes of actions be separated from
each other. The motion by which the hollow is produced is accompanied
by--if it may not rather be said to be a part of--that most pronounced,
peculiar, and, as it seems to me, purely sexual one of the tail, or
rather of the anal parts; and there is, moreover, the very marked and
distinctive run, with the set, rigid attitude--that salient feature of
a bird’s nuptial antics--which immediately precedes the rolling, in the
same way that the run precedes the jump in athletics. All this set of
actions must be looked upon as so many parts of one and the same whole
thing, and to explain such whole thing we must call in some cause which
will equally account for all its parts. The deliberate intention of
making a nest will not do this, for many of the actions noted do not
in the least further such a plan. On the other hand, sexual excitement
may just as well produce rolling on the ground--as, indeed, it does
in some other birds--and, perhaps, even pecking round about on it, as
it may the stiff, set run, and those other peculiar movements. And if
some of many movements, the cause of all of which is sexual excitement,
should be of such a nature as that, out of them, good might accrue to
the species, why should not natural selection seize hold of these, and
gradually shape them, making them, at last, through the individual
memory, intelligent and purposive? since, by becoming so, their ability
might be largely increased, and their improvement proceed at a quicker
rate. I believe that in these actions of the peewit, which sometimes
appear to me to stand in the place of copulation, and at other times
commence immediately after it, with a peculiar run, and then go on,
without pause or break, to other motions, all of which--even the
curious pecking which I have noticed--have, more or less, the stamp
of sexual excitement upon them, though some may, in their effects,
be serviceable--I believe, I say, that in all these actions we see
this process actually at work; and I believe, also, that in the
nest-building of species comparatively advanced in the art, we may
still see traces of its early sexual origin. I have been, for instance,
extremely struck with the movements of a hen blackbird upon the nest
that she was in course of constructing. These appeared to me to partake
largely of an ecstatic--one might almost say a beatific--nature, so
that there was a large margin of energy, over and above the actual
business of building--at least it struck me so--to be accounted for. I
was not in the least expecting to see this, and I well remember how it
surprised and struck me. The wings of this blackbird were half spread
out, and would, I think, have drooped--an action most characteristic
of sexual excitement in birds--had not the edge of the nest supported
them, and I particularly noted the spasmodic manner in which the tail
was, from time to time, suddenly bent down. It is true that it then
tightly clasped--as one may almost call it--the rim of the nest,
pressing hard against it on the outer side. But though such action
may now have become part of a shaping process, yet it was impossible
for me, when I saw it, not to think of the peewit, in which something
markedly similar could have answered no purpose of this kind. Were the
latter bird, instead of rolling on the ground, to do so in a properly
constructed nest, of a size suitable to its bulk, the tail, being bent
forcibly down in the way I have described, would compress the rim of
it, just as did that of the blackbird. And were the blackbird to do
what I have seen it do, on the bare ground, and side by side with the
peewit, a curious parallel would, I think, be exhibited. As far as
I have been able to see, the actions of rooks on the nest are very
similar to those of the blackbird, and a black Australian swan, that I
watched in the Pittville Gardens at Cheltenham, went through movements,
upon the great heap of leaves flung down for it, which much resembled
those of the peewit upon the ground. By what I understand from the
swan-keeper at Abbotsbury, the male of the mute swan acts in much the
same way. Of course what is wanted is extended observation of the way
in which birds build their nests--that is to say, of their intimate
actions when on them, either placing the materials or shaping the
structure. If the origin of the habit has been as I imagine, one might
expect, here, to see traces of it, in movements more or less resembling
those to which I have drawn attention.

I have noticed the curious way in which both the male and female
peewit--after movements which appear to me to differ considerably from
the more characteristic love-antics of birds in general--peck about
at bits of grass, or any other such object growing or lying within
their reach; and I have speculated on the possibility of actions like
these, though at first of a nervous and merely mechanical character,
having grown, at last, into the deliberate and intentional building
of a nest. Whether, in the case of the peewit, we see quite the first
stage of the process, I will not be certain; but we see it, I believe,
in another of our common British birds, viz. the wheat-ear. My notes on
the extraordinary behaviour of two males of this bird, whilst courting
the female, I have published in my work, “Bird Watching,”[21] from
which I will now quote a few lines bearing upon this point: “Instead of
fighting, however, which both the champions seem to be chary of, one
of them again runs into a hollow, this time a very shallow one, but in
a manner slightly different. He now hardly rises from the ground, over
which he seems more to spin, in a strange sort of way, than to fly; to
buzz, as it were, in a confined area, and with a tendency to go round
and round. Having done this a little, he runs from the hollow, plucks a
few little bits of grass, returns with them into it, drops them there,
comes out again, hops about as before, flies up into the air, descends,
and again dances about.” Now, here, a bird brings to a certain spot,
not unlike such a one as the nest is usually built in--approaching
it, at any rate--some of the actual materials of which the nest is
composed, and I ask if, under the circumstances, it can possibly be
imagined that such bird really is building its nest, in the ordinary
purpose-implying sense of the term. As well might one suppose--so it
seems to me--that a man, in the pauses of a fierce sword-and-dagger
fight with a rival suitor, should set seriously to work house-hunting
or furniture-buying. These wheat-ears, I should mention, had been
following each other about, for the greater part of the afternoon,
and though, as hinted, not exactly fire-eaters, had yet several times
closed in fierce conflict. The manner in which the grass was plucked by
one of them, partook of the frenzied character of their whole conduct.
How difficult, therefore, to suppose that here, all at once, was a
deliberate act, having to do with the building of a nest, before,
apparently, either of the two rivals had been definitely chosen by the
hen bird! Yet, when once the object had been seized, associations may
have been aroused by it.

Facts of this kind appear to me to prove, at least, the possibility
of a process so elaborate, and, seemingly, so purposive as that of
building a nest, having commenced in mere mechanical, unintelligent
actions. As further evidence of this, and also of the passing of such
actions into a further stage--that of actual construction, more or
less combined with intelligence--I will now quote from an interesting
account, by Mr. Cronwright Schreiner, of the habits of the ostrich,
as farmed in South Africa, which was published in the _Zoologist_ for
March 1897, but which I had not read at the time these ideas first
occurred to me:--

“_The Nest Made by the Pair Together._--The cock goes down on to his
breast, scraping or kicking the sand out, backwards, with his feet....
The hen stands by, often fluttering and clicking her wings, and helps
by picking up the sand, with her beak, and dropping it, irregularly,
near the edge of the growing depression.” (Compare the actions, as I
have noted them, of both the male and female peewit.)

“_The Little Embankment Round the Nest._--The sitting bird, whilst on
the nest, sometimes pecks the sand up, with its beak, nearly as far
from the nest as it can reach, and drops it around the body. A little
embankment is thus, gradually, formed.... The formation ... is aided
by a peculiar habit of the birds. When the bird on the nest is much
excited (as by the approach of other birds, or people) it snaps up the
sand, spasmodically, without rising from the nest, and without lifting
its head more than a few inches from the ground. The bank is raised
by such sand as falls inward. The original nest is, merely, a shallow
depression.”

Remarks follow on the use of the bank, which has become a part--and
an important part--of the nest. We, however, are concerned with
the origin both of it and the depression. It seems clear, from the
account, that the former is made, in part at least, without the bird
having the intention of doing so; whilst, to make the latter, the
cock assumes the attitude of sexual frenzy (described in the same
paper, and often witnessed by myself), an attitude which does not
seem necessary for mere scratching, nor, indeed, adapted for it. Why
should a bird, possessing such tremendous power in its legs--moving
them so freely, and accustomed to kick and stamp with them--have to
sink upon its breast in order to scratch a shallow depression? Surely,
considering their length, they could be much less conveniently used,
for such a purpose, in this position, than if the bird stood up. If
the scratching, however, has grown out of the sexual frenzy, we can,
then, well understand the characteristic posture of the latter being
continued. I suspect, myself, that the breast of the bird still helps
to make the depression, as in courtship it must almost necessarily
do--for the ostrich rolls, on such occasions, in much the same way as
the peewit.

These nesting habits of the ostrich[22] seem to me to support my idea
of the origin of nest-making. How strange, if “spasmodic” and “excited”
actions have had nothing to do with it, that they should yet help,
here, to make the nest! How strange that the cock ostrich, only, should
make the depression, assuming that attitude in which he rolls when
courting--or, rather, desiring--the hen, if this has no connection with
the fact that it is he only (or he pre-eminently) who, in the breeding
time, acts in this manner! In most birds, probably--though this has
been taken too much for granted--those frenzied movements arising out
of the violence of sexual desire, are more violent and frenzied in the
male than in the female. In this way we may see, upon my theory, the
reason why the cock bird so often helps the hen in making the nest; nor
is it more difficult to suppose that the hen, in most cases, may have
been led to imitate him, than it is to suppose the converse of this.
We might expect, however, that as the process became more and more
elaborate and intelligent, the chief part in it would, in the majority
of instances, be taken by the female, as is the case; for as soon as a
nest had come to be connected, in the bird’s mind, with eggs and young,
then her parental affection (the “στοργἡ” of Gilbert White), by being
stronger than that of the male, would have prompted her to take the
lead. I can see no reason why acts which were, originally, nervous,
merely--spasmodic, frenzied--should not have become, gradually, more
and more rational. Natural selection would have accomplished this; for,
beneficent as actions, blindly performed, might be to an animal, they
would, surely, be more so, if such animal were able, by the exercise of
its intelligence, to guide and shape them, in however small a degree.
Thus, not only would those individuals be selected, who performed an
act which was advantageous, but those, also, whose intelligence best
enabled them to see to what end this act tended, and, so, to improve
upon it, would be selected out of these. Such a process of selection
would tend to develop, not only the general intelligence, but, in a
more especial degree, intelligence directed along certain channels, so
that the latter might be out of proportion to the former, and this is
what one often seems to see in animals.

Thus, as it appears to me, instead of instinct having commenced in
intelligence, which has subsequently lapsed, the latter may often have
grown gradually out of the former, blind movements, as we may call
them, coming, at length, to have an aim and object, and so to be
rational ones. It may be asked, by what door could this intelligence,
in regard to actions originally not guided by it, have entered? I
reply, by that of memory. A bird does not make a nest or lay eggs once
only, but many times. Therefore, though the actions by which the nest
is produced, on the first occasion, may have no object in them, yet
memory, on the next and subsequent ones, will keep telling the bird
for what purpose they have served. Such individuals as remembered
this most strongly, and could best apply their recollections, would
have an advantage over the others, for their actions would now be
rational, and, being so, they would be able to modify and improve
them. Their offspring would inherit this stronger memory and these
superior powers, and also, probably, a tendency to use them both, in
the same special direction. Whether knowledge itself may not, in some
sort of way, be inherited, is, also, a question to be asked. If a bird
instinctively builds a nest, may it not instinctively know why it does
so? If there is any truth in these views, we ought to see, in some
of the more specialised actions of animals--and, more particularly,
of birds--a mingling, in various proportions, of intelligence and
blind, unreasoning impulse. This, to my mind, is just what we do see,
in many such; as, for instance, in the courting or nuptial antics,
in those other ones, perhaps more extraordinary, which serve to
draw one’s attention from the nest or young, and, finally, in the
building of the nest. Not only do the two elements seem mingled and
blended together, in all of these, but they are mingled in varying
proportions, according to the species. No one who has seen both a snipe
and a wild duck “feign,” as it is commonly called, being disabled,
can have helped noticing that far more of intelligence seems to
enter into the performance of the latter bird, than into that of the
former. The moor-hen is not a bird that is known in connection with
any special ruse or device for enticing intruders from its young, but
I have seen one fall into a sort of convulsion, on the water, upon my
appearing, very suddenly, on the bank of a little stream where she
was swimming, with her young brood. The actions of a snipe, startled
from its eggs, were much more extraordinary, and equally, as it seemed
to me, of a purely nervous character.[23] Here, surely, we must have
the raw material for that remarkable instinct, so highly developed in
some birds, by which they attract attention from their young, towards
themselves. But, if so, this instinct is not lapsed intelligence,
but, rather, hysteria become half-intelligent. The part which mere
muscular-nervous movements may have played, under the agency of natural
selection, in the formation of some instincts, has not, I think, been
sufficiently considered.

There is another class of facts which, I think, may be explained on
the above view of the origin of the nest-building instinct. Some birds
pair, habitually, on the nest, whilst a few make runs, or bowers, for
the express purpose, apparently, of courting, and where pairing, not
improbably, may also take place. Now, if the ancient nest had been,
before everything, the place of sexual intercourse, we can understand
why it should, in some cases, have retained its original character, in
this respect.

What, now, is the real nature of those frenzied motions in birds,
during the breeding season, before they have passed, either into what
may properly be called courting antics, or the process of building a
nest? I have described what the peewit actually does, and I suggest
that the rolling of a single bird differs only, in its essential
character, from actual coition, by the fact of its being singly
performed, and that, thus, the primary sexual instinct (_der thierische
Trieb_) directly gives birth to the secondary, nest-building one. It
is true that the pairing, when I saw it, did not take place on the
same spot where the rolling afterwards did. Nevertheless, the distance
was not great, and it varied considerably. The run, which preceded
the rolling, commenced immediately on the consummation of the nuptial
rite, as though arising from the excitation of it--as may be seen with
other birds; and if this run, which varied in length, were to become
shorter and ultimately to be eliminated altogether, the bird would
then be pairing, rolling, and at last, as I believe, laying its eggs
in one and the same place.[24] Supposing this to have been originally
the case, then the early nest would have been put to two uses, that of
a thalamum and that of a cradle, and to these two uses it is in some
cases put now, as I have myself seen. That out of one thing having
two uses--“the bed contrived a double debt to pay”--there should have
come to be two things, each having one of these uses--as, _e.g._, the
nest proper and the bower--or that the one use should have tended to
eclipse and do away with the other, is, to my idea, all in the natural
order of events; but this I have touched upon in a previous chapter.
To conclude, in the peewit movements of a highly curious nature
immediately succeed, and seem thus to be related to, the generative
act, and whilst these movements in part resemble that act, and bear,
as a whole, a peculiar stamp, expressed by the word “sexual,” some of
them, not separable from the _tout ensemble_, of which they form a
part, suggest, also, the making of a nest; and, moreover, something
much resembling a peewit’s nest is, by such movements, actually made.

Taking all this together, and in conjunction with the breeding and
nesting habits of the ostrich and some other birds, we have here, as
it seems to me, an indication of some such origin of nest-building,
amongst birds, as that which I have imagined. That the art is now,
speaking generally, in such a greatly advanced state is no argument
against its having thus originated, since there is no limit to what
natural selection, acting in relation to the varying habits of each
particular species, may have been able to effect. Certainly, the actual
evidence on which I found my theory, though it does not appear to me
to be weak in kind, is very scanty in amount. To remedy this, more
observation is wanted, and what I would suggest is that observant men,
with a taste for natural history, should, all over the world, pay
closer attention to the actual manner in which birds do all that they
do do, in the way of courting, displaying, anticking, nest-building,
enticing one from their young, fighting, &c. &c.--all those activities,
in fact, which are displayed most strongly during the breeding season.
I do not at all agree with a certain reviewer of mine, that the
scientific value of such observations has been discounted by Darwin--as
if any man, however great, could tear all the heart out of nature!
On the contrary, I believe that the more we pry the more will truth
appear, and I look upon mere general references, such as one finds in
the ordinary natural history books, as mere play-work and most sorry
reading for an intellectual man. What is the use of knowing that some
bird or other goes through “very extraordinary antics in the season of
love”? This is not nearly enough. One requires to know what, exactly,
these antics are, the exact movements of which they consist--the
minutest details, in fact, gathered from a number of observations. When
one knows this one may be able to speculate a little, and what interest
is there, either in natural history or anything else, if one cannot
do that? _Mere_ facts are for children only. As they begin to point
towards conclusions they become food for men.

In the study of bird-life nothing perhaps is more interesting than
the antics of one sort or another which we see performed by different
species, and the nature and origin of which it is often difficult to
understand. As has been seen, I account for some of these through
natural selection acting upon violent nervous movements, the result
either of sexual or some other kind of emotion--as, for instance,
sudden fright when the bird is disturbed on the nest, or elsewhere,
with its young, producing a sort of hysteria or convulsion; others I
believe to be due to what instinct, generally, is often supposed to
be, namely, to the lapse of intelligence. I believe that if a certain
action or set of actions is very frequently repeated, it comes to
be performed unintelligently; nay, more, that there is an imperious
necessity of performing it, independently of any good which it may do.
It is watching birds fighting which has led me to this conclusion. Far
from doing the best thing under the circumstances, they often appear
to me to do things which lead to no particular result, neglecting,
through them, very salient opportunities. A striking instance of
this, though not quite of the kind that I mean, is offered by the
stock-dove, for when these birds fight, they constantly interrupt
the flow of the combat, by bowing in the most absurd way, not to one
another, but generally, so to speak, for no object or purpose whatever,
apparently, but only because they must do so. The fact is, the bow
has become a formula of courtship, and as courting and fighting are
intimately connected, the one suggests the other in the mind of the
bird, who bows, all at once, under a misconception, and as not being
able to help it. But though there is no utility here, it may be said
that there is a real purpose, though a mistaken one, so that the bird
is not acting automatically. It is in the actual movements of the
fight itself--in the cut and thrust, so to speak--that I have been
struck by the automatic character impressed upon some of them. This
was especially the case with a pair of snipes that I watched fighting,
by the little streamlet here, one morning, perhaps for half-an-hour.
They stood facing each other, drawn up to their full height, and, at
or about the same instant, each would give a little spring into the
air, and violently flap the wings. I would say that they struck with
them--that manifestly was what they should have done, the _rationale_
of the action--but the curious point is that this did not seem to be
necessary, or, at any rate, it was often, for a considerable space of
time, in abeyance. The great thing appeared to be to jump, and, at
the same time, to flap the wings, and as long as the birds did this,
they seemed satisfied, though there was often a foot or more of space
between them. Sometimes, indeed, they got closer together, and then
they had the appearance of consciously striking at one another; but
having watched them attentively, from beginning to end, I came to the
conclusion that this was more apparent than real, and that, provided
the wings were waved, it mattered little whether they came in contact
with the adversary’s person, or not. For when these snipes jumped wide
apart, or, at any rate, at such a distance that each was quite beyond
the other’s reach, they did not seem to be struck with the futility
of hitting out, under these circumstances, or to be greatly bent on
closing, and putting an end to such a fiasco. Far from this, they went
on in just the same way, and, for one leap in which they smote each
other, there were, perhaps, a dozen in which they only beat the air. I
do not mean to suggest that the birds were not actually and consciously
fighting, but it certainly did seem to me that their principal
fighting action--the blow, with the leap in the air, namely--had
become stereotyped and, to some extent, dissociated from the idea
of doing injury, in which it had originated. It seemed, in fact, to
be rather an end in itself, than a means to an end. Another and very
noticeable point, which helped to lead me to this view, was that,
except in this way, which, as I have said, was mostly ineffective,
the birds seemed to have no idea of doing each other harm. Often they
would be side by side, or the beak of the one almost touching the back
or shoulder of the other. Yet in this close contiguity, where the one
bird was often in a position very favourable, as it seemed, for a
non-specialised attack, no such attack was ever made; on the contrary,
to go by appearances, one might have thought them both actuated by a
quite friendly spirit. After about half-an-hour’s conflict of this
description, these snipes flew much nearer to me, so that I could see
them even more distinctly than I had done before. I thought, now,
that I saw a perplexed, almost a foolish, look on the part of both of
them, as though they had forgotten what, exactly, was the object which
had brought them into such close proximity; and then, each seeming to
remember that to jump and flap the wings was the orthodox thing to do,
they both did it, in a random and purposeless sort of way, as though
merely to save the situation. This was the last jump made, and then the
_affaire_ appeared to end by the parties to it forgetting what it was
about, or why there had been one. My idea is that such oblivion may
prevail, at times, during the actual combat, which becomes, then, a
mere set figure, an irrational dance or display, into which it might,
by degrees, wholly pass.

There was another point of interest in this interesting spectacle. The
birds, when they were not actually springing or flapping, mutually
chased, or, rather, followed and were followed by, each other. But
this, too, seemed to have become a mere form, for I never saw either of
them make the slightest effort to dash at and seize the other, though
they were often quite at close quarters and never very far apart. When
almost touching, the foremost bird would turn, upon which the other
did also, as a matter of course, but instead of running, walked away
in a formal manner, and with but slightly quicker steps. The whole
thing had a strange, formal look about it. When this following or
dogging--chasing it cannot properly be called--passed into the kind of
combat which I have described, it was always in the following manner.
The bird behind, having pressed a little upon the one in front, instead
of making a dash at him--as would have seemed natural, but which I
never once saw--jumped straight into the air, flapping its wings, and
the other, turning at the same instant, did likewise, neither blow,
if it could indeed be called one, taking effect. The two thus fronted
one another again, and the springing and flapping, having recommenced,
would continue for a longer or shorter period. When these snipes
leaped, their tails were a little fanned, but not conspicuously so.
Another thing I noticed was, that the bird retreating often had its
tail cocked up perpendicularly, whereas this was not the case with the
one following.

Both the two points that struck me in the fighting of these snipes,
viz. the apparent inability to fight in any but one set way, and the
formal, alternate following of, and retreating from one another, I have
noticed, also, in the fighting of blackbirds, and other birds, whilst
the last has been pushed to quite a remarkable extreme in the case of
the partridge. Pairs of these birds may be seen, as early as January,
running up and down the fields--often along a hedge, or, here, a row
of pine trees--as though to warm themselves, but really in pursuit of
one another, though the interval between them is often so great that,
but for both turning at the same precise instant of time, one would
think they were acting independently. This interval may be as much as
a hundred yards, or even more, and it is often exactly maintained for
a very long time. At any moment the two birds, whilst thus running at
full speed, may turn, and the chase is then continued in exactly the
same way, except that it is now in an opposite direction, and that the
pursuer and pursued have changed parts. Apollo--one might say, were
the sport of an amorous nature--has become Daphne, Daphne Apollo; for
as each turns, each becomes actuated by the spirit that, but a second
before, had filled the other--a complete _volte face_ upon either
side, both spiritually and corporeally. Keepers have, in fact, told me
that it is the male and female partridge, who thus chase one another;
but this, from my own observation, I do not believe. Often, indeed,
the birds will get out of sight before the interval between them
has been lessened, or the pursued one will fly off, followed by his
pursuer, without anything in the nature of a combat having occurred.
At other times, however, the distance separating the two is gradually
diminished, the turns, as it lessens, become more and more frequent,
and, at length, a sort of sparring scuffle takes place, in which beak
as well as claw is used. One of the birds has been run down, in fact,
but the odd thing is that, as soon as it escapes, it turns round again,
upon which the other does also, and the scene that I have described
recommences. Now why should a bird that has just had the disadvantage
in a struggle, and is being pursued by the victor, turn so boldly round
upon him, and why--this in a much higher degree--should that victor,
with the prestige of his victory full upon him, turn, the instant the
bird he has vanquished does, and run away from him like a hare? In
all this there appears to me to be something unusual, suggesting that
what was, originally, an act of volition, is now no longer so, but
has become an automatic reaction to an equally automatic stimulus.
The will, as it appears to me, except, of course, in _los primeros
movimientos_, has almost dropped out of use, so that when the drama has
once commenced, all the rest follows of itself. I have said that the
two birds turn simultaneously. Strictly speaking, I suppose that one
of them--the pursued one probably--makes the initial movement towards
doing so: but so immediate is the action of the other upon it, that
it often looks as though both had swung round at the same instant of
time. This, surely, at a distance of fifty or a hundred yards, is, in
itself, a very remarkable thing, though, as far as I can make out,
these curious chases have not attracted much attention. If we wish to
see their real origin, we must watch the fighting of other species.
In all, or nearly all, birds, there is a mixture of pugnacity and
timidity. The former urges them to rush upon the foe, the latter to
turn tail and retreat, whenever they are, themselves, rushed upon.
Thus, in most combats, there is a good deal of alternate advancing and
retreating, but this is no more than what one might expect, and has a
quite natural appearance. In various species, however, the tendency
is exaggerated in a greater or less degree, until, in the partridge,
we find it developed to a quite extraordinary extent; whilst there is
something--a sort of clockwork appearance in the bird’s actions, due,
I suppose, to the wonderful simultaneousness with which they turn, and
the length of time for which they keep at just the same distance from
one another, with a wide gap between them--which strikes one as very
peculiar.

Do we not see in these varying degrees of one and the same thing,
commencing with what is scarce noticeable, and ending in something
extremely pronounced, the passage, through habit and repetition, of a
rational action into a formal one? Do we not, in fact, see one kind of
_antic_, with the cause of it? A natural tendency has led to a certain
act being so frequently performed that it has become, at last, a sort
of set figure that can no longer be shaken off. As, in the case of the
partridge, this figure is gone through over and over again, sometimes
for an hour or more together, I believe that it will, some day, either
quite take the place of fighting, with this species, or become a thing
distinct and apart from it; so that its original meaning being no
longer recognisable, it will be alluded to as “one of those odd and
inexplicable impulses which seem, sometimes, to possess birds,” &c.
&c.--so difficult to explain, in fact, that some naturalists would
prefer not to try to. For myself, I like trying, and I see, in the
curiously set and formal-looking combats of many birds, a possible
origin of some of those so-called dances or antics which do not seem
to bear any special relation to the attracting or charming of the
one sex by the other. The whole thing, I believe, is this. Anything
constantly gone through, in a particular manner, becomes a routine,
and a routine becomes, in time, automatical, the more so, probably, as
we descend lower in the scale of life. Whilst the actions get more and
more fixed, the clear purpose that originally dictated them, becomes,
first, subordinated, then obscured, finally forgotten, and intelligence
has lapsed. We have, then, an antic, but when this has come about,
change is likely to begin. For the actions being not, now, of any
special use, there will be nothing to keep them fixed, and as muscular
activity goes hand in hand with mental excitement, such excitement
will, probably, give rise to other actions, which, having no definite
object, and being of an energetic character, must often seem grotesque.
Movements, indeed, appear odd in proportion as we can see no meaning
in them. There being, now, such antics, accompanied with excitement,
it is probable that excitement of any kind will tend to produce them,
and, the strongest kind of excitement being the sexual one, they are
likely to become a feature of the season of love. Moreover, the most
vigorous birds will be the best performers in this kind, and if these
be the males, then, whether they win the females by their vigour, or
whether the females choose them for the result of it--their antics
namely--in either case these will increase. For my part, I believe that
the one sex will, generally, take an interest in what the other does,
which would lead to more and more emulation, and more and more choice.
Thus, however any antic may have originated, it seems to me very
probable that it will, ultimately, become a sexual one, and it will
then often be indistinguishable from such as have been entirely sexual
in their origin. Examples of the latter would be, in my view, those
frenzied motions, springing from the violence of the sexual passion,
which, by their becoming pleasing to the one sex, when indulged in
by the other, have been moulded, by this influence, into a conscious
display. Inasmuch, however, as, upon my supposition, almost any action
can become an antic, and as a long time may then elapse before it is
employed sexually, it is natural that we should find, amongst birds, a
number of antics which are not sexual ones, and which neither add to,
nor detract from, the evidence for or against sexual selection.

It may be said that the snipes which I saw fighting were only one pair.
Still they were a pair of snipes, and as representative, I suppose,
as any other pair of the same bird. No doubt there would be degrees
of efficiency and formality, but this would not affect the general
argument. Wherever, in nature, any process is going on, some of the
individuals of those species affected by it will be more affected than
others.

[Illustration: COAL-TIT]



CHAPTER VIII


Tits, as I think I have said, or implied, are a feature of
Icklingham. They like the fir plantations, which, though of no great
dimensions--for they only make a patch here and there--are to them, by
virtue of their tininess, as the wide-stretching forests of Brazil.
Sitting here, in the spring-time, on the look-out, with a general
alertness for anything, but not thinking of tits in particular, one
may become, gradually, aware--for their softness sinks upon one, one
never sees them suddenly--of one of these little birds dropping, every
few minutes, from the branches of a fir to the ground, and there
disappearing. In a lazy sort of way you watch--to be more direct I once
watched--and soon I saw there were a pair. They crossed one another,
sometimes, going or coming, and, each time, the one that came had
something very small in its bill. Walking to the tree, I found, at only
a foot or two from its trunk, a perfectly circular little hole, opening
smoothly from amongst the carpet of pine-needles, with which the ground
was covered. Against this I laid my ear, but there were no chitterings
from inside, all was silent in the little, future nursery--for
evidently the nest was a-making. But how, now, was I to watch the birds
closely? When I sat quite near they would not come, the cover being
not very good; when I lay, at full length, behind a fir-trunk, and
peeped round it, I could see, indeed, the ground where the hole was,
but not the hole itself, which was just what I wanted to, inasmuch
as, otherwise, I could not see the birds enter it. How they did so
was something of a mystery, for they just flew down and disappeared,
without ever perching or hopping about--at least I had never seen them
do so. Here, then, was a difficulty--to lie, and yet see the hole, or
to sit or stand, and look at it, without frightening the birds away.
But Alexander cut the Gordian knot, and I, under these circumstances,
climbed a fir-tree. There was one almost by the side of the one they
flew to, and the closeness of its branches, as well as my elevated
situation amongst them--birds never look for one up aloft--would, I
thought, prevent their noticing me. Up, therefore, I got, to a point
from which I looked down, directly and comfortably, on their little
rotunda. Soon one of the coal-tits flew into its tree--the same one
always--and dropping, softly, from branch to branch, till it got to the
right one, dived from it right into the tiny aperture, and disappeared
through that, in a feather-flash. It was wonderful. There was no
pause or stay, not one light little perch on the smooth brink, not a
flutter above it even, no twist or twirl in the air, nothing at all;
but he just flew right through it, as though on through the wide fields
of air. I doubt if he touched the sides of it, even, though the hole
looks as small as himself. And it is the same every time. With absolute
precision of aim each bird comes down on that dark little portal, and
vanishes through it, like a ball disappearing through its cup. If they
touch it at all, they fit it like that.

For upwards of an hour, now, the two birds pass and repass one another,
popping in and out and carrying something in with them each time,
but such a small something that I can never make out what it is--a
little pinch of stuff, one may call it, only just showing in the beak.
Sometimes it is green, as though the birds had picked off tiny pieces
of the growing pine-needles, and sometimes it looks brown, which may
mean that they have pulled off some bark--but always very small. An
attempt to follow the birds on their collecting journeys, and see what
they get, is unsuccessful. They fly, very quickly, into the tops of the
firs, which stand dark and thick all around, and are immediately lost
to view. Whatever the material is, they come to the nest with it every
five or six minutes, nor do they once make their entrance except by
flying directly through the aperture. They would be ashamed, I think,
to perch and hop down into it. Very pretty it was to see these little
birds coming and going--especially coming. Sometimes they would be
with me quite suddenly, and yet so quietly, so mousily, they never
gave me a start. At other times I used to see them coming, fluttering
through the sun-chequered lanes of the fir-trees, till, reaching their
very own one, they would sink, as it were, through its frondage, full
of caution and quietude, descending, each time, by the same or nearly
the same little staircase of boughs, from the bottom step of which
they flew down. Some days afterwards, they were still building their
nest, but after that I had to leave. The nest itself I pulled up and
examined, a year afterwards, and it disproved all my theories as to
what the birds had been building it with. It was of considerable
size--round, as was the cavern in which it lay--and composed, almost
wholly, of three substances, viz. moss, wool, and rabbits’ fur. The two
latter had been employed to form the actual cup or bed--the blankets,
so to speak--whilst the moss made the mattress. All three were in great
abundance, and no royal personage, I think--not even Hans Andersen’s
real princess--can ever have slept in a softer or warmer bed. It seems
wonderful--almost incredible--that these two tiny birds, carrying,
each time, such a tiny little piece, in their bills, could ever have
got so great a mass of materials together. There it was, however, one
more example of the great results which spring from constantly repeated
small causes. The cavity in which the nest was placed, was, no doubt,
a natural one, but the hole by which the birds entered it was so very
round, that it must, I think, have been their own work, or, at least,
modified by them. It looked just as if a woodpecker had made it.

It was in a hedge opposite to a plantation like this--a hedge made
of planted branches of the Scotch fir, such as are common in these
parts--that I once watched a pair of long-tailed tits building their
much more wonderful nest. Like the coal-tits they are joint-labourers,
and both seem equally zealous. Often they arrive together, each with
something in its bill. One only enters, the other stays outside and
waits for it to come out, before going in itself. This, at least, is
the usual régime. Occasionally, if the bird inside stays there a very
long time, the other gets impatient, and goes in too, so that both are
in the nest together--but this one does not often see. It is a prettier
sight to see one hang at the entrance with a feather in his bill,
which is received by the other--just popping out its head--upon which
he flies away. This is in the later stages, when the nest is being
lined, and when the birds come, time after time, at intervals of a few
minutes, each with a feather in its bill. White these feathers often
are, and of some size (so that they look very conspicuous). I have seen
a bird, once, with two--two broad, soft, white ones that curled round,
backwards, on each side of its head, so as almost to hide it. Such
feathers must be brought from some particular place--a poultry-yard
most probably--and both birds arriving with them, at the same time, is
proof, or at least strong evidence, that they do their collecting in
company. I have noticed, too, that if one bird comes with a feather of
a different kind--for instance, a long straight one instead of a soft
curled one--the other does too, showing how close is the association.
At other times they bring lichen--with which the whole of the nest,
outside, is stuck over--and so tiny are the pieces they carry, that I
have, time after time, been unable to see them, even though sitting
near and using the glasses. I have been so struck with this, that,
sometimes, I have thought the lichen was carried rather in the mouth
than in the bill, by which means it would be moistened, and so stick
the easier on the outside surface of the nest.

[Illustration: A PRETTY PAIR

_Long-Tailed Tits Building_]

It is most interesting to see the nest growing under the joint labours
of the two little architects, and it does so at a quicker pace than
one would have thought possible. At first it is a cup, merely, like
most other nests--those of the chaffinch, goldfinch, linnet, &c.--and
it is because the birds will not leave off working, but continue to
build, that the cup becomes deeper and deeper till it is a purse or
sack. Here, as I imagine, we see the origin of the domed nest. It was
not helped forward by successive little steps of intelligence, but
only by the strength of the building instinct, which would not let the
birds make an end. The same cause has produced also, as I believe, the
supernumerary nests which so many birds make, and which are such a
puzzle to many people, who wonder at what seems to them extra labour,
rather than extra delight. Even naturalists are always talking about
the labour and toil of a bird, when building, but this, in my opinion,
is an utterly erroneous way of looking at it. As Shakespeare says, “the
labour we delight in physics pain,” and what delight can be greater
than that of satisfying an imperious and deep-seated instinct? It is in
this that our own greatest happiness lies, whilst the inability, from
various causes, to do so, constitutes misery. But with the building
bird there is no real labour, nothing that really makes toil, only a
fine exhilarating exercise which must be a pleasure in itself, and to
which is added that pleasure which ease and excellence in anything
we do and wish to do, confers. The best human equivalent for the joy
which a bird must feel in building its nest, is, I think, that of a
great artist or sculptor, whose soul is entirely absorbed in his work.
Those who pity the toils of such men in producing their masterpieces
may, with equal propriety, pity the bird; but here, too, the latter has
the advantage, for not even the sway of genius can be so o’ermastering
as that of a genuine instinct, the strength of which we must estimate
by those few primary ones--we call them passions--which are left in
ourselves.

It is this mighty joy in the breast of the little tit, which, by the
help of natural selection, has produced, as I believe, his wonderful
little nest, and if we watch him building we may get a hint as to how
the charming little round door that gives admission to it, has come
about. He did not contrive it, but by having, always, his one way in
and out, and continuing to build, it grew to be there; for even when
the nest is but a shallow cup, open all round, the birds enter and
leave it by one uniform way, so that this way must be left, right up to
the very last, by which time it has become that neat little aperture,
which looks so nicely thought out. Something like design may, perhaps,
now have entered into the construction, which would account for the
hole getting, gradually, higher, in the side of the nest--though this,
too, I am inclined to attribute to the mere love of building. The bird
builds everywhere that it can, and thus the place where it enters
gets higher, with the rest of the nest. When, however, the top of the
nest, on one side, is pulled over, so as to meet the other side,[25]
where the entrance is, it can go no higher, since, if it did, the bird
would either be kept in or out. Thus, as it appears to me, the exact
position of the hole in the nest, which is a somewhat curious one, is
philosophically accounted for.

When one of a pair of long-tailed tits enters the nest, he first
pays attention to that part of it which is exactly opposite to him,
as he does so. This he raises with his beak, and, also, by pushing
with his head and breast. He then, often, disappears in the depths
of the cup, and you see the sides of it swell out, now in one place
and now in another, as he butts and rams at them, which he does not
only with his head, but by kicking with his legs, behind him. Then he
turns round, the long tail appearing where the head has lately been,
whilst the head emerges, projecting over the rim in exactly the same
place as where he entered, but looking, now, outwards. This part he
now pushes down with his chin, just as he raised the other with his
head and beak, and having done this, he comes out. But often, sitting
in the nest as he entered it, he turns his head right round, on one
side or another, examining and manipulating the edges; and sometimes,
bending it down over the rim, he presses or arranges a lichen, on the
outside. This, however, he does more rarely than one would think, his
best attention being given to the interior. Sometimes, too, he flutters
his wings in the nest, as though to aid in the moulding of it. There
is one extraordinary power which these tits possess, which is that of
turning their bodies quite round in the nest, whilst keeping the tail
motionless, and in exactly the same place all the time. I have often
seen--or seemed to see--them do this, but as the tail sticks upright,
and is--till the cup gets too deep--a very conspicuous object, it would
not be easy to be mistaken. How they do it I know not--they are little
contortionists--but I have often noticed how loosely and flexibly the
long tail feathers of these birds seem just stuck into the body. There
is another thing that I have seen them do, viz. turn the head entirely
round without any part of the body seeming to share in the movement;
but here, I think, there must have been some hocus-pocus.

I have spoken of these tits having but one way of entering and leaving
the nest, even when all ways lie open to them: but, more than this,
they have one set path, by which they approach and retire from it. You
first notice this when one of the birds passes, inadvertently, on the
wrong side of some twig or bough, which makes a conspicuous feature in
its accustomed path. The eye is caught by the novelty, and you realise,
then, that it is one. This happens but rarely, and, when it does, it
has sometimes struck me that the bird feels a little confused, or not
quite easy, in consequence. It has such a feeling, I feel sure, which,
though slight, yet just marks its consciousness of having deviated
from a routine. Possibly the feeling is stronger than I am imagining,
for on one occasion, at least, I have seen a bird that had got the
wrong side of a twig palisade, so to speak, in approaching its nest,
turn back and pass it, on the right side. The nest, in this instance
also, was in one of those fine, open hedges, made of the branches of
the Scotch fir--planted and growing--which are common in this part of
Suffolk, and through these there was a regular “approach” to the house,
not straight, but in a crescent, as though for a carriage to drive
up--the “sweep” of the days of Jane Austen--and the birds always went
up and down it like dear little orthodox things as they are. During
the later stages of construction, the hole in the side of the nest
becomes so small and tight, that even these _petite_ little creatures
have, often, to struggle quite violently, in order to force themselves
through it; and this, I think, also, is evidence that the door is not
due to design--that the bird never has the thought in its mind, “There
must be a door to get in and out by.” Instead of that, it keeps getting
in and out, and this, of necessity, makes the door. These tits, when
building, seem to rest, for a little, in the nest, before leaving it,
and sometimes one will sit, for some minutes, quite still, with its
head projecting through the aperture, looking like a cleverly-painted
miniature in a round frame. At other times the tail projects, and
that, though not quite such a picture, has still a charm of its own.
Nothing can look prettier than these soft, little pinky, feathery
things, as they creep, mousily, into their soft little purse of a nest:
nothing can look prettier than they do, as they sit inside it, pulling,
pushing, ramming, patting, and arranging: finally, nothing can look
prettier than they look, as they again creep out of it, and fly away.
It is a joy to watch them building, and their perpetual feat of turning
in a way which ought to dislocate their tail, without dislocating it,
is an ever-recurring miracle. Charming in and about the nest, they are;
charming, too, in the way they approach it. They come up so softly and
quietly, creeping from one tree or bush to another, seeming almost to
steal through the air. They have a pretty, soft note, too, a low little
“chit, chit,” which they utter, at intervals, and which often tells
you they are there, before you catch sight of them. To hear that soft
chittery note, and then to catch a soft pinkiness, with it, are two
very pleasant sensations. Another is to see the one bird working in the
nest, and to hear the other chittering in the neighbourhood, whilst it
waits for it to come out.

In the absence of both the owners from the nest they were building, I
have seen a wren creep very quietly into it, and, after remaining there
for a little, creep as quietly out again. He carried nothing away with
him, that I could see, so that pillage may not have been his object,
though I know not what else it could have been. Perhaps it was simple
curiosity, or, again, it may have been but a part of his routine work.
Such a nest, with its hole of entrance, may have seemed to him like
any other chink or cavity, which he would have been prepared to enter
on general principles of investigation. Nests, however, in process
of building by one bird, are looked at by others as useful supplies
of material for their own--little depôts scattered over the country.
I have seen a pair of hedge-sparrows fly straight to a blackbird’s,
and then on, with grass in their bills. Another blackbird’s nest,
the building of which I was watching, supplied a blue tit with moss,
whilst, in the very same tree, a pair of golden-crested wrens had
theirs entirely demolished by an unfeeling hen chaffinch.

In my own experience it is the hen chaffinch, alone, that builds the
nest, and I have even seen her driving away a cock bird, which I took
to be her mate. After putting him to flight, this particular hen made
fifteen visits to the nest, at intervals of about ten minutes, bringing
something in her beak each time, and worked at it, singly, with great
fervour and energy. To the actions which I have been describing in the
long-tailed tits--viz. pressing herself down in it, ramming forward
with her breast, kicking out with her feet, behind, and so on--actions,
I suppose, common to most nest-building birds--she added that one of
clasping the rim tightly with her tail, bent strongly down for the
purpose, which I have referred to, before, in the blackbird. I could
not, however, repeat the comments which I have made when describing
it in her case. Whatever may have been the origin of the habit, it
has become, in the chaffinch, a mere business-like affair--purely
utilitarian, doubtless, in its inception and object. Though upon
this and other occasions of the nest-building, the hen chaffinch,
alone, has seemed to be the architect, it by no means follows that
this is always the case. A process of transition is, as I believe,
taking place in this respect with the males of various birds. With
the long-tailed tits, for instance, we have just seen how prettily
husband and wife can work together; and that they do so in the great
majority of instances, I have little doubt. Yet the first time that
I ever watched these birds building, it was only one of the pair who
did anything; the other--doubtless the male--though he came each time
with his mate, never brought anything with him, and did not once enter
the nest. He did not even go very near it, but merely stayed about, in
the neighbourhood, till the worker came out, on which the two flew off
together. This has been exactly the behaviour of the cock blackbird
during nidification, in such cases as have fallen under my observation;
and here I have been a very close watcher, for hours at a time, and
for several days in succession. Yet I have, myself, seen the cock
flying off with grass, from a field, whilst Mr. Dewar has seen him fly
up with some into the ivy on a wall, where a nest was known to be in
construction. The cock nightingale attends the hen, when building, in
just the same way that the cock blackbird does, but I have not yet seen
him take a part in its construction. Now to take the blackbird--since
here we have a clear case of individual difference--is it a process
of transition from one state of things to another, that we see, or
has the transition been made, and are the exceptional instances due
to reversion merely? But then, which are the exceptional instances,
or in which direction is the change proceeding? Is the male becoming,
or was he once, a builder or a non-builder? For myself, I incline to
the transitional view, and inasmuch as the lapse of such a habit as
nest-building must be consequent upon a loss of interest in it--which
would mean a decay of the instinct--this does not seem to me consistent
with the extremely attentive manner in which the cock follows the hen
about, and the manifest interest which he takes in all she does. It
seems to me more likely, therefore, that he is learning the art than
losing it. Still, as an instinct might weaken very gradually, it is
impossible to do more than conjecture which way the stream is running,
if we look only at a single species. The true way would be to take all
the species of the genus to which the one in question belongs, and
find out the habits of the majority, in regard to this special point.
If both the male and female of the genus _Turdidæ_ help, as a rule,
in building the nest, then this, no doubt, was the ancient state of
things, and _vice versâ_.

One might suppose--it would seem likely on a _primâ facie_ view of
it--that where the cock bird took no part in the building of the
nest, he would take none, either, in incubating the eggs. This is
so with the blackbird--at least I have never come upon the male
sitting, and whenever I have watched a nest where eggs were being
incubated, there has never been any change upon it; the birds, that
is to say, have never relieved one another, but the hen, having gone
off, has always returned, the nest being empty in the interval. But
if the suppression, in the male bird, of these two activities--of
nest-building and incubation--are related, by a parity of reasoning one
would suppose that he would take no part in the feeding of the young.
This, however, with the blackbird, is by no means the case, for the
cock is as active, here, and interested as the hen--or nearly so. At
least he recognises a duty, and performs it to the best of his ability.
It is the same with the wagtail, and, no doubt, with numbers of other
birds--a fact which seems to suggest that the instinct of incubation,
and that of parental love, are differentiated, the second not making
its appearance till after the eggs are hatched. This, at first sight,
seems likely, and then--if one considers it a little--unlikely, or,
perhaps, impossible. It is from birth that the maternal love, the
στοργἡ dates, and birth, here, is represented by the egg. True, there
is a second birth when the egg is hatched, which makes it possible
that the true στοργἡ has waited for this. Yet the mother continues to
brood upon the young in the same way that she has been doing on her
eggs, and, except for the feeding, which does not commence immediately,
the whole pretty picture looks so much the same that it is difficult
to think a new element has been projected into it. No one, whilst the
young are still tiny, could tell whether they or the eggs were being
brooded over by the parent bird. An interesting point occurs here.
When incubation is shared by the two sexes, the hatching of the eggs
must frequently, one would think, take place whilst the male bird is
sitting. What, then, are his feelings when this happens? By what,
if any, instinct is he swayed? If we suppose that the true στοργἡ
dates, in the mother’s breast, from the hatching of the egg, and the
appearance of the formed young, does, now, a similar feeling take
possession of the male? Does he too feel the στοργἡ, seeing that the
young have been born from the egg, under his breast? If so, we could
understand his subsequent devotion to the young, as shown by his
feeding them with the same assiduity as the mother. But what, then,
of the mother? She has been away at this second birth, so that if her
psychology would have been affected, in any way, by the act--if it
can be called an act--of hatching out the eggs, it ought not to be so
affected now; she should be less a mother, in fact, than the cock.
This, however--unless the eggs always are hatched out under the hen--is
contradicted by facts, so that it seems plain that whatever special
tie there may be between the female bird, as distinct from the male,
and the young, must date from the laying of the eggs. But if this be
so--and it seems the plain way of nature--what is it that makes the
cock bird incubate? Is he moved by a feeling of the same nature, if
weaker, as that which animates the hen, or has he, merely, caught the
habit from her? The fact that some male birds leave the whole duty
of incubation to the hen, and yet help to feed the young, seems to
point in the latter direction, since imitation might well have acted
capriciously, whereas one would suppose that feelings analogous, in
their nature, in the two sexes, would show themselves at the same
time. It would, however, be a stronger evidence for imitation, as the
cause of the parental activities of the male, were he to take his
part in incubation, but leave the young to the female. I do not know
if there is any species of bird, where the cock acts in this way.
Perhaps it may be impossible to answer these, or similar, questions,
but light might, conceivably, be thrown upon them by a more extensive
knowledge of the relative parts played by the male and female bird in
nidification, incubation, and the rearing of the young, throughout
a large number of species. These, however, are not the questions
with which ornithologists busy themselves. By turning to a natural
history of British birds, one can always find how many eggs are
laid by any species, their coloration--often illustrated by costly
plates--and when and where the laying takes place; but in regard to
the matters above-mentioned--or, indeed, most other matters--little or
no information is forthcoming. One might think that such works were
written for the assistance of bird-nesters only, and whether they are
or not, that is the end which they, principally, fulfil. I believe,
myself, that if the habits--especially the breeding habits--of but one
species in every group or genus had been thoroughly studied, so that we
knew, not only what it did, but how it did it, the result would make an
infinitely more valuable work, even in regard to British birds only,
than any now in existence, though all the other species were left out
of it, and little or nothing was said about the number of eggs, their
coloration, and the time at which they were laid.

If the male bird has only caught the habit of feeding the young from
the female, we can the better understand why, in so many species,
the cock feeds the hen, and this without any reference to whether
she is able or unable to feed herself. As the young birds grow up in
the nest, they resemble their parents more and more, and it would be
easier for the male to confuse them with the female, and thus take to
feeding her too, or to transfer the habit from the one to the other,
than it would be for the female, with a maternal instinct to guide
her, to do the same by the male. Yet this, too, would be possible, and
if, in any species, the female is accustomed to feed the male also, I
would account for it in a similar way. This habit, on the part of the
cock bird, has become, in some cases, a part of his ordinary courting
attentions to the hen; and here, I believe, we have the true meaning
of that billing, or “nebbing,” as it is called, which so many birds
indulge in at this season. This habit, with its grotesque resemblance
to kissing, has always struck me as both curious and interesting, but
one seldom, in works of ornithology, meets with a reference to it,
much less with any attempt to explain its philosophy. Where birds,
now, merely, bill, they once, in my opinion, fed each other--or the
male fed the female--but pleasure came to be experienced in the
contact alone, and the passage of food, which was never necessary,
gradually became obsolete. I think it by no means improbable that our
own kissing may have originated in much the same way; and that birds,
when thus billing, experience the same sort of pleasure that we do,
when we kiss, must be obvious to any one who has watched them. With
pigeons, to go no further, the act is simply an impassioned one. It
would be strong evidence of the origin of this habit having been
as I suppose, if we only found it amongst birds the young of which
are fed by their parents. As far as I know, I believe this to be the
case, but my knowledge does not enable me to speak decidedly, nor
have I been able to add to it, in this particular, by consulting the
standard works. Birds whose young are not fed from the bill, by their
parents, are, as I think--for I am not certain in regard to all--the
gallinaceous or game birds, the rapacious ones (_accipitres_), the
plovers and stilt-walkers, the bustards, the ostriches, &c. In none of
these, so far as I know, do the male and female either feed or “neb”
one another--there is neither the thing, nor the form, or symbol, of
it. Birds where there is either the one or the other, or both, belong,
amongst others, to the crow, parrot, gull, puffin, tit or finch tribes,
and all these feed the young. In the grebe family, too, the two customs
obtain, but whether they are combined in any one species of it, I
cannot with certainty say. It would not, of course, follow that a bird
which fed its young, should, also, feed its mate, or that the pair,
when caressing, should seize each other’s bills; but is there any
species belonging to those orders where the chick shifts for itself,
as soon as it is hatched, or, at the least, does not receive food from
the parent’s beak or crop, which does either, or both, of these things?
In conclusion, I can only wonder that a habit so salient, and which,
to me, seems so curious--especially in the case of the caress merely,
for a caress it certainly is--should not, apparently, have been thought
worth consideration--hardly, even, worth notice. Of all beings, man,
alone, is supposed to kiss. Birds, I assert, do, in the proper and
true meaning of the word, kiss, also, and I believe that the origin
of the custom has been the same, or approximately[26] the same, in
each instance. To take food from one’s mouth, and put it into some one
else’s, is an act of attention, I believe, amongst some savage tribes.

I am not quite sure, now I come to think of it, that the hen wagtail
does do all the incubation--as I said, some lines back, she did--but
I think that this is the case, as when I watched a pair I never saw
the two birds together, either at or near the nest, and only once in
the neighbourhood of it, all the time the eggs were being hatched. The
nest, in this case, had been built, very prettily, in the last year’s
one of a thrush, which it quite filled, and which made a splendid cup
for it. It was interesting to see the hen bird at work. Each time,
after flying down from the ivied wall of my garden, in which the nest
was situated, she would feed, a little, making little runs over the
lawn, after insects, with often a little fly, but just above the grass,
at the end of the little run, the tail still flirting up and down.
Then she would fly off for more materials, appear on the lawn, again,
in a few minutes, with some in her bill, run, with them, to under the
wall, fly up into the ivy, and, upon coming out, go through it all
again. Thus, the wagtail makes building and eating alternate with one
another, unlike the house-martins, which build, says White, “only in
the morning, and dedicate the rest of the day to food and amusement.”
The yellow, widely-gaping bills of the fledgling wagtails, as they hold
their four heads straight up, in the nest, together, look just like
delicate little vases of Venetian glass, made by Salviati; or, treating
them all as one, they resemble an artistic central table-ornament, of
the same manufacture. It is the inside that one sees. Just round the
edge, is a thin rim of light, bright yellow, whilst all the rest is a
deep, shining gamboge--not as it looks when painted on anything, but
the colour of a cake of it--“all transfigured with celestial light.”
No prettier design than this could be found, I am sure, for a beaker.
Wagtails--I am speaking, always, of the water-wagtail--collect a number
of flies, or other insects, as they run about, over the grass, before
swallowing them, or flying, with them, to feed their young--that
pretty office, which has been dwelt upon only from one point of view.
Marry! when a tigress carries off a man to her cubs, and watches them
play with him--an account of which, I believe a true one, I have
read--we see it from another, such shallow, partial twitterers as we
are. There is as much of beneficence in the one thing, I suppose,
as the other--the flies, at least, would think so, creatures that,
but a moment ago, were as bright, happy, and ethereal as the bird
itself--their tiger.

    “Oh yet we trust that, somehow, good
      Will be the final goal of ill.”

Why, yes, one must go on trusting, I suppose (nothing else for it), but
meanwhile one of this pair of wagtails has a good-sized something in
his bill, to which he keeps adding, and as he sometimes, also, drops a
portion of it, and again picks it up, it must be composed of a number
of different entities. This living bundle he deposits, after a time,
on the lawn, and then eats it piecemeal, after which he runs over the
grass, making little darts, and eating at once, on secural. Shortly
afterwards, however, I see him, again, with such another fardel, and
with this he keeps walking about, or standing still, for quite a long
time, without swallowing it--indeed, he has now stood still for so long
that I am tired of watching him. This is interesting, I think, for as
I have never seen birds collect insects, like this, except when young
were in the nest, I have no doubt this wagtail’s idea is to feed his.
But, first, his own appetite prevents him from doing so, and, then, it
is as though there were a conflict between the two impulses, producing
a sort of paralysis, by which nothing is done. I make sure that this
is the male bird; but now appears the other--the female, “for a
ducat”--carrying what I can make out, with the glasses, to be a bundle
of flies, to which she keeps adding, and, shortly, she repairs, with
them, to the nest. The male now comes again, and runs about, collecting
a similar packet; and I can notice how, sometimes, he is embarrassed
to pick up one fly more, without losing any he has, and how he secures
it, sometimes, sideways in the beak, when he would, otherwise, have
made a straightforward peck at it. Not only this, but, with his beak
full of booty, he will--I have just seen him--pursue insects in the
air. Whether he secures them, under these circumstances, I cannot, with
assurance, say, but he turns and zigzags about, as does a fly-catcher,
and certainly seems to be doing so. There is the attempt, at least, and
would he attempt what he was not equal to? I have no doubt, myself,
that he performs this feat, and yet what a wonderful feat it is! Both
birds now feed the young--for the female has been collecting, for some
time, again. Now, instead of, or besides, flies, each bird has in its
bill a number of long, slender, white things, which hang down on each
side of it, and must, I think, be grubs of some sort, though I do not
know what. But stay--beneficence again!--are they--not flies in their
entirety indeed, but--oh optimism and general satisfactoriness!--fly
entrails, protruding, bursting, hanging, forced out by the cruel beak?
Yes, that is it, it is plain now--too plain--and some of the flies
are moving. I have seen a wasp tear open and devour a bluebottle--a
savage sight--and it looked something the same. But all hail, maternal
affection!--and appetite! to bring in the wasp. “Banquo and Macbeth,
all hail!”

I believe that most birds that feed their young with insects brought
in the bill, collect them in this way. Indeed the habit is common
throughout the bird-world, and may be observed, equally, in the
blackbird or thrush, with worms, and in the puffin, with fish--in this
last case, perhaps, we see the feat in its perfection. The smallest
of our woodpeckers I have watched bringing cargo after cargo of
live, struggling things to his hole, but the green woodpecker, for a
reason which, for aught I know, I shall be the first to make known,
does not do this. From behind some bushes which quite hid me, and
which commanded the nest, I have watched the domestic economy of two
pairs of these birds as closely as, in such a species, it well can be
watched. The glasses, turned full upon the hole, I fixed on a little
stick platform, just on a level with my eyes, as I sat. Thus no time
was lost in getting them to bear, but the instant one of the birds flew
in, I had it, as it were, almost upon the platform in front of me. In
this luxurious manner I have seen scores and scores of visits made
to the nest, but never once, before the bird made its entry, through
the hole, have I been able to detect anything held by it in the beak,
which was always fast closed. Had anything in the shape of an insect
projected from it, I must certainly have seen it, but this was never
the case, and I can, therefore, say with confidence, that the green
woodpecker does not feed its young by bringing them insects in its
bill, as does the lesser spotted, and, no doubt, the greater spotted
one also--all the woodpeckers, probably, that have not changed their
habits, in relation to their food and manner of feeding. I am the more
sure of this, because, as the little woodpecker collected a number of
insects, each time, there can be little doubt that the green one would
do this, likewise, were he accustomed to feed the young in the same
way. How, then, does he feed them? I give the answer from my notes.

“At 12.10 the male woodpecker flies to the hole, and, almost
immediately, enters. In a few minutes he looks out, cautiously, turning
his head from side to side. I can make out nothing in the bill, but I
notice that he works the mandibles, just a very little. Then he draws
in his head, but projecting it, again, almost immediately, something
is now evident, protruding from the mandibles, on both sides. It
is white, brilliantly white, and looks like a mash of something. It
reminds me of what I have seen oozing or flowing from the bills of
rooks, as they left the nest after feeding their young--but even
whiter, it seemed, as the sun shone on it. Insects it does not in
the least resemble, except, by possibility, a pulp of their white
interiors. If so, however, it must represent multitudes of them. But
where are the wings, legs, and crushed bodies? It is formless, and
seems to well out of the bill.” On a subsequent occasion, I saw the
same outflow--“a thick, milky fluid,” I this time describe it as--from
the bill of the female; so that, principally through this, but, also,
because of many other little indications, such as that working by the
bird of its mandibles--as before noticed--in leaving the nest, and
an occasional little gulp or less pronounced motion of the throatal
muscles, as though it were swallowing something down, the head being at
the same time raised, I came to the conclusion that these woodpeckers
feed their young by some process of regurgitation. This confirms an
opinion which has long been gaining ground with me, viz. that the green
woodpecker is now almost wholly an ant-eater. Here, at least, where
the country is open and sandy, and where, till lately, there has been
a great and happy dearth of posts and palings, I believe that this is
the case. I have often watched the bird, in trees, and have seen it
give, now and again, a spear with the bill against the trunk; but this
has never been continued for long, and that eager and absorbed manner
which a bird has when actively feeding, has never, in my experience,
gone along with it. I doubt, myself, whether insects are really secured
on these occasions, for there is something so nonchalant and lazy in
the way the stabs are delivered, that they have more the appearance of
a mere habit than of a means to an end. Sometimes there is a little
more animation, but it soon flags, and the bird desists and sits idle.
Very different are its actions, and its whole look and appearance,
when feeding on the ground. Now its interest--its _keenness_--is
manifest, whilst a certain careful, systematic, and methodical way of
proceeding, shows it to be occupied in the main daily business of life.
There are four clearly marked stages in the process by which a green
woodpecker extracts ants from the nest. First there is a preliminary
probing of the ground, the beak being inserted--always, I think, in
the same place--gently, and with great delicacy--tenderly as it were,
and as Walton would recommend; next comes a sharp, quick hammering, or
pickaxing, with the beak, into the soil, after which the bird throws
the loosened earth from side to side, with so quick a motion that the
head seems almost to move in a circle. Finally, there is the quiet and
satisfied insertion of the bill, many times in succession, into the
excavation that has been made, followed, each time, by its leisurely
withdrawal. At each of these withdrawals the head is thrown up, and the
bird seems to swallow down, and enjoy, what it has just been filling
its beak with--as no doubt is the case.

The greater part of both the morning and afternoon seems to be spent
by these woodpeckers in thus depopulating ants’ nests, so that the
negligent and desultory nature of any further foraging operations,
which they may carry on amongst the trees, is amply accounted for. The
bird is full of ants, which it has been swallowing wholesale, without
any effort of searching. It cannot still be hungry, and, when it is, it
will repair to those Elysian fields again. The tree, in fact, is now
used more as a resting-place than for any other purpose, except that of
breeding; and thus this species, with its marvellous tongue, specially
adapted for extracting insects from chinks in the bark of trees, is on
the road to becoming as salient an instance of changed habits, as is
Darwin’s ground-feeding woodpecker, in the open plains of La Plata.
Sure I am that here, at any rate, the green woodpecker feeds, almost
wholly, upon ants, but if there be a doubt on the matter, ought not the
contents of the excrements to decide it? I have examined numbers of
these, which were picked up by me both in the open and at the foot of
trees, and, in every case, the long narrow sac, of which the outer part
consists, was filled, entirely, with the remains of ants. These I have
turned out upon a sheet of white paper, and examined under a magnifying
glass, but I have never been able to find the smallest part or particle
of any other insect. This has surprised me, indeed, nor is it quite in
accordance with the contents of other excrements which I have looked at
in other parts of the country--for instance in Dorsetshire. There, the
shards of a small beetle were sometimes mixed, in a small proportion,
with the remains of the ants, and, once or twice, these formed the bulk
of the excrement. These shards, however, seemed to me to be those of a
ground-going species of beetle. What I have called the remains of the
ants, contained in these excrements, were, or seemed to be, almost the
whole of them--head, thorax, abdomen, legs, &c.--everything, in fact,
except the soft parts, and juices of the body. Whether these, in the
bird’s crop or stomach, would help to make a white milky fluid I do not
know, but I think that they must do.

If the great staple of the green woodpecker’s food has come, now, to
consist of ants, as I am sure is the case, the reason of its feeding
its young, not as do other woodpeckers--the lesser spotted one, for
instance--but by regurgitation, is at once apparent. Ants are too
minute to be carried in the beak, and must, therefore, be brought up
_en masse_, if the young are not to starve. We might, therefore, have
surmised that, if ants were the sole or chief diet, the young must be
fed in this way, and the fact that they are fed in this way is evidence
of the thing which would account for it. In the green woodpecker we
have an interesting example of a species that has broken from the
traditions of its family, and is changing under our eyes; but it does
not seem to attract much attention--only the inevitable number of the
eggs, their colour, the time at which they are laid, &c. &c.

These woodpeckers must mate, I think, for life--as most birds, in my
opinion, do--for they nest in the same tree, year after year, and go in
pairs during the winter. It is very interesting, then, to see a pair
resting together, after they have had their fill of ant-eating. First,
one will fly into the nearest plantation, or small clump of trees, on
the trunk of one of which it alights, and there clings, motionless.
Shortly afterwards, the other comes flying in, perhaps with the wild
laugh, but, instead of settling on the same tree, it chooses one close
beside it, and there, side by side, and each on its own, the two hang
motionless for a quarter of an hour, perhaps, or twenty minutes. Then,
suddenly, there is a green and scarlet flash, as one flies off. The
other stays, still motionless, as though she cared not. “Let him e’en
go”--but, all at once, there is another flash, and she is gone, too,
with equal suddenness--the dark trees darker without them. I have,
more than once, seen a pair resting, like this, on two small birches,
or firs, near each other, each about the same height from the ground,
quite still, and seeming to doze. It seems, therefore, to be their
regular habit, as though they did not care to sleep on the same tree,
but preferred adjoining rooms, so to speak. The birds’ tails, when thus
resting, are not fanned out, and although they are, sometimes, pressed
against the tree, at other times they will not be touching it at all,
so that the whole weight is supported by the claws, evidently with the
greatest ease. I have taken particular notice of this, and from the
length of time that a bird has sometimes remained, thus hanging, and
the restful state that it was, all the while, in, I cannot think that
the tail is of very much value as a support, though stress is often
laid upon its being so. I do not know how it is, but a little close
observation in natural history will give the lie to most of what one
hears or reads, and has hitherto taken for granted. It all looks very
plausible in books, but one book, when you ever do get hold of it,
seems to disagree with all the other books, and that one is the book of
nature.

There is another point, in which the green woodpecker either differs
from its family, or shows that its family has not been sufficiently
observed. I have read, somewhere--I am not quite sure where, but it was
a good work, and one of authority--this sentence: “Some birds, such
as woodpeckers and (I forget the other) are supposed never to fight.”
I can understand how this idea has got about, because thrushes, which
are commoner birds than woodpeckers, and easier to watch, are, also,
thought not to fight. Of the thrush, and his doughty deeds, of an early
morning, I shall have no space to speak in this volume, but I here
offer my evidence that the green woodpecker, at any rate, is “a good
fellow, and will strike.” As, however, I shall have to quote, at some
length, from my notes, I will defer doing so to the following chapter.
Perhaps I shall be saying a little too much about the green woodpecker,
but let it be taken in excuse that, feeling all his charm, and having
made a special study of him, I yet say less than I know.

[Illustration: GREEN WOODPECKER]



CHAPTER IX


It was on a 13th of April, that, having spent some hours in the woods,
to no purpose, I at length climbed the hill, up which they ran, and
came out upon a smooth slope of turf, from which I had a good view down
amongst the trees, which did not grow very thickly. As I emerged, I saw
a woodpecker feeding on the grass, and shortly afterwards two, pursuing
each other, flew down upon it, from the wood, but, seeing me, flew back
again. It instantly struck me that here was an ideal spot to study the
habits of these birds. A penetrable wood which was evidently haunted
by them, to look down into, an open down right against it, and good
cover, from which I had an equally good view of both. I, therefore,
ensconced myself, and soon had the pleasure of making some observations
new to myself, and, as far as I know, to ornithology. These two same
birds that I had startled pursued each other about amidst the trees,
for some time, uttering not only their usual cry--unusually loud as I
thought--but another, of one note, quickly repeated, like “too, too,
too, too, too,” changing, at the end, or becoming modulated, into
“too-i, too-i, too-i, too-i, too-i.” All at once two other ones flew
out from the enclosure, and, alighting together upon the greensward,
a curious play, which I took to be of a nuptial character, commenced
between them. They both half extended the wings, at the same time
drooping them on to the ground, and standing thus, fronting each other,
they swung not only their heads, but the upper part of their bodies,
strenuously from side to side, in a very excited manner. If there was
any upshot to this, I did not see it, as the birds shifted a little so
as to become hidden by a ridge, and the next I saw of them was when
they flew away. A little while after this, I saw either the same or
another pair of green woodpeckers, pursuing each other from tree to
tree, and, all at once, they closed together, in the air, as though in
combat; almost immediately, however, separating again and flying to
different trees. Soon they came down on to the turf, and were probing
it for ants, when one of them, desisting from this occupation, went
close up to the other--they had been near before--and, again, went
through the action which I have just described. Now, I saw that it was
a hostile demonstration, but the bird against whom it was directed
seemed in no hurry to respond to it, and merely went on feeding. At
length, however, he turned, and went through with it also, and the two
then fought, jumping and pecking at one another. It was not, however,
a very bloody combat. It seemed, I thought, rather half-hearted, and I
particularly noted that the bird which had been challenged soon left
off, and began to feed again, on which his opponent desisted also,
making no attempt to take him at a disadvantage, which, it seemed, he
could easily have done, any more than he had in the first instance.

This chasing and coming down on to the grass, to feed and skirmish,
continued during the afternoon, but there were two fights which were
of a fiercer and more interesting character. I have spoken, before,
of these woodpeckers’ upright attitude, when they fronted each other,
swinging their heads from side to side. This, however, was not at all
the case here. Instead of standing upright, they sat crouched--almost
lay--on the ground, with their wings half-spread out upon it, and
in this position--beak to beak--they jerked their heads in the most
vivacious manner, each one seeming to meditate a deadly spear-thrust.
Then there were some quick mutual darts, of a very light and graceful
nature, and, at last, each seizing hold of the other’s beak, they
pulled, tugged, jumped, and dragged one another about, with the
greatest violence. One might suppose that each bird sought to use his
own beak as a weapon of offence, in the usual manner, and seized his
adversary’s, as it were, to disarm him, and that, then, each tried to
disengage, but was held by the other. In the second and still more
violent encounter, however, I noticed a very curious feature. After the
first light fencing, the birds seemed to lock beaks gently, as though
by a mutual intention to do so, and, indeed, so markedly was this the
case that, for a moment, I thought I must have been mistaken, and that,
instead of two males, they were male and female. Then, the instant they
had interlocked them, they set to pulling, with a sudden violence,
as though the real serious business had now commenced. They pulled,
tugged, and struggled most mightily, and each bird was, several times,
half pulled and half thrown over the other’s back, springing up into
the air, at the same time, but neither letting go, nor being let go of.
There was a good bout of this before they became separated, after which
some fierce pecks were delivered.

As with some other actions, performed by various birds, when fighting,
so, here, with these woodpeckers, I believe that the locking of the
bills has been such a constant result of the necessities of the case,
that it has now passed, or is passing, into a formal thing, without
which the duel could hardly be fought. The birds lock them--so it
seems to me--almost as we put on boxing-gloves, or take the foils,
and, after this, tug and pull, not so much with the object of getting
free, as because this has become their idea of fighting. The fight,
in fact, must proceed in a formal routine, and without this, either
combatant is at a loss. How else is it that neither bird seems able to
begin the fight unless the other fronts him, nor to take--as I have
noticed in other cases--an advantage of his adversary, by springing
upon him, unawares? In the first combat, for instance, the one bird fed
quietly, whilst the other moved his head in the orthodox manner, just
beside him, and it was not till the feeding one responded, by doing the
same, that hostilities went further. Equally apparent was it that the
challenged bird felt himself quite safe, as long as he did not take the
matter up, by going through the established form. Again, this throwing
of the head from side to side, which seems to represent the attempt of
either combatant to avoid the beak of his adversary, has, likewise,
become more or less stereotyped, for not only may the one bird act in
this way, whilst the other is feeding, as we have just seen, but even
when both do, as we shall see directly, they may be at such a distance
from one another as to make the action a quite useless one. On the
other hand, when the two stand beak to beak, and commence a spirited
fight, in this manner, the object and rationale of the movement seems
as obvious as it can be. We see, here, the swords actually crossed,
whilst, in the other cases, the birds fence at a distance, or the
one without the other, and this is so obviously formal, that, for
myself, I doubt the motive of the same movement, even where it seems
most apparent. What I last saw will, still further, illustrate these
points. A woodpecker that had been quietly feeding by itself, at some
distance from any other one, began, all at once, to move its head about
in this way, in a very excited manner, and to utter a little, sharp,
twittering cry, being one note several times repeated. I then saw that
another woodpecker was advancing towards him, with precisely similar
gestures, though, as yet, he was a good way off. As he came nearer,
the threatened bird first retreated, and then, again, returned, until
the two stood fronting one another, some two or three feet apart,
continuing, all the while, to swing and jerk--for it is a combination
of the two--their heads and bodies to this side and that, as in every
other instance. Thus they continued, for some little time, neither
increasing nor decreasing the distance between them, after which there
were several half retreats, whereby the one bird, passing the other
obliquely, exposed itself to a flank attack, its beak being turned
away. This, however, was never taken advantage of by the other, and,
finally, the more timid of the two made a low flight over the grass, to
some distance, thus declining the combat. Some other odd motions and
contortions were exhibited by these birds, but they were occasional,
and, I think, unimportant, whereas the main one was constant, and the
keynote of all. In this last instance, as at the first, both birds held
themselves upright, with their heads thrown up, which gave them a half
absurd, and wholly indescribable appearance.

We see, in these cases, a certain fighting action, which can only
be of use when the birds are at the closest quarters--in actual
contact, that is to say--performed, either by both of them, when at
a considerable distance one from another, or by one only, when the
other is paying no attention to, or does not even see him. How shall
we define such an action, performed in such a way? To me it appears to
be a formal one--so much a necessity, that is to say, under a certain
mental stimulus, that its original end and object is becoming merged
in the satisfaction felt by the bird in going through with it. It is
on the way to becoming an ultimate end, instead of only a proximate
one. Intelligence would lapse in such a process, but it might revive
again, as I believe, under the influence of natural selection. I should
record, however, in connection with the above remarks, that at the end
of the most violent fight the bills of the birds became disengaged. It
then became more of a rough and tumble--a παγκρατιον--between them,
and I noticed that one did, then, dart upon and peck the other, from
behind. In other cases, too, I have remarked that when fighting birds
once close and grapple, formality is at an end. What has struck me as
peculiar, is the way in which they will _not_ close, but seem content
to make, over and over again, certain movements that have an oddly
stereotyped and formal appearance. Here, as it appears to me, we see
the hardening of the surface of the lava-stream, above the molten fluid
beneath. Through this cooled crust the latter must be reached; but
the lava-stream may become all crust, and the battle lose itself in
formality.

The time during which I watched from my bush, and in which all these
doings were included, was about four hours--from 3, or thereabouts,
to 7 namely--and during the whole of it, woodpeckers, when not thus
fighting, fed quietly upon the greensward, probing and hammering
it with their bills for the ants. What a terrible calamity to fall
upon thousands of such little intellectual entities! Fancy the
same sort of thing happening to ourselves--a monster, of landscape
proportions, trundling down London, say, or Pekin, and englutting
everybody--philosophers and cricketers, honest men and thieves, quiet
peaceable people and Cabinet Ministers--dozens at a time! Would that
change our ideas, at all, I wonder? Would it modify popular conceptions
of the Deity? Would it make optimists less assured, pessimists less
“shallow”? Or would it do nothing? Would Tennyson, till he was gobbled,
still go on “trusting”? and would the very thing itself, that appeared
so all wrong, be taken as evidence that it was, really, all right?
This last, I feel sure, would be the case. How many a song has been
sung to that old, old tune, and what a mass of such “evidence” there
is! Historians are never tired of it--the Hunnish invasion, the end of
the Peloponnesian war, the conquest of everybody by Rome, and then,
again, the conquest of Rome by everybody: all right, all for the best,
if you start with being an optimist, that is to say, with a cheerful
constitution--a good thing, certainly, but mistaken by many for a good
argument. True it is that disasters, almost, or even quite, as great
as the above, do sometimes overtake humanity, upon this earth of ours;
but they are, both, less frequent, as I suppose, than with the ants,
and the great difference is, that, with us, there is no woodpecker, its
part being taken by inanimate nature, or by ourselves, to whom we are
partial. Yet I know not why a scheme that is well for one, or for a few
only, should be thought a good scheme, all through, and the reason why
we, as a species, are not as ants to woodpeckers, is not that nature
is too pitiful, but that we are too strong, and woodpeckers not strong
enough--which is not a satisfactory reason.

An eminent naturalist and spiritualist thinks that immortality (of
one species only, apparently) with eternal progress, would justify
all, and turn seeming wrong into right. For myself, I cannot see how
one single pang, upon this earth, can ever be justified, seeing that,
on any adequate conception of a deity, it both never need, and never
ought to have been felt. This very progress, too, with which we are to
comfort ourselves, must be accompanied with--indeed is made dependent
upon--great, almost infinite, suffering, lasting through enormous
periods of time. The sin-seared soul does, indeed, rise, at last, and
become purified--but through what? Through the horrible tortures of
remorse. That, no doubt, is better than another view. It is the best,
perhaps, that can be conceived of, things being as we know them to
be. It makes the best of a bad job--but there is still the bad job.
The eternal stumbling-block of evil and misery remains. If these
need not have been, where is all-goodness, seeing that they are? If
they need, where, then, is infinite power, and where, without it, is
justice? I do not say that these questions cannot be satisfactorily
answered (though I think they never will be by us, here), but I say
that the spiritualistic doctrine does not answer them. Numbers of other
difficulties, more graspable by our reason, appear to me to attend
the conception of spiritual progress, and especially of spiritual
suffering, in a future state, as taught by many spiritualists--say by
the late Stainton-Moses; but perhaps a discussion of these does not,
strictly speaking, fall within the province of field natural history.

_Revenons à nos moutons_, therefore. The green woodpecker, we have
now seen, both fights and has a marked manner of doing so, which
seems better adapted to the ground than to trees, where one would,
_primâ facie_, have expected its combats to take place. The birds
stand directly fronting one another, but to do this upon a tree-trunk,
or a branch that sloped at all steeply, they would have to stand,
or rather cling, sideways, since they never--that is to say, I have
never seen them--descend head downwards, though they do backwards,
or backward-sideways, with ease. Such duels, therefore, as I have
here described, would have to be fought upon a horizontal branch,
but neither would this, perhaps, be very convenient, or much in
accordance with the bird’s habits. The ground alone--especially the
greensward--would seem quite suitable for such tourneys, and since they
are sometimes held there, the probability, to my mind, is that they
always, or nearly always, are. Nor is this all, for the nuptial rite
itself is performed by these woodpeckers upon the ground--a strange
thing, surely, in a bird belonging to so arboreal a family. Here,
again, I will describe what I have seen, for, the next day, I came to
watch in the same place, getting there about 7 in the morning, from
before which time--for they were there when I came--up to 8.30, when
I left, three or four birds--the same ones doubtless--fed quietly on
the green. In the afternoon I came again, and whilst watching one that
was still feeding busily, another flew down, some way off it, and
after considering the ways of the ant, for a little, and being wise in
regard to them, came up in a series of rapid hops and short pauses,
till just in front of the feeding bird--a male--when she crouched down,
and pairing took place. It was accompanied--at least I think so--by a
peculiar guttural note, uttered either by one or both the birds. Some
time afterwards I again saw this. I am not sure whether it was the same
pair of birds as before, but the actions and relative parts played by
the male and female were the same. In either case the male was the more
indifferent of the two, and had to be courted, or rather solicited, by
the female--a fact which I have noted in various birds, and which does
not appear to me to accord very well with that universal law of nature,
as laid down by Hunter and endorsed by Darwin, that the male is more
eager, and has stronger passions than, the female. No doubt this is the
rule, but the exceptions or qualifications of it do not seem to me to
have received sufficient attention. These woodpeckers could not have
been long mated--except that in my opinion they mate for life--since
the males were fighting desperately only the day before.

Let the fighting of male birds be ever so strong evidence of their
sexual desires, yet the actual solicitation of either sex by the other
must, surely, be a stronger one, and this, as we have just seen, is
not always on the side of the male. Darwin gives several instances
of female birds courting the male, contrary to the general rule in
the species to which they belonged, and many more might be collected.
Amongst pigeons it is not an unknown thing for married happiness to be
disturbed by the machinations of a wanton hen: the male gull is often
quite pestered by the affectionate behaviour of the female: and at
the very same time that the male eider-ducks are constantly fighting,
and often quite mob the females, one may see one of these females go
through quite frantic actions, on the water, first before one male,
and then another, which actions, though they seem to point all in one
direction, yet meet with no response. Yet the eider-duck is one of
those birds the male of which is highly adorned, and the female quite
plain. There is, I think, a strong tendency to ignore or forget things
which are not in harmony with what seems a plain, straightforward law,
that one has never thought of doubting. But every fact ought to be
noted and its proper value accorded it. The sexual relations of birds
are, I think, full of interest, and it is, particularly, in regard to
those species, the sexes of which are alike, or nearly so, that these
ought to be studied. There is a distinct reason, as it appears to me,
why, in the contrary case, the males should be the more eager, which
reason does not exist in the other, and it is just in this other, where
one cannot, as a rule, in field observation, tell the male from the
female, that it is most difficult to know what really goes on. Fighting
amongst male birds, in whatever fact--physical or psychological--it may
have originated, is, in itself, distinct from the sexual passion, and
in it, moreover, a large amount of energy is expended. It seems just
possible, therefore, that some male birds, as they have become more and
more habitual fighters, have, owing to that very cause, lost, rather
than gained, in the strength of the primary sexual impulse, whereas the
female, having nothing to divert her from this, may be, really, more
amorous, and more the wooer, sometimes, than one thinks. No doubt this
would, in time, lead to fighting amongst the females too, and I have
seen two hen blackbirds fight most desperately, on account of a cock
that stood by. Rival women, however, do not fight, and the same general
principle might show itself amongst birds, the hens contending, rather,
with enticements, allurings, and general assiduity, which, again, need
not pass into a formal display. Eagerness, in fact, might show itself
in a way more consonant with the feminine constitution, and therefore
less easy to observe.

Be all this as it may, the female woodpecker, in the above two
instances, was certainly the _agente provocatrice_. I saw no more
fighting, either on this day, or afterwards. It seemed as though I had
been just in time to see the birds’ mating arrangements settled. But
since these woodpeckers go in pairs, during the winter, and build, each
year, in the same tree, they must, I think, be assumed to mate for
life. Why, therefore, should the males fight, each spring?--and the
same question may be asked in regard to hundreds of other birds. Does
not this, in itself, go to show that such fighting may not always stand
in such direct relation to the sexual passions as one is accustomed
to think that it does? But to leave questions and come to facts, the
habits of our green woodpecker are, already, very different, in several
by no means unimportant respects, from those of the family to which it
belongs. Its general--and in some parts of the country, as I believe,
its almost exclusive--diet is, now, ants, which it procures on the
ground, by digging into their nests. As the ants are too small for
it to hold in its bill, it is obliged to swallow them, and this has
led to its feeding the young by a process of regurgitation, as does
the nightjar, owing, I believe, to a similar reason. In the breeding
season the males become pugnacious, and fight in a specialised manner,
also on the ground, and here, too, the marriage rite is consummated.
From this to laying the eggs in a hole, or depression, of the earth--a
rabbit-burrow, for instance, as does the stockdove, though still
sometimes building in trees, as it, no doubt, once always did--does not
appear to me to be a very far cry, and I believe that, if trees were to
disappear in our island, the green woodpecker, instead of disappearing
with them, would stay on, as a ground-living species, entirely. On
one point of the bird’s habits I have not yet satisfied myself. Does
it pass the entire night, clinging, perpendicularly, to the trunk of
a tree--sleeping like this? From what I have seen, I believe it does,
and this, sometimes, without the support of its tail. But I am not
sure, and should like to make sure. How I should love to watch a pair
of green woodpeckers, settled, for the night, on their two trees--as
I have seen them resting--till darkness made it no longer possible to
do so, and then to creep silently away, and come as silently again,
before daylight, on the following morning! How sweet to steal, thus
innocently, upon their “secure hour”: to see them commence the day: to
watch their first movements: to hear their first cries to each other:
to sit and see the darkness slowly leave them, till a grey something
grew into a bird, and then another, both clinging there in the very
same place and position you had left them in overnight! Then to watch
them off; and returning, once more, on the same afternoon, well in
time, to see if they came back to the same trees, or not! To be able to
do this--and a few other things of this sort--without a world of cares
to distract one--

    “Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!”

[Illustration: MARTINS BUILDING NEST]



CHAPTER X


Shakespeare’s “guest of summer, the temple-haunting martlet,” makes
“his pendent bed and procreant cradle,” year after year, on the flint
walls of my house in Icklingham, thus offering me every facility
for a full observation of its domestic habits. For long I have been
intending to make these a study, but the very proximity which seemed
to be such an advantage, has proved a hindrance; for it is one thing
to steal silently into a lonely plantation, or lie, at full length,
on the wild waste of the warrens, and another to sit in a chair, in
one’s own garden, or look out of a window in one’s own house. So,
though the martins were always most interesting, I never could keep
long near them; yet some very inadequate notings, forming a scrappy
and widely-sundered journal, I have made, and will here give in their
entirety, since they concern a bird so loved.

“_May 25, 1900._--This morning I watched a pair of martlets building
their nest against the wall of my house.

“5.55.--Both birds fly to the nest, and one, that is much the handsomer
and more purple of the two, makes several pecks at the other, in a
manner half playful, half authoritative. I take this one to be the
male, and the other, who is greyer, the female. She, in return for
her husband’s friendly pecking, cossets him, a little, with her beak,
nibbling his head. Neither of the two are working at the nest. The
throat of the male seems very much swelled, yet he deposits nothing,
and, in a little while, flies off, leaving the female, who, however,
soon follows him. The male, as I believe him to be, now comes and goes,
several times. Each time, he just touches the edge of the nest with his
bill, flying off almost immediately afterwards, nor can I discover that
he adds to the mud of it, on any one occasion.

“6.10.--Now, however, he has put--is still putting--a little piece
there. Bending down over the nest’s edge, which he just touches with
his bill, he communicates a little quivering motion to his head,
during which, as it would seem, something is pushed out of the beak. I
cannot make out the process, but now that he is gone, I see a little
wet-looking area, which may be either fresh mud that has just been
brought, or a moistened bit of the old. I think, however, it is the
first. Now, again, he comes as before, flies off and returns, and
thus continues, never bringing anything in the bill that I can see,
but, each time, giving himself a little press down in the nest, and,
simultaneously, stretching his neck outwards, and a little up, so
that the rounded, swollen-looking throat just touches its edge. After
doing this twice or thrice, he makes a dip down, out of the nest, and
flies off. I can never make out that he either brings or deposits
anything. The other bird comes, also, two or three times, to the nest,
but neither does she seem to do anything, except sit in it and just
touch its edge with her bill. One bird, coming whilst the other is thus
sitting in the little mud cradle, hangs, fluttering, outside it, for
awhile, with a little chirrupy screaming, and then darts off. There
must have been, by now, a dozen visits, yet the birds, apparently,
bring nothing, and do little, or nothing, each time. Another visit of
this sort, the bird just touching the rim with its swollen throat--not
the beak--and then dropping off--a light little Ariel. And now another:
and, this time, the partner bird hovers, chirruping, in front of the
nest, as the first one lies in it--but nothing is brought, and nothing
done that I can see. It now seems plain that, for some time during the
nest-building--or what one would think was the nest-building--the birds
visit the nest, either by turns, or together, yet do nothing, or next
to nothing, to it. Two more of these make-believes, but now, at last,
mud is plainly deposited by the visiting bird; but I cannot quite make
out if it is carried in the bill, or disgorged out of the throat.

“6.50.--Both birds to the nest. One has a piece of mud in the bill,
which it keeps working about. Yet it is half in the throat, too, it
would seem, and often as though on the point of being swallowed. At
last, however, it is dropped on the rim--that part of it so often
touched. Then the bird begins to feel and touch this mud, and I see a
gleam of something white between the mandibles, which, I think, is the
tongue feeling, perhaps shaping, it. The other bird now flies off, and
I see this one, quite plainly, pick up a pellet of mud and swallow it.
This, with the swollen and globular-looking throat, which I have kept
remarking, seems to make it likely that the mud used in building is
swallowed and disgorged. Another visit, now, but I cannot quite make
things out. I see a bit of mud held in the beak, and after, if not
before, this, the bird has made actions as though trying to bring up
something out of its throat. However, I cannot sit longer against the
wall of my own house.

“_26th._--At 6 A.M. one of the martlets comes to the nest,
and, as he settles down upon it, he utters notes that are like a
little song, and very pretty to hear. Lying, thus, in the nest, he
just touches the edge of it with the beak, but, though the throat
looks quite globular, no mud, that I can see, is deposited. He shifts,
then, so as to lie the opposite way, and, soon after, flies off,
making his pretty little parachute drop from the brink, as usual. Soon
he returns--for I watch him circling--and stays a very short time,
during which no mud is deposited. The nest, too, I notice, seems to
have advanced very little since I left it yesterday, though this was
no later than 7 A.M. Another musical meeting, now, and the
arriving bird, finding the musician on the nest, clings against it,
and there is a sort of twittering, loving expostulation, before she
leaves him in possession. This second bird is not nearly so handsome,
the back not purple like that of the other, and the white throat is
stained and dirty-looking. It is this one that swallowed the mud
yesterday, and, I think, does the greater part of the work--the hen,
I feel pretty sure. During another visit, the bird applies its bill,
very delicately, to the mud-work of the nest--always its edge or
parapet--and there is that quick, vibratory motion of the whole head,
which I have before mentioned. It appears to me that, during this, mud
must be deposited, but in such a thin, small stream, that I can see
nothing of it. Sparrows--out on them!--have taken possession of the
first-built of my martins’ nests, and the dispossessed birds--if they
are, indeed, the same ones--have commenced another, close beside it.
But I must go.”

Gilbert White, in his classic, alludes to the slow rate at which
house-martins build, and also gives a reason for it. He says: “About
half an inch seems to be a sufficient layer for a day.” To me it seems
that, at some stage of the construction, they must build even slower
than this, and the curious thing is, that, at the proper building-time,
and when, to casual observation, the birds seem actively building, they
come and come and come again, and yet do nothing, each time. Well,
“_tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis_,” but it is pleasant to
think that all this was going on in White’s days, on the walls of his
house, no doubt, as of mine now. When everything else has been swept
away, yet in nature we still have some link with past times. These
martins, the rooks, a robin, any of the familiar _homy_ birds, can
be fitted into any home, with any person about it. Yet that is not
much--or rather it is too difficult. Let any one try, and see how far
he gets with it.

“_May 17, 1901._--These birds may have intercommunal marriages--or
something a little _outré_. There are the nests of two, under the eaves
of one wall of my house, and their owners go, constantly, from one of
them to another, entering both. When I say ‘constantly,’ I mean that
I have seen it several times. There was always another bird in the
nest from which the one flew, and sometimes, if not always, in the one
to which he went. Thus there are three birds to the two nests, for I
cannot make out a fourth. Also there is entire amicableness, for the
same bird, when it enters each nest, in turn, is received with a glad
twitter by the one inside. What, then, is the meaning of this? Are
two hens mated with one male bird, and has each made a nest, at which
he has helped, in turn? Or is there a second male, not yet flown in,
but who will resent the intrusion of the other, when he does? _Nous
verrons._ It is one of these two nests that is in process of being
taken possession of by the sparrows; for the deed is not done all at
once--‘_nemo repente fuit turpissimus_.’ A martin is in this one, now,
when the hen sparrow flies up, and, as she clings to the entrance, out
he flies. She fastens upon him, and keeps her hold, for some time,
in the air. The martin, as far as I can see, makes no attempt to
retaliate, but only flies and struggles to be loose. When he is, his
powers of flight soon carry him out of the sparrow’s danger, though
the latter, at first, attempts a pursuit, which, however, she soon
gives up.

“_18th._--At 6.30 A.M. there is a pair of martins in each
of the nests, and the sparrows do not seem to have prevailed. These
two pairs of birds, then, must, I suppose, have entered one another’s
nests, and they appear to be on the friendliest terms, a friendly
twitter from the one nest being, often, answered by a friendly twitter
from the other. At least it sounds friendly, and there have been these
double entries. During the time that the sparrow was besieging the
martin’s nest, she had all the appearance of real proprietorship. A
true grievance, a just indignation, was in her every look and motion.
She felt so, no doubt, and therein lies the irony of it. Nature is full
of irony.

“_22nd._--One or other of the two martins has, more than once, entered
the nest usurped by the sparrows, so that I begin to doubt if the
latter have really succeeded. As against this, however, I see both the
sparrows, on the roof near, and the cock bird has twigs and grass in
his bill. Yet, as long as I see them, they do not come to the nest.
Nevertheless, another nest is now being begun, about a foot from the
one they have invaded, and the birds building this, must, I feel sure,
be the owners of the latter.

“_23rd._--At 7 this morning the building of the new nest is going
rapidly forward, but the hen sparrow, with a sinister look, sits near,
in the gutter running round the roof. She has a little grass in her
bill, and with this, after a while, she flies to the abandoned nest.
She clings outside it, for a little, then, all at once, instead of
entering, attacks the two martins building their new one, flying at
each, in turn, and pecking them venomously. The martins do not resist,
and soon take to flight, but once again the sparrow attacks them, with
the grass still in her bill, before entering the old nest with it, as
finally she does. Undeterred by these two attacks, the martins continue
to ply backwards and forwards, ever building their nest. The hen
sparrow soon flies out of her ill-gotten one, and away, and, shortly
afterwards, the cock comes and sits on the piping, with a small tuft of
moss and grass in his bill. For a most inordinate time he sits there,
with these materials, and then, time and time again, he flies into a
neighbouring tree, and returns with them, going off, still holding
them, at last, without once having been to the nest. Meanwhile the hen
has returned with a much more considerable supply, which she takes into
the nest, at once. Afterwards she comes with more, but again her anger
is aroused by the sight of the two poor martins, always building, and
she flies at them, laden as she is, just as before. They take flight,
as usual, but soon return, and continue industriously to build. Both
are now doing so in the prettiest manner, lying side by side, but
turned in opposite directions, so that each works at a different part
of the nest. Then one of them flies eight times (if not more) to the
nest, and away again, with a large piece of black mud protruding, all
the while, from his bill, which is forced considerably open by it. He
seems, each time, unable to bring it out, but, on the ninth return,
succeeds in doing so--if, indeed, this is the explanation. When he
flies in, this last time, it does not look such a bulk in the mouth as
before. It may be--and this, perhaps, is more probable--that it had not
before been sufficiently worked up with the salivary secretions, and
that the bird was doing this, all the time, though making its little
visits as a matter of custom. During the earlier ones he had the nest
to himself, but, on the last, his partner was there, and he almost
pushed her out of it, with a little haste-pleading twittering, seeming
to say, ‘Mine is the greater need.’ Both the sparrows have been,
several times, in and out of the old nest, during this, and sometimes
sitting in it together. The hen is building in good, workmanlike
fashion, whereas the cock contributes but little. The mud which these
martins used to build with, was brought, by them, from a little puddle
in the village street, till this became dry, after which I did not see
where they went. I have seen quite a number of them, including some
swallows, collecting it at a pond in a village near here. A very pretty
sight it was, to see them all so busy, and doing something dirty so
cleanly--for, after all, swallowing mud is dirty if looked at in a
commonplace kind of way, though not at all so, really, if we consider
the end to which it is done.

“_30th._--Two more martlets are beginning a nest just above my
bedroom window, and on the very mud-stains of their last one. Others
seem choosing a site, for two pairs of them hang upon certain spots,
twittering together, in a most talking manner, flying away, then,
and returning to talk again, as if they were--not house-, but
foundation-hunting. I notice that these birds, when they fly from the
proposed or contemplated site, will often, after making a circle round,
wheel in to the nest nearest to it, and, poised in the air, beneath
the portal, take, as it were, a little friendly peep in. Yet it is not
all friendly, for I have just seen a bird struggling for entrance,
and expelled by the proprietor of the nest--by the one proprietor, I
think, but both were at home, and my impression is that if only one had
been, the visitor might have been well received, as, indeed, I have
seen and recorded. Now, too, I have seen a fight in the air between two
martins, _à propos_ of an intended entrance on the part of one of them.
House-martins, therefore, fight amongst themselves--as do sand-martins,
very violently--and this makes their apparent total inability to defend
themselves against the attacks of sparrows, the more remarkable. No
doubt the sparrow is a stronger bird, but the martins, with their
superior powers of flight, might annoy it incessantly when in the
vicinity of the nest, to the extent, perhaps, of driving it away. That
they should all combine for this purpose is, perhaps, too much to
expect, but when one sparrow, only, attacks a pair of them, one might
think that both would retaliate. As we have seen, however, a pair of
martins, when attacked in this way upon three occasions quite failed
to do so. Probably the period of fighting and striving has long ago
been passed through, and the sparrow, having come the victor out of
it, is now recognised as an inevitability. It is better for any pair
of house-martins--and consequently for the race--to give up and build
another nest, than to waste their time in efforts which, even if at
last successful, would make them the parents of fewer offspring.

“_June 1st._--The nest above my window has been built at a great rate,
and is now almost finished. Compare this with the very slow building
of some martins last year, and with Gilbert White’s general statement.
There is no finality in natural history, and any one observation may
be contradicted by any other. This nest, the day before yesterday, was
only just beginning, and now it is almost finished. A layer of half
an inch a day, therefore, is quite inadequate to the result, and so
the supposed reason for the slow rate of advance, when the nest is
built slowly, falls to the ground.[27] Late in the year, the nests
do, sometimes, drop--by which I have made acquaintance with the grown
young, and the curious parasitic fly upon them--but this, I think,
belongs to the chapter of accidents, and is not to be avoided by any
art or foresight of the bird. Other nests have now been begun, and
these, like all the rest, as far as I can be sure of it, are on the
exact sites of so many old ones. What interests me, however, is that,
on two of these sites, nests, for some reason, were not built last
year, though they were the year before. Possibly they were begun there
last year, but destroyed without my knowledge (women and gardeners
would do away with birds, between them), in which case no further
attempt was made to build there. But this I do not think was the case.
The birds, therefore--supposing them to be the same ones--missed a
year, and then built in the same place as two years ago. There were
only the stains of the old structures left, but these were covered by
the fresh mud, as a head is by a skull-cap. These martins, therefore,
assuming them to have been the same, must either not have built, last
year, or, having had to build somewhere else, they must yet have
remembered their old place of the year before, and come back to it.

“_5th._--This evening I watched my martins from the landing window, at
only a few yards’ distance. Two had made nests on a wall that stood, at
an angle, just outside, and in either one or both of these nests, one
of the two birds was usually sitting. Thus, either two or three more,
as the case might be, were wanted to make up the two pairs that owned
the two nests. But instead of two or three, often six or eight, at a
time, would be fluttering under the nests, and a still greater number
circled round about, from which these came, at intervals, to flutter
there. That every one of these birds was interested, in some way and
to some degree, in the two nests, was quite obvious. They seemed,
often, on the point of clinging to one, with a view to entering it,
and to be stopped, only, by the bird inside giving, each time, a funny
little bubbling twitter, which seemed, by its effect, to mean, ‘No,
not you; you’re not the right one.’ But whenever a bird did enter one
of the nests, he flew straight at it, and was in, in a moment, being
received--if the other one was at home--with a shriller and louder
note, something like a scream. The harsher sound meant welcome, and
the softer one, unwillingness.

“That there is some interest taken by the martins of a
neighbourhood--or, at least, of any little colony--in the nests built
by their fellows, seems clear, and I have recorded, both the friendly
entries of one bird into two nests, each of which was occupied by
another, and the struggles of two, to enter one, where, also, the
partner bird, either of one or the other, was sitting. All these facts
together seem best explained by supposing that the female house-martin
is something of a light-o’-love, and that when she builds her nest,
more than one male holds himself entitled to claim both it and her,
as his own. If, for some reasons, we feel unable to adopt this view,
we may fall back upon that of a social or communistic feeling, as yet
imperfectly developed, and wavering, sometimes, between friendliness
and hostility. Be it as it may, the facts which I have noted appear
to me to be of interest. In regard to the last-mentioned one--the
interest, namely, manifested by several birds, in nests not their
own--White of Selborne says: ‘The young of this species do not quit
their abodes all together; but the more forward birds get abroad some
days before the rest. These, approaching the eaves of buildings, and
playing about before them, make people think that several old ones
attend one nest.’ How does this apply here? ‘Nohow,’ I reply (with
Tweedledee), for no young birds could possibly have left the nests,
at this date (June 5). I doubt, indeed, whether any eggs had been
hatched. White, living in a southern county, says elsewhere (Letter
LV.): ‘About the middle of May, if the weather be fine, the martin
begins to think in earnest of providing a mansion for its family.’
This is my experience too, and in East Anglia, at any rate, where May
is generally like a bad March, and often colder, I am sure he never
thinks about it sooner. Neither in Dorsetshire, too, when I was last
there, did any martins begin building, in a village where they build
all down the street, before about the middle of May, as White says,
and when I inquired for them, a week or ten days sooner, the cottage
people, who must know their habits in this respect, told me it was
too early for them yet. Elsewhere, ’tis true, we read that the martin
‘sets about building very soon after its return, which may be about the
middle of April,’ though I never remember them here before May. This is
not my experience, nor was it White’s, who says--and, I believe, with
great correctness--‘For some time after they appear, the _hirundines_
in general pay no attention to the business of nidification, but play
and sport about, either to recruit from the fatigue of their journey,
or,’ &c. &c. (Letter LV.) (the rest of the sentence is historically
interesting). However, let some young martins, in some places, be
as precocious as they like, this I know, that none were abroad in
Icklingham, in the year 1901, upon the 5th of June. The several birds,
therefore, that attended one nest in the way I have described, were
old, and not young, birds, and I connect their conduct with those other
cases I have mentioned, which point towards a socialistic tendency in
this species.

“_24th._--Watching from the landing window, this morning, I saw a
house-martin attacked by another one, whilst entering its nest with
some feathers. I called to our Hannah to bring my son’s fishing-rod,
and never took my eyes off the nest, whilst she was coming with it.
Meanwhile, one martin had come out, and, on my touching the nest with
the rod, a second did, also. One of a pair, therefore, had, by making
its nest, excited the anger of a third bird, and this I have seen more
than once. Is the angry bird, in such cases, a mere stranger, or is it
a rival, in some way? If the last--and the other seems unlikely--does
one hen consort with two or more cocks, or _vice versâ_? I have
noticed, however, with more than one kind of bird, that the hens seem
jealous of each other collecting materials for the nest.[28]

“_August 3rd._--It is customary for two of the young martins to sit
with their heads looking out at the door of the nest--very pretty they
look--and ever and anon one of the parent birds will fly in to them,
as she circles round, and hanging there, just for a moment, there is a
little twittering chorus--mostly I think from the chicks--and off she
flies again. It is difficult to be quite sure whether, in these short
flying visits, the chicks are really fed. Sometimes they are so short
that this seems hardly possible. At others something does seem to pass,
and the mouth of one of the chicks may be seen opened, just after the
parent flies off. Yet it hardly seems like serious feeding. But at
this very moment a bird has, thus, flown in to the young, and one of
them, I am sure, was, this time, fed. This has happened again--and yet
again--but now, this last time, the parent bird has entered the nest.
The time before, whilst the one parent was hanging there, and, I think,
giving the chick something, the other flew in to the wall, and clung
there, about six inches off, seeming to watch the scene with pleased
attention. Yet, though food does, as I now feel sure, sometimes pass in
these visits, at others, as it seems to me, only remarks do. At this
stage of the argument, one of the young birds projects its tail through
the entrance-hole, and voids its excrement. Under this nest and another
one, about two feet from it, there is a heap of excrement on the
slanting roof of the greenhouse below; an interesting thing to see, and
cleanly if rightly considered, yet unsightly I must confess--that part
of it, alone, exists for the feminine eye. Out comes another tail, now,
and the heap is increased. In this pretty way the nest is kept pure and
wholesome.

“Now I have had a fine view of the feeding, having moved into a better
position. The parent bird clung to the nest, and one of the chicks,
thrusting out its head from the aperture, opened its mouth, so that it
looked like a little round funnel. Into this the parent bird thrust
not only her bill, but the upper part of her head as well, and the
chick’s mouth closing upon it, there instantly began, on the part of
both, those motions which accompany the process of regurgitation, as
it may be witnessed with pigeons, and as I have witnessed it with
nightjars. These becoming more and more violent, the parent bird was,
at last, drawn by the chick, who kept pulling back upon her, into the
nest--that, at least, was the appearance presented. For some moments
only the posterior part of the dam’s body could be seen projecting
through the aperture, and this continued to work violently, in the
manner indicated. Then she disappeared altogether. A few minutes
afterwards, another and much more lengthy visit is paid, by one of the
old birds, to the nest, but, this time, though a young one looks out
with open mouth, no feeding takes place.

“I have now to record that a bird about to enter the next nest to this,
from which another, whose snowy throat proclaims it to be full-grown,
has just looked out, is attacked, as it clings to the mud, and driven
off, by a third bird. In the course of some few minutes this occurs
twice again, the attack, each time, being very fierce, and the struggle
more prolonged. And now, but shortly afterwards, the same two birds
(as I make no doubt) fly, together, on to the nest, and both enter it,
shouldering and pushing one another. They are in it some time, during
which I can make nothing out clearly. Then one emerges, and I can see
that the other has hold of him with the beak, detaining him slightly,
as he flies away. This other, in a moment, flies out too, and then the
head of a third--the one, no doubt, that has been in the nest, all the
time--appears at the entrance, as before. Now this nest, though so late
in the season, has the appearance of being a new one. It even seems not
yet entirely finished, though nearly so. Perhaps it has been repaired,
but, in any case, there are no young birds in it, nor do I think the
old ones are sitting again, yet--for probably there have been earlier
broods. If we assume this, and that two out of the three birds are the
mated pair, then we must suppose either that, all the while, a rival
male has continued to fight for the possession of the nest and the
female, or that two females lay claim to the nest, and have, perhaps,
helped to build it. If this latter be the case, we may, perhaps, see
in it an extension of that spirit of jealousy or rivalry which I have
often observed in female birds, whilst collecting materials for their
respective nests. Is it possible that such feelings may have led to
that habit which the females of some birds have (or are supposed to
have) of laying their eggs in one common nest? But I do not suppose so.
In this case, as before, it appears that one of the rival birds--male
or female--is preferred by the bird in the nest, for this one, now, as
the prevailing party flies in and clings on the parapet, breaks into a
perfect jubilee of twitterings, and fuller, croodling notes, that may
almost be called song--very pretty indeed, and extremely pleasing to
hear. Evidently either two males have fought for access to a female--or
two females to a male--in a nest which one, or both, or all three have
helped to make; but the difficulty in distinguishing the sexes prevents
one from saying which of these two it is. Meanwhile the parent bird
has, for long, clung to the other nest, without feeding the young.

“_5th._--A young martlet has just been fed, leaning its head far out of
the nest. The process was quick, this time. Still, it must, I think,
have been a regurgitatory one. Two chicks, looking out from their
nest, have been, for some time, uttering a little piping twitter.
Suddenly, with a few louder, more excited tweets, they stretch out
both their heads, and their two widely-opened mouths look like little
perfectly round craters, as the dam flies up and pops her head--as it
were--as far as it will go, right into one of them. Almost instantly
she is away again. Still, from what I have seen before, and from never
catching anything projecting from the parent’s beak, I think the food
must have been brought up from the crop, or at least from somewhere
inside--for I am not writing as a physiologist. The first case which I
have recorded should, I think, be conclusive, and it was very carefully
observed. There have just been two visits in such quick succession that
I think it must have been the two parents. No doubt they both feed
the young, but it is not so easy to actually see that they do. One of
them flies in again, now, plunging its bill instantly right into the
centre of the open mouth of the chick. Withdrawing it, almost at once,
nothing is seen in the chick’s mouth, though it is evident it has
swallowed something. In another visit, a few minutes afterwards, the
finger-in-a-finger-stall appearance of the parent’s and chick’s bills,
and the motions of the latter, as though sucking in something, are much
more apparent.

“Whether the dam always, or only sometimes, disgorges food that it has
swallowed, or partially swallowed, or, at least, that it has brought
inside the mouth, I cannot be sure; but I believe that the insects on
which the young are fed, are never just carried in the beak, in the
way that a thrush, robin, wagtail, &c., brings worms or flies to its
young. When one thinks of the bird’s building habits and its swollen
throat, bulged out with mud--as I think it must be--one may surmise
that it finds it equally natural to hold a mash of insects in this way.
I believe that all the swallow tribe, as well as nightjars, engulf
their food in the way that a whale does infusoria, instead of seizing
it, first, with the bill--at least that this is their more habitual
practice. Thus, I was watching some swallows, once, flying close over
the ground, when a large white butterfly (the common cabbage one, I
think) suddenly disappeared, entombed, as it were, in one of them. Now,
had a sparrow seized the butterfly the effect would have been quite
different, and so would the process have been. It _would_ have seized
it, in fact, but the swallow must have opened its gape, and, in spite
of the size of the butterfly, it went down so quickly that, to the eye,
it looked as if it had been at once enclosed. Possibly, on account
of its size, it was, perforce, held just for a moment, till another
gulp helped it down. But the process, as I say, was very different to
the more usual one, and I doubt if an ordinary passerine bird could
have swallowed a butterfly on the wing, at all. It is rare, I think,
for anything so large as this to be hawked at by swallows or martins.
Small insects are their habitual food, and of these the air is often
full. That numbers should be swallowed down which are too small to hold
in the bill, seems almost a necessity, and that the house-martin, in
particular, does this, and brings them up again for the young, in the
form of a mash or pulp, I think likely from what I have seen, and,
also, from the bird’s habit of swallowing and disgorging mud. That
they, also, sometimes bring in insects in the bill may very well be
the case, but I have not yet seen them do so, and, especially, I have
missed that little collected bundle which, from analogy, I should have
expected to see. The most interesting point, to me, however, about the
domestic life of these birds, is their social and sexual relations,
which I think are deserving of a more serious investigation than is
contained in the scanty record which I here offer.”

Another entry, which I cannot now find, referred to the sudden late
appearance of several sand-martins, who ought--had they read their
authorities--to have known better. I cannot help thinking that Gilbert
White has been treated very unfairly about that theory of his. If
certain of the swallow tribe are sometimes seen, on sunny days, in
winter, then that is an interesting circumstance, and one which has
to be accounted for. White, in drawing attention to it, has done his
duty as a field naturalist, and the explanation which he has offered
is one which seems to meet the facts of the case. If a swallow is here
at Christmas, it cannot be in Africa, and as it cannot feed here, and
is not, as a rule, seen about, it becomes highly probable that it is
hibernating. It is not the rule for swallows to do this--nor do I
understand White to say that it is--but it is the exception, here, that
should interest us, especially at this time of day, when we know that
what is the exception, now, may become the rule later on. The whole
interest, therefore, lies in the question whether swifts, swallows,
martins, &c., ever do stay with us during the winter, instead of
migrating, and, in regard to this, White offers some evidence. What he
deserves except praise for so doing I cannot, for the life of me, see,
but what he gets--from a good many quarters, at any rate--is a sort of
dull, pompous, patronising taking to task--“_Good_ boy, but mustn’t do
that.”

[Illustration: MOORHEN AND NEST]



CHAPTER XI


The Lark, which is our river here, and more particularly the little
stream that runs into it, are, like most rivers and streams in England,
much haunted by moorhens and dabchicks, especially by the former,
though in winter I have seen as many as eleven of the latter--the
little dabchicks--swimming, dipping, and skimming over the water,
together. There is a fascination in making oneself acquainted with the
ways of these little birds. They are not so easy to watch, and yet
they are not so very very difficult. They seem made for concealment
and retirement, which makes it all the more piquant when they come,
plainly, into view, and remain there, at but a few yards’ distance,
which, with patience, can be brought about. The whole thing lies in
sitting still for an hour--or a few more hours--waiting for the
dabchick to come to you, for as to your trying to go to him, that is
no good whatever--“that way madness lies.” In watching birds, though
it may not be quite true--certainly I have not found it so--that “all
things come to him who knows how to wait,” this at least may be said,
that nothing, as a rule, comes to him who does not know how to--least
of all a dabchick.

Long before one sees the little bird--long before one could see it were
it right in front of one, if one comes at the proper time--one hears
its curious little note--accompanied, often, with scufflings and other
sounds that make one long to be there--amongst the reeds and rushes,
in the darkness. This note--which, until one knows all about it, fills
one with a strange curiosity--is a thin chirrupy chatter, high and
reed-like, rapidly repeated, and with a weak vibration in it. It is
like no other bird-cry that I am acquainted with, but it resembles,
or suggests, two things--first, the neigh or hinny of a horse heard
very faintly in the distance (for which I have often mistaken it),
and, again, if a tittering young lady were to be changed, or modified,
into a grasshopper, but beg, as a favour, to be allowed still to
titter--_as_ a grasshopper--this would be it. Sometimes, too, when
it comes, low and faint, in the near distance, one might think the
fairies were laughing. This is the commonest of the dabchick’s notes,
and though it has some other ones, they are uttered, for the most part,
in combination with it, and, especially, lead up to, and usher it in,
so that it becomes, through them, of more importance, as the _grande
finale_ of all, in which the bird rises to its emotional apogee, and
then stops, because anything would be tame after that. Thus, when a
pair of dabchicks play about in each other’s company--which they will
do in December as well as in spring--their note, at first, may be a
quiet “Chu, chu, chu,” “Queek, queek, queek,” or some other ineffective
sound. Then, side by side, and with their heads close together, they
burst suddenly forth with “Chēēlee, lēēlee, lēēlee, lēēlee, lēēlee,
lēēlee”--one thought, and both of one mind--

    “A timely utterance gives that thought relief.”

It is as though they said, “Shall we? Well then--_Now_ then”--and
started. Who that sees a pair do this in the winter--in the very depth
of it, only a few days before Christmas--can doubt that the birds are
mated, and will be constant through life? They are like an old couple
by the fireside, now. As the spring comes round their youth will be
renewed, and the same duet will express the warmer emotions. Now it
is the bird’s contentment note. You know what it means, directly. It
expresses satisfaction with what has been, already, accomplished,
present complacency, and a robust determination to continue, for the
future, to walk--or swim--in the combined path of duty and pleasure.
What a pretty little scene it is!--and one may watch these little
cool-dipping, reed-haunting things, so dapper and circumspect, as
near as one’s _vis-à-vis_ in a quadrille--nearer even--and tear out
the heart of their mystery, with not a dabchick the wiser. No doubt
about what they say for the future, for when a most authoritative work
says “the note is a ‘whit, whit,’” and so passes on, it is time to
bestir oneself. “Whit!” No. I deny it. Even when it ends there, when
there is nothing more than that in the bird’s mind, it is not “whit,”
but “queek” that it says--“queek, queek, queek, queek,” a quavering
little note, with a sharp sound--the long ē--always. “Queek,” then,
_“pas ‘whit,’ Monsieur Fleurant. Whit! Ah, Monsieur Fleurant, c’est se
moquer. Mettez, mettez ‘queek,’ s’il vous plaît._” But what is this
“queek”--though repeated more than twice--compared with such a jubilee
as I have just described, and which the birds are constantly making?
Express it syllabically as one may, it is something very uncommon and
striking--a little thin burst of rejoicing--and it lasts for some time:
not to be passed off as a mere desultory remark or so, therefore--call
it what one will--which almost any bird might make.

Besides, it is not merely what a bird says, that one would like
to know, but what it means, and how it says it. One would like a
description, where there is anything to describe, and no one, I am
sure, could see a pair of dabchicks put their heads together and break
out like this, and then say, _tout court_--without comment, even, much
less enthusiasm, as though it exhausted the matter--“the note is a
whit, whit.” No, no one could be so cold-blooded. Though an alphabet
of letters may follow his name, the dabchick is a sealed book to any
one who writes of it like that. So now, coming again to the meaning of
this little duet, there can, as I say, be no doubt that it expresses
contentment, but this contentment is not of a quiet kind. It is raised,
for the moment, to a pitch of exaltation that throws a sort of triumph
into it. It is an access, an overflowing, of happiness, and the note
of love, though, now, in winter, a little subdued, must be there too,
for, as I say, these birds mate for life. So, at least, I feel sure,
and so I believe it to be with most other birds. Permanent union, with
recurrent incentive to unite, matrimony always and courtship every
spring--as one aerates, at intervals, the water in an aquarium--that,
I believe, is the way of it; a good way, too--the next best plan to
changing the water is not to let it get stagnant.

Whenever I can catch at evidence in regard to the sexual relations of
birds, it always seems to point in this direction. Take, for instance,
that species to which I now devote the rest of this chapter, the
moorhen, namely--_Gallinula chloropus_--for the dabchick has been an
encroachment. A very small pond in my orchard of some three half-dead
fruit-trees was tenanted by a single pair, who built their nest there
yearly. Had it not been for a cat, whose influence and position in the
family was fixed beyond my power of shaking, I should have made, one
year, a very close study, indeed, of the domestic economy of these
two birds; but this tiresome creature, either by the aid of a clump
of rushes, amidst which it was situated, or by jumping out boldly
from the bank, got at the nest, though it was at some distance, and
upset the eggs into the water. As a consequence, the birds deserted
both nest and pond, nor did the lost opportunity ever return. A few
points of interest, however, I had been able to observe, before the
cat intervened. The year before, I had noticed two slight nests in the
pond, in neither of which were any eggs laid, whilst the pond itself
remained always, as far as I could see, in possession of this one pair
of birds only. In the following spring I again noted two moorhens’
nests, in approximately the same situations as before, and now I
observed further. During the greater part of the day no moorhens were
to be seen in the pond, but, as evening began to fall, first one and
then another of these two birds would either steal silently into it,
through a little channel communicating with the river, or else out of
the clump of rushes where one of these nests had been built. The other
one was amongst the half-submerged branches of a fallen tree, the trunk
of which arched a corner of the pond. Over to here the birds would
swim, and one of them, ascending and running along the tree-trunk,
would enter the nest, and sit in it quietly, for a little while. Then
it would creep, quietly, out of it, run down the trunk, again, into
the water, and swim over to this same clump of rushes, from which,
in some cases, it had come. Whether it then sat in the nest there,
also, I cannot so positively affirm, but I have no doubt that it did,
for I could see it, for some time, through the glasses, a perfectly
still, dark object, somewhat raised above the surface of the water.
Assuming it to have been sitting in this nest, then it had, certainly,
just left the other one, and, moreover, there were the two nests,
and only the one pair of birds. For, as I say, I never saw more than
two moorhens, at a time, in this pond, which, being very small, was,
probably, considered by these as their property. Intrusion on the part
of any other bird would, no doubt, have been resented, but I never
saw or heard any brawling. The pretty scene of peaceful, calm, loving
proprietorship, was not once disturbed.

When the two birds were together, one swam, commonly, but just behind
the other, and kept pressing against it in a series of little, soft
impulses--a quietly amorous manner, much for edification to see.
Each night, from a little before the darkness closed in, one of
these moorhens--I believe always the same one--would climb out on a
particular branch of the fallen tree, and standing there, just on the
edge of the black water, bathe and preen itself till I could see it no
longer. It never varied from just this one place on the branch, which,
though a thin one, made there a sort of loop in the water, where it
could stand, or sit, very comfortably. The other of the two had, no
doubt, a tiring-place of its own--I judge so, at least, because it
would, probably, have bathed and preened about the same time, but, if
so, it did so somewhere where I could not see it. Moorhens have special
bathing-places, to which one may see several come, one after the other.
This is at various times of the day, but I have noticed, too, this
special last bathe and preening, before retiring for the night; and
here I do not remember seeing two birds resort to the same spot. There
would seem, therefore, to be a general bathing-place for the daytime,
and a private one for the evening.

Here, then, we have two nests built by one and the same pair
of moorhens, both of which were sat in--whether as a matter of
convenience, by both parties, or by the female, only, in order to
lay, I cannot be sure--some days before the eggs appeared. But, two
days afterwards, I found two other nests, or nest-like structures, at
different points of the same pond, and these, for the reasons before
given, must most certainly have been made by the same pair of birds;
for they were moorhens’ nests, and to imagine that four pairs of
moorhens had been building in so confined an area, without my ever
having seen more than two birds together, within it, though watching
morning and evening, and for hours at a time, is to _pensar en lo
imposible_, as Don Quijote is fond of saying. On the next day, I found
the first egg, in one of the two nests last noticed--not in either of
those, therefore, that I had seen the bird sitting in. This was on the
5th of May, and in as many days six more were added, making seven,
after which came the cat, and my record, which I had hoped would be a
very close and full one, came to an end. During this time, however,
I had remarked yet a fifth nest, built against the trunk of a young
fir-tree, that had fallen into the same small clump of rushes where the
one with the eggs, and another, were: and all these five had sprung
up within the last few weeks, for they had certainly not been there
before. The number of moorhens’ nests along the little stream, here,
had often struck me with surprise, though knowing it to be much haunted
by these birds. After these observations, I paid more particular
attention, and found, in one place, four nests so close together as
to make it very unlikely they could have been the work of different
birds; and, of these, all but one remained permanently empty. Moreover,
the three others, though obviously, as it seemed to me, the work of
moorhens, had a very unfinished appearance compared to the one that
fulfilled its legitimate purpose. Less material had been used--though
they varied in regard to this--and they seemed to have been formed, to
a more exclusive extent, by the bending over of the growing rushes. As
I say, no eggs were ever laid in these three nests, but in one of them
I once found the moorhen who had laid in the other, sitting with her
brood of young chicks. I have little doubt but that she had made the
four, and was accustomed thus to sit in all of them. Whether she had
made the supernumerary ones with any definite object of the sort, it
is more difficult to say. For myself, I doubt this; but, at any rate,
the moorhen would seem to stand prominent amongst the birds which have
this habit of over-building, as one may call it--a much larger body, I
believe, than is generally supposed.

With the above habit, a much stranger one, which, from a single
observation, I believe this species to have, is, perhaps, indirectly
connected. Moorhens, as a rule, lay a good many eggs--from seven
to eleven, if not, sometimes, more. I have, however, upon various
occasions, found them sitting on a much smaller number--on four once,
and once, even, upon only three--notwithstanding that these represented
the first brood. The nest with only three eggs I had watched for
some days before the hatching took place. It could hardly have been,
therefore, that others had been hatched out before, and the chicks
gone; nor had it ever occurred to me that the original number might
have been artificially diminished, by the birds themselves. One day,
however, I happened to be watching a pair of moorhens, by a lake in
a certain park, when I noticed one of them walking away from the
nest--to which, though it appeared quite built, they had both been
adding--with some large thing, of a rounded shape, in its bill. Before
I had time to make out what this thing was, the bird, still carrying
it, became hidden behind some foliage, and this happened again on a
second occasion, much to my disappointment, since my curiosity was now
aroused. Resolved not to miss another opportunity if I could help it,
I kept the glasses turned upon this bird whenever it was visible, and
very soon I saw it go again to the nest, and, standing just outside it,
with its head craned over the rim, spear down suddenly into it, and
then walk away, with an egg transfixed on its bill. The nest was on a
mudbank in the midst of shallow water, through which the bird waded to
the shore, and deposited the egg there, somewhere where I could not
see it. Twice, now, at short intervals, the same bird returned to the
nest, speared down with its bill, withdrew it with an egg spitted on
its point, and walked away with it, as before. Instead of landing with
it, however, it, each of these times, dropped it in the muddy water,
and I saw as clearly through the glasses as if I had been there, that
the egg, each time, sank. This shows that they were fresh, for one can
test eggs in this manner. Had it been, not the whole egg, but only the
greater part of its shell that the bird was carrying, this would have
floated, a conspicuous object on the black, stagnant water. That it
was the whole egg, and transfixed, as I say, not carried, I am quite
certain, for I caught, through the glasses, the full oval outline, and
could see, where the beak pierced it, a thin, transparent streamer
of the albumen depending from the hole, and being blown about by the
wind. As birds remove the shells of their hatched eggs from the nest,
I took particular pains not to be mistaken on this point, the result
being absolute certainty as far as my own mind is concerned. The
circumstances, however, were not such as to allow me to verify them
by walking to the spot. Early on the following morning I returned to
my post of observation, and now I at once saw, on using the glasses,
the empty egg-shell, as it appeared to be, floating on the water
just where I had seen it sink the day before. No doubt the yelk-sac
had been pierced by the bill of the bird, so that the contents had
gradually escaped, and the shell risen to the surface as a consequence.
This moorhen, then, had destroyed, at the very least, as I now feel
certain, five of its own eggs, for that, on the first two occasions,
it had acted in the same way as on the last three, there can be no
reasonable doubt, nor is it wonderful that I should not, then, have
quite made out what it was doing, considering its quick disappearance
and the hurried view of it that I got. Afterwards, I saw the whole
thing from the beginning, and had a very good view throughout. At the
nest, especially, the bird was both nearer to me, and stood in a good
position for observation.

Here, then, we seem introduced to a new possibility in bird
life--parental prudence, or something analogous to it, purposely
limiting the number of offspring to be reared. I can conceive, myself,
how a habit of this sort might become developed in a bird, for the
number of eggs that can be comfortably sat upon must depend upon the
size of the nest; and this might tend to decrease, not at all on
account of a bird’s laziness, but owing to that very habit of building
supernumerary nests, which appears to be so developed in the moorhen.
That a second nest should, through eagerness, be begun before the
first was finished, is what one might expect, and also that the nest,
under these circumstances, would get gradually smaller--for what the
bird was always doing would soon seem to it the right thing to do. As
a matter of fact, the size of moorhens’ nests does vary very greatly,
some being thick, deep, and massive, with a large circumference, whilst
others are a mere shallow shell that the bird, when sitting, almost
covers. Such a one was that which I have mentioned, as containing only
four eggs--for they quite filled the nest, so that it would not have
been easy for the bird to have incubated a larger number. The one from
which the five eggs were carried, was, however, quite a bulky one. But
whatever the explanation may be, this particular moorhen that I saw
certainly did destroy five of its own eggs, carrying them off, speared
on its bill, in the way I have described. Either it was an individual
eccentricity on the part of one bird, or others are accustomed to do
the same, which last, I think, is quite possible, when we consider how
rarely it is that birds are seen removing the shells of the hatched
eggs from their nests, which, however, they always do. Certain of the
cow-birds of America have, it seems, the habit of pecking holes both in
their own eggs and those of the bird in whose nest they are laid.[29]
The cow-bird is a very prolific layer, and it is possible that we may
see, in this proceeding, the survival of a means which it once employed
to avoid the discomfort attendant on the rearing of too large a family,
before it had hit upon a still better way out of the difficulty. The
way in which the moorhen carried the eggs is interesting, since it is
that employed by ravens in the Shetlands, when they rob the sea-fowl.
It would seem, indeed, the only way in which a bird could carry an egg
of any size, without crushing it up.

As bearing on the strongly developed nest-building instinct of the
moorhen, leading it, sometimes, to make four or five when only one is
required, it is interesting to find that, in some cases, the building
is continued all the while the eggs are being hatched, or even whilst
the young are sitting in the nest--in fact as long as the nest is in
regular occupation. The one bird swims up with reeds or rushes in his
bill--sometimes with a long flag that trails far behind him on the
water--and these are received and put into position by the other, in
the nest. Thus the shape of the nest may vary, something, from day to
day, and from a point where, yesterday, the eggs, as one stood, were
quite visible, to-day they will be completely hidden by a sconce, or
parapet that has since been thrown up. It may be thought, from this,
that the birds have some definite object in thus continuing their
labours, but, for myself, I believe that it is merely in deference
to a blind impulse, which is its own pleasure and reward. It is a
pretty thing to see a pair of moorhens building. During the later
stages they will run about, together, on the land, their necks
stretched eagerly out, the whole body craned forward, searching,
examining, sometimes both seizing on something at the same time--the
one a twig, the other a brown leaf--and then running with them, cheek
by jowl, to the nest, on which both climb, and place them, standing
side by side. On their next going forth, they may start in different
directions, or become separated, so that when one goes back to the
nest he may find the other already upon it. It is interesting, then,
to see him reach up, with whatever he has brought, and present it to
his partner’s bill, who takes it of him, and at once arranges it. The
look, the general appearance of interest and tender solicitude, which
the bird, particularly, that presents his offering, has, must be seen
to be appreciated. Not that the other is deficient in this respect--a
gracious, pleased acceptance, with an interest all as keen, speaks
in each feather, too. The expression of a bird is given by its whole
attitude--everything about it, from beak to toe and tail--and, by dint
of this, it often appears to me to have as much as an intelligent
human being has, by the play of feature; in which, of course, birds
are deficient--at least to our eyes. Certain I am that no _dressed_
human being could express more, in offering something to another, than
a bird sometimes does; and if it be said that we cannot be sure of
this, that it is mere inference based on analogy, it may be answered
that, equally, we cannot be _sure_, in the other case--nor, indeed, in
anything.

When the male and female moorhen stand, together, on the nest, it is
impossible to distinguish one from the other. The legs, which in the
male, alone, are gartered, are generally hidden, whilst the splendid
scarlet cere--making a little conflagration amongst the rushes--and
the coloration of the plumage, are alike in both--at least for field
observation. In the early autumn, and onwards, one sees numbers
of moorhens that have a green cere, instead of a red one, and the
plumage of whose back and wings is of a very plain, sober brown,
much lighter than we have known it hitherto. These are the young
birds of the preceding spring and summer, and everything in regard
to their different coloration would be simple enough, if it were not
for a curious fact--or one which seems to me to be curious--viz.
this, that the moorhen chicks have, when first hatched, and for some
time afterwards, a red cere, as at maturity. It seems very strange
that, being born with what is, probably, a sexual adornment, they
should afterwards lose it, to reacquire it, again, later on. Darwin
explains the difference between the young and the parent form, upon
the principle that “at whatever period of life a peculiarity first
appears, it tends to reappear in the offspring, at a corresponding
age, though sometimes earlier.” Thus, in the plumage of the young
and female pheasant, or the young green woodpecker, we may suppose
ourselves to see the ancestral unadorned states of these birds. But
what should we think if the young male pheasant was, at first, as
brilliant as the mature bird, then became plain, like the female, and
afterwards reassumed its original brilliancy, or if the woodpecker
of either sex were first green, then brown, and then green again.
If the young moorhen, having exchanged its scarlet cere for a much
less showy one, kept this latter through life, we should, I suppose,
assume that the first had been acquired long ago, and then lost for
some reason, possibly because change of habits, or circumstances, had
made it more of a disadvantage, by being conspicuous, than it had
remained an advantage, by being attractive. Are we, now, to think that,
having acquired, and then lost, the crimson, the bird has subsequently
reacquired it? If so, what has been the reason for this? Were green
ceres, for some time, preferred to scarlet ones? This hardly seems
probable, since the green, in this instance, is pale and dull. However,
birds are but birds, and even amongst ourselves anything may be
fashionable, even downright ugliness, as is almost equally well seen
in a milliner’s shop or a picture gallery. As far as the mere loss of
beauty is concerned, a parallel example is offered by the coot, which,
in its young state, is all-glorious, about the head, with orange and
purple, which changes, later, to a uniform, sooty black. But the coot
stops there; it does not get back, later on, the colours it has lost.

Young moorhens are almost, if not quite, as precocious as chickens.
Out of three that were in the egg, the day before, I found two, once,
sitting in the nest, from which the shells had already been removed.
The nest was on a snag in the midst of a small pond, or, rather, pool,
so that I could not get to it; but, as I walked up to the water’s
edge, both the chicks evinced anxiety, though in varying degrees. One
kept where it was, at the bottom of the nest, the other crawled to the
edge and lay with its head partly over it, as though ready to take the
water, which, no doubt, both would have done, had I been able to come
nearer. Yet, in all probability, as the pool lay in a deep hollow,
seldom visited, I was the first human being they had either of them
ever seen. The third egg was, as yet, unhatched; but coming, again, on
the following day, the nest was entirely empty, and I now found pieces
of the egg-shells, lying high and dry upon the bank of the pool, to
which they had evidently been carried by the parent birds. In the same
way, it will be remembered, the moorhen that destroyed its eggs, walked
with them through the water, to the bank, on which it placed three out
of the five--two at some distance away.

Though so precocious, yet the young moorhens are, for some time, fed
by their dams. I have seen them run to them, with their wings up, over
a raft of water-plants, and then crouch and lift their heads to one
of their parents, from whom they received a modicum of weed. Or they
will sit down beside their mother, and look up in her face in a pretty,
beseeching way. When frightened or disturbed, they utter a little
wheezy, querulous note, like “kew-ee, kew-ee,” which has a wonderful
volume of sound in it, for such little things. The mother soon appears,
and gives a little purring croon, after which the cries cease; or she
may answer them with a cry something like that of a partridge. She
calls them to her with a clucking note, uttered two or three times
together, and repeated at longer or shorter intervals. When one sees
this, one would never doubt but that here is the special call-note of
the mother to the chicks. Nevertheless, I have heard her thus clucking,
whilst sitting on a first brood of eggs, and this shows how careful
one ought to be in attributing a special and definite significance to
any cry uttered by an animal. Besides the one which I have mentioned,
young moorhens make a little shrilly sound that has something, almost,
of a cackle in it. There is also a little “chillip, chillip”; nor does
this exhaust their repertory. In fact they have considerable variety
of expression, even at this early age. They swim as “to the manner
born,” nid-nodding like their parents, but cannot progress against a
stream that is at all swift. One paddling with all its might, neither
advancing nor receding, and uttering, all the while, its little
querulous cry, is a common sight. Up a steep bank they can climb with
ease, and they have a manner of leaning forward, when running, to an
extent which makes them seem always on the point of overbalancing, that
is very funny to see. For some time, they are accustomed to return to
the nest, after leaving it, and sit there with one of the parent birds.
When surprised, under these circumstances, the mother (presumably),
utters a short, sharp, shrilly note, which is instantly followed by
another, equally short and much lower. As she utters them she retreats,
and the chicks, with this warning, are left to themselves--to stay or
to follow her, as best they can.

Having often disturbed birds under these or similar conditions, I can
say confidently that the moorhen employs no ruse, to divert attention
from its young. The following circumstance, therefore, as bearing on
my theory of the origin of such stratagems, especially interested me.
In this case I came suddenly upon a point of the stream where the bank
was precipitous, on which a moorhen flew out upon the water, with a
loud clacking note, and then, after some very disturbed motions, swam
to the opposite shore, giving constant, violent flirts of the tail, the
white feathers of which were, each time, broadened out, as when two
male birds fight, or threaten one another. In this state she went but
slowly, though most birds in her position would have flown right off.
On my coming closer to the edge of the bank, six or seven young chicks
started out, all in different directions, as though from a central
point where they had been sitting together on the water, as, no doubt,
they had been, the mother with them, just as though upon the nest. No
one could have thought that this moorhen had any idea of diverting
attention from her young to herself. Sudden alarm, producing, at first,
a nervous shock, and then distress and apprehension, seemed to me,
clearly, the cause of her actions, which yet bore a rude resemblance
to highly specialised ones, and had much the same effect. From such
beginnings, in my opinion, and not from successive “small doses of
reason,” have the most elaborate “ruses” been evolved and perfected.

In one or two other instances--in a wood-pigeon, for example, and a
pheasant--I have noticed the strange effect--amounting, for a few
moments, to a sort of paralysis--which a very sudden surprise may
produce in a bird, even when its young do not come into question.
Moorhens, too, are excitable, even as birds. Their nerves, I think, are
highly strung. I have often noticed that the report of a gun in the
distance--even in the far distance--will be followed by half-a-dozen
clanging cries from as many birds--in fact, from as many as are about.
Especially is the hen moorhen of a nervous and sensitive temperament,
open to “thick-coming fancies,” varying from minute to minute. How
often have I watched her pacing, like a bride, on cold, winter
mornings, along the banks of our little stream. Easy, elastic steps;
head nodding and tail flirting in unison. She nestles, a moment, on
the frosted grass, then rises and paces, as before, stops now, stands
on one leg a little, puts the other down, again makes a step or two,
then another pause, glances about, thinks she will preen herself, but
does not, nestles once more, gives a glance over her shoulder, half
spies a danger, rises and tip-toes out of sight. What a little bundle
of caprices and apprehensions! But they all become her, “all her acts
are queens.” Some special savour lies in each motion, in each frequent
flirt of the tail. Though this flirtation of the tail is very habitual
with moorhens, though nine times out of ten, almost, when you see them
either on land or water, they are flirting it, still they do not always
do so. “_Nonnunquam dormitat bonus Homerus_”--“_Non semper tendit arcum
Apollo._” It _can_ be quite still, that tail. I have seen it so--even
twenty together, whose owners were reposefully browsing. But let there
be _any_ kind of emotion, almost, and heavens! how it flirts!

Moorhens are pugnacious birds, even in the winter. At any time, one
amongst several browsing over the meadow-land, may make a sudden,
bull-like rush--its head down and held straight out--at another, and
this, often, from a considerable distance. The bird thus suddenly
attacked generally takes flight, and afterwards, as a solace to its
feelings, runs at some other one, and drives it about, in its turn.
This second bird will do the same by a third, and thus, in wild nature,
we have a curious reproduction--much to the credit of Sheridan--of that
scene in “The Rivals” where Sir Anthony bullies his son, his son the
servant, and the servant the page. “It is still the sport” in natural
history, to see poor humanity aped. Such likenesses are humiliating but
humorous, and, by making us less proud, may do good. But chases like
this are not in the grand style. There is nothing stately about them,
no “pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war”--little, perhaps,
of its true spirit. As the spring comes on it is different. Then male
birds that, at three yards apart, have been quietly feeding, walk,
if they come a yard nearer, with wary, measured steps, in a crouched
attitude, holding their heads low, and with their tails swelled out.
On the water these mannerisms are still more marked, and then it is
that the bird’s true beauty--for beauty it is, and of no mean order--is
displayed. Two will lie all along, facing each other, with the neck
stretched out, and the head and bill, which are in one line with it,
pointing straight forward, like the ram of a war-ship. Their tails,
however, are turned straight up, in bold contrast with all the rest
of them, so that, with the white feathers which this part bears, and
which are now finely displayed, they have a most striking and handsome
appearance. There is a little bunch of these feathers--the under
tail-coverts--on either side of the true tail, and each of these is
frilled and expanded outwards, to the utmost possible extent, which
gives it the shape and appearance of one half, or almost half, of a
palm-leaf fan. The tail is the whole fan, so that, what with its size,
and the graceful form that it has now assumed, and the pure white
contrasting with the rich brown in the centre, it has become quite
beautiful, more so, I think, than the fan of any fan-tail pigeon.
Indeed the whole bird seems to be different, and looks more than twice
as handsome as it does under ordinary circumstances. Its spirit, which
is now exalted and warlike, “shines through” it, and, with its rich
crimson bill, it glows and burns on the water, like Cleopatra’s barge.
A fierce and fiery little prow this bill makes, indeed, and there
is the poop, too, for the elevated tail, with the part of the body
adjoining, which has, also, a bold upward curve, has very much that
appearance. Thus, in this most salient of attitudes, with tail erect,
and with beak and throat laid, equally with the whole body, along the
water, with proud and swelling port the birds make little impetuous
rushes at one another, driving, each, their little ripple before
them, from the vermilion prow-point. They circle one about another,
approach and then glide away again, looking, for all the world, like
two miniature war-ships of proud opposing nations: for their pride
seems more than belongs to individuals--it is like a national pride.
Yet even so, and just as great deeds seem about to be achieved, the two
may turn and swim off in a stately manner, their tails still fanned,
their heads, now, proudly erect, each scorning, yet, also, respecting
the other, each seeming to say, “Satan, I know thy strength, and thou
know’st mine.” Otherwise, however, as the upshot of all this warlike
pomp, they close in fierce and doubtful conflict. This is extremely
interesting to see. After lying, for some time, with the points of
their beaks almost touching, both the birds make a spring, and, in a
moment, are sitting upright in the water, on their tails, so to speak,
and clawing forwards and downwards with their feet. The object of each
bird seems to be to drag his adversary down in the water, so as to
drown him, but what always happens is that the long claws interlock,
and then, holding and pulling, both of them fall backwards from their
previously upright position, and would be soon lying right on their
backs, were it not that, to prevent this, they spread their wings on
the water, so that they act as a prop and support, which, together with
their hold on one another, prevents their sinking farther. Their heads
are still directed as much as possible forward, and in this singular
attitude they glare at each other, presenting an appearance which
one would never have thought it possible they could do, from seeing
them in their more usual, everyday life. They may sit thus, leaning
backwards, as though in an arm-chair, and inactive from necessity, for
a time which sometimes seems like several minutes, but which is, more
probably, several seconds. Then, at length, with violent strugglings,
they get loose, and either instantly grapple again, or, as is more
usual, float about with the same proud display as before, each seeming
to breathe out menace for the future, with present indignation at what
has just taken place.

Moorhens fight in just the same manner as coots, and seeing what a
very curious and uncommon-looking manner this is, it might be thought
that it was specially adapted to the aquatic habits of the two
species. It is not. It is related to their terrestrial ancestry, and
the terrestrial portion of their own lives. One has only to see them
fighting on land to become, at once, aware that they are doing so in
exactly the same way as they do in the water, and, also, that this way,
on land, is by no means peculiar, but very much that in which cocks,
pheasants, partridges, and, indeed, most birds, fight. For, jumping
up against one another, moorhens, like these, strike down with the
feet, but, having no spurs, use their long claws and toes in the way
most natural to them. And this, no doubt, their fathers did before
them, in deeper and deeper water, as from land-rails they passed into
water-rails, until, at last, they were doing it when bottom was not to
be touched, and they had only water to leap up from. Even the falling
back with the claws interlocked has nothing specially aquatic in it. I
have seen moorhens do so in the meadows, and they then spread out their
wings, to support themselves on the ground, just as they do in the
water. The continual leaping up from the water, as from the ground, is
extremely noticeable, especially in the coot, and, in fact, the strange
appearance presented by the whole thing--its _bizarrerie_, which is
very great--is entirely due to our seeing something which belongs,
essentially, to the land, carried on in another element, for which it
is not really fitted. How differently do the grebes fight--by diving,
and using the beak under water! Yet they, like the coot, are only
fin-footed, whilst the coot is almost as good a diver as themselves.
No one, however, comparing the structure and general habits of the two
families, can doubt that the one is much more distantly separated from
its land ancestry than the other. In both the coot and the moorhen,
indeed, we see an interesting example of the early stages of an
evolution, but the coot has gone farther than the moorhen, for besides
that it dives much better, and swims out farther from the shore, it
bathes floating on the water, whilst the moorhen does so only where it
is shallow enough to stand.

Readers of “The Naturalist in La Plata,” may remember the account there
given of the curious screaming-dances--social, not sexual--of the
Ypecaha rails. “First one bird among the rushes emits a powerful cry,
thrice repeated; and this is a note of invitation, quickly responded
to by other birds from all sides, as they hurriedly repair to the
usual place.... While screaming, the birds rush from side to side,
as if possessed with madness, the wings spread and vibrating, the
long beak wide open and raised vertically.” Do moorhens do anything
analogous to this, anything that might in time grow into it, or into
something like it? In my opinion they do, for I think that I have seen
a hint of it, on a few occasions, and on one in particular, of which
I made a note. Two birds, in this case, had been floating, for some
time, quietly on the water, when one of them, suddenly, threw up its
wings, waved them violently and excitedly, and scudded, thus, rather
than flew, along the surface, into a reed-bed not far off. Before it
had got there the other moorhen, first making a quick turn or two in
the water, threw up its wings also, and scudded after its friend,
in just the same way. Then came from the reeds, and was continued
for a little time, that melancholy-sounding, wailing, clucking note
that I have so often listened to, wondering what it might mean, and
convinced that it meant something interesting. But if “the heart of man
at a foot’s distance is unknowable,” as a Chinese proverb says--and
doubtless rightly--that it is, so is the whole of a moorhen, when it
has got as far as that, amongst reeds and rushes. Here, however--and
I have seen something very similar, which began on the land--we have
the sudden, contagious excitement, _à propos de rien_ it would seem,
the motion of the wings--not so very common with moorhens, under
ordinary circumstances--and the darting to a certain spot, with the
cries immediately proceeding from it: all which, together, bears a not
inconsiderable resemblance to the more finished performance of the
Ypecaha rail, a bird belonging to the same family as the moorhen.

It is a pity, I think, that our commoner birds, when related to foreign
ones in which some strikingly peculiar habit has long been matter for
wonder, should not be more carefully and continuously observed, with
a view to detecting something in their own daily routine, which might
throw light on the origin of such eccentricities--something either
just starting along, or already some way on the road to, the wonderful
house at which their kinsfolk have arrived. Unfortunately, whilst the
end arouses great interest, the beginnings, or, even, something more
than the beginnings, either escape observation altogether, or are not
observed properly. When a thing, by its saliency, has been forced upon
our notice, it is comparatively easy to find out more about it; but
when it is not known whether there is anything or not, but only that,
if there is, it cannot be very remarkable, the initial incentive to
investigation seems wanting. Yet the starting-place and the half-way
house are as interesting as the final goal, and our efforts to find
the former, in particular, ought to be unremitting. In a previous
chapter, I have given my reasons for thinking that we might learn
something in regard to the origin of the bower-building instinct--that
crowning wonder, perhaps, of all that is wonderful in birds--by making
a closer study of rooks. But for this proper observatories are needed,
and whilst those who possess both the means of making these and the
rookeries in which to make them, are not, as a rule, interested, those
who are have too often neither the one nor the other--I, at least,
stand in this predicament.

It may be thought that the above-described sudden excitement and
activity on the part of these two moorhens was, more probably, of a
nuptial character; but I do not myself think so, for the nuptial
antics--or, rather, the nuptial pose--of the bird, is of a quite
different character, being slow and stiff, a sort of solemn formality.
It belongs to the land and not the water, where, indeed, it could
hardly be carried out. In making it, the two birds advance, for a
little--one behind the other--with a certain something peculiar and
highly strung in their gait and general appearance. Then the foremost
one stops, and whilst a strange rigidity seems to possess every part of
him, he slowly bends the head downwards, till the beak, almost touching
the ground, points inwards towards himself. Meantime the other bird
walks on, with an increasingly stilted, and, withal, stealthy-looking
step, and when a little way in front of its companion, makes the same
pose in even an exaggerated manner, curving the bill so much inwards,
with the head held so low down, that it may even overbalance and have
to make a quick step forward, or two, in order to recover itself. Here
we have another example--and there are many--of a nuptial pose--between
which and true sexual display it is hard, even if it be possible, to
fix a line of demarcation--common to both the sexes; and, just as
with the peewit, it is seen to the greatest advantage, not before,
but immediately after, coition, in the act, or, rather, the two acts
of which, the male and female play interchangeable parts. There is
hermaphroditism, in fact, which must be real, emotionally, if not
functionally--for what else is its _raison d’être_?

Surely facts such as these deserve more attention than they seem to
have received. To me it appears that not only must they have a most
important bearing on the question of the nature and origin of sexual
display, and whether there is or is not, amongst certain birds, an
intersexual selection, but that some of those odd facts, such as dual
or multiplex personality, which have been made too exclusively the
subject of psychical research--or rather of psychical societies--may
receive, through them, a truer explanation than that suggested by the
hypothesis of the subliminal self, in that they may help us to see the
true nature of that part of us to which this name has been applied.
Surely if both the male and the female bird act, in an important office
for the performance of which they are structurally distinct, as though
they were one and the same, this proves that the nature of either sex,
though, for the most part, it may lie latent in the opposite one, must
yet reside equally in each. Here, then, we have a subliminal element,
but as this can only have been passed on, through individuals in the
bird’s ancestral line, by the ordinary laws of inheritance, is it not
likely that other characteristics which seldom, or perhaps never,
emerge, have also been passed on, in the same way, thus making many
subliminal _selves_, instead of one subliminal _self_, merely? Of
what, indeed, is any self--is any personality--made up, but of those
countless ones which have gone before it, in the direct line of its
ancestry? What is any bird or beast but a blend between its parents,
their parents, and the parents before those parents, going back to
the beginnings of life? But that much--more, probably, than nineteen
twentieths--of this complicated mosaic lies latent, is an admitted fact
both in physiology and psychology, to justify which assertion the
very naming of the word “reversion” is sufficient. But if this be a
true explanation for the animal, what excuse have we for disregarding
it, and dragging in a transcendental element, in our own case? None
whatever that I can see; but by excluding from their _purview_--to
use their own favourite word--every species except the human one,
the Psychical Society, in my opinion, are making a gigantic error,
through which all their conclusions suffer more or less, so that the
whole speculative structure, reared on too narrow a basis of fact and
observation, will, one day, come tumbling to the ground.

Why should so much be postulated, on the strength of mysterious
faculties existing in ourselves, when equally mysterious, though less
abnormal ones, exist in various animals? Can we, for instance, say
that the sense of direction (and this is common to savage man and
animals)[30] is less extraordinary than what we call clairvoyance,
or that the one is essentially different from the other? And what is
more mysterious than this (which I have on good authority), that a
certain spot should, year after year for some forty years, be chosen
as a nesting-site by a pair of sparrow-hawks, although, during many
of these years, not _one_ only of the breeding birds, but _both of
them_, have been shot by the game-keepers? What is it tells the
new pair, next year, that, somewhere or other in the wide world, a
certain spot is left vacant for them? Again, I have brought forward
evidence to show that the same thought or desire can communicate
itself, instantaneously, to a number of birds, in a way difficult to
account for, other than on the hypothesis of thought-transference,
or, as I should prefer to call it, collective thinking. Who can
imagine, however--or, rather, why should we imagine--that faculties
which, though we may not be able to understand them, yet do exist in
animals, have become developed in them by other than the ordinary
earth-laws of heredity and natural selection? It is, indeed, easy
to imagine, that the power of conveying and receiving impressions,
otherwise than through specialised sense-organs, may have been--and
still be--of great advantage to creatures not possessing these; and
how can such structures have come into being, except in relation to a
certain generalised capacity which was there before them? Darwin, for
instance, in speculating on the origin of the eye, has to presuppose
a sensitiveness to light in the, as yet, eyeless organism. Again,
it does not seem impossible that the hypnotic state--or something
resembling it--may be the normal one in low forms of life, and this
would make ordinary sleep, which occurs for the most part when the
waking faculties are not needed, a return to that early semiconscious
condition out of which a waking consciousness has been evolved. Be
this as it may, we ought surely to assume that any sense or capacity,
however mysterious, with which animals are endowed, was acquired by
them on the same principles that others which we better understand
were; and, moreover, where all is mystery--for ultimately we can
explain nothing--why should one thing in nature be deemed more
mysterious than another? It seems foolish to make a wonder out of our
own ignorance; which, however, we are always doing. But, now, if such
powers and faculties as we have been considering, transmitted, in a
more or less latent condition, through millions of generations that no
longer needed them, had come, at last, to man, they could, it seems
probable, only manifest themselves in him, through and in connection
with his own higher psychology; just, in fact, as sexual love does, for
this, of course, is essentially the same in man and beast. Yet we have
our novels and our plays. Thus, such endowments, answering no longer
to the lowly needs which had brought them into being, would present,
when wrought into the skein of our human mentality, a far higher
and more exalted appearance, well calculated to put us in love with
ourselves--never a very difficult business--to the tune of such lines
as “We feel that we are greater than we know,” “Out of the deep, my
child, out of the deep,” and many another _d’este jaez_, which, though
they issue from the lips of great poets, may be born, none the less, of
mere human pride and complacency. Yet, all the time, animal reversion,
as opposed to godlike development, might be, as I believe it is, the
_vera causa_ of what seems so high and so holy.

Were the late Mr. Myers’ conception of the subliminal self--a part of
us belonging, as far as one can understand the idea, not to this earth
but to a spiritual state of things beyond and without it, and bringing
with it intuitive knowledge and enlarged powers, from this outer sea,
these extra-territorial waters--were, I say, this conception a true
one, it is difficult to see why such knowledge and such powers should
always have stood in an ordered relation to the various culture-states
through which man--the terrestrial or supraliminal part of him, that
is to say--has passed, and to his earthly advantages and means of
acquiring knowledge. It is difficult to see why the subliminal part
of such a gifted race as the Greeks, though proportionately high,
yet knew, apparently, so much less than this same sleeping partner
in the joint-firm, so to speak, of far less gifted, but later-living
peoples: why genius, which is “a welling-up of the subliminal into the
supraliminal region,” should bear, always, the impress of its age,
race, and country: why it is governed by the law of deviation from an
average, as laid down by Galton: why it should so often be ignorant
in matters which ought to be well known to the subliminal ego, as
thus conceived of: why it asserts what is false as frequently as what
is true, and with the same inspired eloquence:[31] why “the _dæmon_
of Socrates” was either ignorant of its own nature, or else deceived
Socrates, who of all men, surely, was fitted to know the truth: why
Aristotle perceived less than Darwin: why Pythagoras grasped only
imperfectly what Copernicus saw fully: why no other Greek astronomer
had an inkling of the same truths: why Shakespeares and Newtons do
not spring out of low savage tribes: why the negro race has produced
no man higher than Toussaint l’Ouverture, who to the giants of the
Aryan stock is as Ben Nevis to Mount Everest: and so on, and so on--a
multitude of difficulties, as it appears to me, which the theory has
neither answered, nor, as far as I know, has yet been called upon to
answer.

I really do wish that writers upon psychical subjects would sometimes
make an allusion to the animal world--the very existence of which one
might, almost, suppose they had forgotten. The perpetual ignoring
of so vast a matter--as though one were to go about, affecting not
to breathe--is not only irritating, but calculated to produce a bad
impression. Surely the originator or maintainer of any view or doctrine
of the nature and immortal destinies of man, ought to be delighted
to enforce his arguments by showing that they are applicable, not to
man only, but to millions of animals, to whom, as we all now very
well know, he is more or less closely related. When, therefore,
we constantly miss this most natural and necessary extension, it
is difficult not to think that some flaw, some weak point in the
hypothesis--and, if so, _what_ a weak one!--is being carefully avoided.
It is amusing to contrast the space which animals occupy in such a
work as Darwin’s “Descent of Man” with that allotted to them--to be
counted not by pages, but lines--in those two huge volumes of the late
Mr. Myers’ “Human Personality and its Survival of Physical Death.”
Yet, as clearly as man’s body, in the former work, is shown to have
been evolved out of the bodies of animals, so clearly is his mind
demonstrated to have come to him through their minds. That, mentally
and corporeally, we are no more nor less than the chief animal in
this world, is now indeed, a proven and, scientifically speaking, an
admitted thing; and I think it is time that those who, with scientific
pretensions, seem yearning, more and more, to spell man with a capital
M, should be called upon to state their views in regard to that mighty
assemblage of beings, but for which he (or He) would never have
appeared here at all, yet which, notwithstanding, they seem determined
to ignore.

[Illustration: DABCHICKS AND NEST]



CHAPTER XII


One evening in June 1901--the 6th, to be precise--I was walking near
Tuddenham, where a big lane crosses a little stream by a rustic bridge,
and stopped to lean against the palings on one side. Looking along the
water, I saw, but hardly noticed, what looked like a snag or stump,
round which some weeds and débris had accumulated. All at once, my
eye caught something move on this, and, turning the glasses upon it,
I at once saw that a dabchick was sitting on its nest. I watched it,
for a little, and as it had built within full view of the roadside, so
it was evident that it was not in the smallest degree alarmed by my
presence, though, under other circumstances, it would certainly have
stolen away before I was within the distance. This was about 7.15, and
at 7.30 I saw another dabchick--the male, as I will assume, and which,
I think, is probable--swimming up to the nest. It brought some weeds
in its bill, which it gave to the sitting bird, who took and laid them
on the nest; and now the male commenced diving, in a quick, active,
brisk little way, each time, upon coming up, bringing a little more
weed to the nest, which he sometimes placed himself, sometimes gave to
the female. Several times he passed right under the nest, from side
to side. I now made a slight détour, and creeping up behind a hedge,
found, when I raised my head, that both the birds had disappeared. Yet
I was only a few paces nearer than the roadway, which shows how much
habit had to do with making the birds feel secure. Walking, now, along
the bank of the stream, I examined the nest more closely. It was built,
I found, on the but just emerging end of a water-logged branch, the
butt of which rested on the bottom. No eggs were visible, but I could
see, very well, where they had been most efficiently covered over,
according to the bird’s usual, but by no means invariable, habit. Upon
my going back to the roadway, and standing where I had been before, one
of the birds almost immediately reappeared, and swimming boldly up to
the nest, leapt on to it as does the great crested grebe, but in a less
lithe, and more dumpy manner. Then, still standing, it removed, with
its bill, the weeds lately placed there, putting a bit here and a bit
there, with a quick side-to-side motion of the head, and then sank down
amongst them, evidently on the eggs. I left at 8.15. There had been no
change on the nest, but I may have missed this, by alarming the birds,
nor can I be quite sure whether it was the same bird that went back to
it. The nest of these dabchicks seemed to me to be a larger structure,
in proportion to their size, than those of the crested grebes which
I had watched last year. It rose, I thought, higher above the water,
and was less flat, having more a gourd or cocoa-nut shape. Towards the
summit it narrowed, so that the bird sat upon a round, blunt pinnacle.

At 7 next morning I found the bird--that is to say, one of them--still
upon the nest, and, shortly afterwards, a boy drove some cows along
a broad margin of meadow, skirting the stream opposite to where it
was, so that he passed a good deal nearer to it than I had crept up
yesterday. It, however, did not move, and was quite unnoticed by the
boy. Afterwards, I walked along the same margin, myself, and sat down
upon a willow stump, in full view of the bird, in hopes to see it cover
its eggs, should it grow nervous and leave them. For a few minutes, it
sat still on the nest, and then, all at once, jumped up and took the
water, without arranging the weeds at all, leaving the eggs, therefore,
uncovered. Instantly on entering the water, it dived, and I saw nothing
more of it whilst I remained seated on the stump. But as soon as I went
back to my place--almost the moment I was there--up it came quite close
to the nest, dived again, emerged on the other side, and then, swimming
back to it, jumped on, and reseated itself, without first removing any
weeds--thus confirming my previous observation. Shortly afterwards the
partner bird appeared, dipping up, suddenly, not very far from the
nest, and, for some little time, he dived and brought weeds to it, as
he did the other night. Then the female--who had, probably, sat all
night, and would not have left till now, had I not disturbed her--came
off, diving as she entered the water, and disappearing from that
moment. The male, who was not far from the nest, swam to it, and took
her place, where I left him, shortly afterwards, at 8.35. The eggs had
been left uncovered by the female when she went, this last time, and
this seems natural, as she, no doubt, knew the male had come to relieve
her.

Next morning I approached the stream from the Herringswell direction,
and crept up behind the bushes, on the bank, without having once--so it
seemed to me--been in view of the bird, which I had no doubt would be
in its accustomed place. However, as soon as, peeping through, I could
see the nest, I saw that it was empty. On going to the gate and waiting
for some ten minutes, the bird appeared as before, and, jumping up,
commenced rapidly to remove the weeds from the eggs, standing up like
a penguin, and with the same hurried, excited little manner that I had
noticed on the first occasion of its doing so. Not only had it seen me,
therefore, or become aware of my presence, but it had had time to cover
its eggs, and this very efficiently, to judge by the amount of weed it
threw aside. After this I was nearly a week away, and, on visiting the
nest again, nothing fresh happened, except that the two birds made, in
the water, that little rejoicing together which I have described in
the last chapter. The same note is uttered, therefore, and the same
little scene enacted between them, summer and winter, and in whatever
occupation they are engaged. Both on this and another occasion, the
sitting bird, when I walked down the bank, went off the nest without
covering the eggs, the first time letting me get quite near, before
going, and, the next, taking alarm whilst I was still at some distance.
It seems odd that it did not, in either instance, conceal the eggs and
steal off without waiting. To suppose that it thought itself observed,
and that, therefore, concealment was of no use, would be to credit
it with greater powers of reflection than I feel inclined to do. I
rather look upon the habit as a fluctuating and unintelligent one, and
in the continuation of the building and arranging of the nest, after
incubation has begun, we probably see its origin. As bearing upon this
view, it is, I think, worth recording that upon this last occasion
of their change on the nest, the bird that relieved its partner--the
male, as I fancy--pulled about and arranged the weeds, after jumping
up, though the eggs had been left uncovered, the female, as usual,
going off suddenly, without the smallest halt or pause. Once let the
birds become accustomed to pull about the weeds of the nest, before
leaving and settling down upon the eggs, and natural selection would
do the rest. The eggs which were most often covered would have the
best chance of being hatched, and the uncovering them would be a
matter of necessity. Here, again, I can see no room for those little
steps or pinches of intelligence, on which instincts, according to the
prevailing view, are supposed to have been built up. The prevalence
and strength of mere meaningless habits amongst animals, as well as
amongst ourselves, seems to me to have been too much overlooked. That
the additions made by the dabchick--as well as the crested grebe--to
the nest, during incubation, and the frequent pulling of it about,
answer no real purpose, and might well be dispensed with, I have,
myself, no doubt.

On the last of these two visits, the male bird jumped once upon the
nest, whilst the female was still sitting, and took his place as she
went off. Next day, I noticed something quite small move upon the nest,
against, and partly under, the sitting bird. With the glasses I at once
made this out to be a chick, which was sitting beneath the rump and
between the wing-tips of the dam, with its head looking the contrary
way to hers. As the male, now, swam up, the chick leaned forward and
stretched out its neck, whilst he, doing the same upwards over the
nest’s rim, the tips of their two bills just touched, or seemed to me
to do so. The old bird had just been dipping for weeds, and may have
had a little in his bill, but I could not, actually, see that any
feeding took place. Possibly that was not the idea. The male then swam
out, and continued, for some time, to dip about for weed, and to place
it on the nest. Then, again, he stretched his neck up--inquiringly, as
it were--towards the little chick, who leaned out and down to him, as
before--but, this time, the bills did not touch. This was on the 18th.
On the 15th the eggs were still unhatched, as I had seen all four of
them lying quite exposed in the nest; but some may have been hatched on
the 17th, when the male, for the first time that I had seen, jumped
up on the nest whilst the female was still there. On the 20th, coming
again at 8 in the evening, I find the bird on the nest, but on going
and sitting down on the willow-stump I have mentioned, it takes the
water and dives. I see no young ones on the water, and, on going to
the nest, find it empty, with the exception of one uncovered egg. The
shells of the others lie at the bottom of the stream. Going to the
gate, again, the bird soon returns, dives, puts some weed on the nest,
then swims away, and, as a joyous little hinny arises, I see the other
swimming up, and it is, instantly, apparent that the chicks are on this
one’s back, for it shows unnaturally big, and high above the water. She
comes to the nest, and, in leaping on to it, shakes them off--three,
as I think--into the water, from which, after having paddled about, a
little, they climb up and join her. In a few minutes, the partner bird
swims up again, and stretching up its neck, in the gentle little way
that it has before done, I feel sure that the chicks are being fed,
though I cannot actually see that they are, owing to their being on the
wrong side of their dam.

Next day I come at 4 in the morning, and it is as though there had been
no interval between this and my last entry, for the one bird still sits
on the nest with the chicks, whilst the other goes to and fro from it,
feeding them. This time I see it do so, once, quite clearly. A little
morsel of weed is presented on the tip of the bill, which the chick
receives and eats, but just after this it goes off, with the others,
on the back of the mother. The latter does not go far, but soon stops,
and remains quite still on the weeds and water, as though upon the
nest--a thing which I have seen before. In about a quarter of an hour,
the other bird emerges from some rushes, and then, the two swimming to
meet each other, there is a most joyous and long-lasting little hinny
between them--as pretty a little scene of rejoicing as ever one saw. It
is a family scene, for the chicks are still on the back of the mother,
which they have not once left. Having fully expressed themselves, the
two parents separate, and the mother, swimming, still with her burden,
to the nest, springs up on it, and, in her usual quick and active
manner, goes through the weed-removing process, during the whole of
which the chicks still cling to her, for they have not been flung
off in her violent ascent. There are two of them--perhaps three--but
of this I cannot be sure. The fourth egg, at any rate, must be still
unhatched, for from what else can the weeds have just been removed?

At 5.20 the bird goes off, and, for a moment, the two chicks are
swimming by her. One of them goes out to a tiny distance, but
returns immediately, as though drawn in by a string--quite a curious
appearance. They then press to, and crawl upon the mother, in an almost
parasitical way, and, when on, I cannot distinguish them from her,
though there is an unusual bigness and fluffiness at the extremity of
her back, where they both cling, one at each side, projecting, I think,
a little beyond her body. Now, too, I fancy I can detect a third,
higher up towards her neck. The nest has been left uncovered, and at
6, no bird having come to it again, I go to look at it, and find, as
before, one brown egg lying in the cup, and perfectly exposed. All
three chicks, therefore, must have been on the back of the mother,
who, it is clear now, does not invariably cover the eggs, when leaving
them, even though she is quite at her ease, and does not mean to
return for some time. This can have nothing to do with three out of
the four eggs having been hatched, for, as we have just seen, the one
egg was covered by the bird when she left the nest the time before.
I have settled it, I think, now, by my observations, that, neither
with the great crested grebe nor the dabchick, is the covering of the
eggs, on leaving the nest, invariable. In walking up the stream, after
this, I got a glimpse of both the dabchicks, before they dived, one
after the other. If the chicks were still upon the back of one--as I
make no doubt they were--they must have been taken down with it. Next
day I watched the family during the greater part of the morning, and
was fortunate in seeing one of the chicks fed from the water, whilst
sitting in the nest, on the back of its other parent. This was a
delightfully distinct view. There was a small piece of light green weed
at the tip of the parent’s bill, and this the chick first tasted, as
it were, and then swallowed. There were several changes on the nest,
and the birds, between them, left it five times, but only covered the
egg twice. However, on two of the occasions when it was left bare, the
other bird quickly appeared and mounted the nest, whilst, on the third,
the bird leaving remained close to it, till she went on again. Always,
or almost always, the chicks were on the back of one or other of the
birds, mostly that of one, which I took to be the female. When she
jumped up, they had to do the best they could, and once, whilst the
one was flung off, the other kept its place like a good rider leaping
a horse, and did so all the while the weeds were being cleared away,
in spite of the mother’s upright attitude--for, between each jerk from
side to side, she stood as straight as a little penguin. I was unable
to make out more than two chicks. Though, mostly, on the parental back,
they sometimes swam for a little, and, once, I saw the black little
leg of one of them come out of the water, and waggle in the air, in
the way in which the adult crested grebe is so fond of doing. When the
mother sat quite motionless in the water, with her head thrown back,
and her chicks upon her, she looked exactly as when sitting on the
nest, so that one might have thought she was, and that it was slightly
submerged. The male, on these occasions, would sometimes pay her a
visit, and the chicks, getting down, would swim up to him, and then
would come the little thin, pan-piping, joyous duet between their two
dams--a pretty, peaceful scene this, whilst statesmen (save the mark!)
are making wars and devastating countries.

    “Clanging fights and flaming towns, and sinking ships and praying
        hands.”

How much good might be done in the world, could such people, all at
once, when about to be mischievous, be turned into dabchicks![32] Soon
after this the birds got away from the nest, leaving the one egg in it
unhatched, and my observations came, in consequence, to an end. The one
egg, doubtless, was addled, and as I never could clearly make out more
than two chicks together, I suppose this must have been the case with
another of them, too. If so, however, it seems strange that this one
should have disappeared, whilst the birds continued, for some time, to
sit on the other.

On the 18th of the following August I found another nest, in which was
one chick, together with three eggs still unhatched. It lay but just
off the bank, and cover was afforded by some spreading willow-bushes.
It was only by standing amidst these, however, that I could just see
the nest, beyond a thin fringe of reeds, which guarded it. This was
not very comfortable, so as the willows were too thin and flexible to
climb, and my house was not very far off, I walked back, and came,
again, after dark, with a pair of Hatherley steps, which I set up
amongst the willows, where it remained for the next three weeks, and
made a capital tower of observation, from which I could look right
down into the nest, at only a few yards distance. At these very close
quarters, and never once suspected, I was witness, day by day, of such
little scenes as I have described, so that if I had been one of the
birds themselves, I could hardly have gained a more intimate knowledge
of them, as far as seeing was concerned. My near horizon was, indeed,
limited almost to the nest itself, but by mounting the steps higher,
or by standing on them, I could get a very good view, both up and
down the stream, and was yet so well concealed that once a flock of
doves flew into the bushes, just about me, and remained there quite
unsuspicious. These steps, indeed, placed overnight, make a capital
observatory, for, as they stand upright, they do not need to be leant
against anything, and their thin, open wood-work is indistinguishable
amidst any growth that attains their own height. They are, moreover,
comfortable either to sit or stand on.

Returning to the dabchicks, two out of the three remaining eggs were
hatched out in as many days, but the last one, as in the case of the
first nest I had watched, remained as it was for several days longer,
nor can I, from my notes, make out whether it was finally hatched,
or not.[33] However, as I say that I feel sure it was, it must, I
suppose, have disappeared from the nest, but I never saw more than
three chicks together, either with one or both of the old birds. Later
on, the parents became more separated, and I then never saw more than
two chicks with either, which makes me think that, at this stage, they
divide the care of the young between them. They had then, for some
time, ceased to resort to the nest, but as long as they continued to do
so, they shared their responsibilities in another way, for whilst one
of them, which I took to be the female, generally sat in the nest with
the chicks upon her back, the other--the male--used to come to it and
feed them. This he did more assiduously than any bird that I have ever
seen discharge the office, for between 6 and 7, one evening, he had fed
them forty times. After that I ceased to count, but he continued his
ministrations in the same eager manner, for another three-quarters of
an hour. To get the weed, he generally dived, and, on approaching the
nest, with it, would make a little “peep, peeping” note, on which two
or three little red bills would be thrust out from under the mother’s
wings, followed by their respective heads and bodies, as all, or some,
of them came scrambling down. The instant the weed had been given them,
they all scrambled up again, to disappear entirely under the little
tent of the wings. As this took place, on an average, every minute
and a half, and often much more quickly, the animation and charm of
the scene may be imagined. The male showed the greatest eagerness in
performing this prime duty, and if ever he was unable, as sometimes
happened, to reach any of the chicks over the rounded bastion of the
nest, he would get quite excited, and make little darts up at it,
stretching to the utmost, and uttering his little “peep, peep.” If this
proved unsuccessful, he would go anxiously round to another side of the
nest, and feed them from there. At other times the chicks were fed in
the water, on which the weed was sometimes dropped for them, the parent
having first helped to soften it--as it seemed to me--by biting it
about in the end of his bill. Sometimes, too, the weed was laid on the
edge of the nest, but, as a rule, the chick received it from the tip of
the parent’s beak. As I say, I never saw more than the three chicks,
and if the fourth was hatched, the birds must have left the nest
immediately afterwards, as is, I believe, their custom. Of the three,
two would generally sit together, under the one wing of the mother,
the third being under the other, from which one may be sure that she
carries all four of them, two under each. It struck me, several times,
that there was a sort of natural cavity, or hollow, in the old bird’s
back, under each wing, with a corresponding arch in the wing itself,
making, as it were, a little tent or domed chamber, for the chicks
to sit in. Of this, however, I cannot be quite sure, but it is such
a confirmed habit of the chicks to sit on the mother’s back, beneath
her wings, that there would be nothing, I think, very surprising in
it. Never, one may almost say--but, at any rate, “hardly ever”--do the
chicks sit beside the mother, in the nest in which they were born (the
limitation, as it will be seen later on, is a necessary one). It is as
proper to them to sit on the mother as it is to her to sit on the nest.

When off duty--that is to say, when not feeding the chicks--the male
would sometimes make pretty lengthy excursions up the stream, as would
the mother, too, when not sitting--up stream, I say, because they never
seemed to go far down it. More often, however, he would stay about,
in the neighbourhood of the nest, and then the sitting bird would
sometimes call him up to it, by uttering a very soft and low note. He
would then appear, stealing amongst the reeds with a look of gentle
inquiry, and, on gaining the nest, both birds together would make a
curious little soft clucking, or rather chucking, noise, expressive of
love and content. “Dearest chuck!” they always seemed to me to say, and
whether they did or not, that, I am sure, is what they meant. Coming,
every day, to my little watch-tower, and sitting there, sometimes,
for hours together, I thought, at the end of a week, that I had seen
everything in connection with these birds’ care of their young, but
there was one matter which I had yet to learn. I had, indeed, already
had a hint of it, with the last pair of birds, besides that it seemed
to me, on general principles, to be likely, but the optical proof had
been wanting. One day, however, whilst walking quietly up the stream,
I met one of my pair of dabchicks--the mother, as I think--swimming
down it. She saw me at the same time as I did her, and swam to
shelter, but she was not much alarmed, and bending amongst the reeds
till my face was only on a level with their tops, I waited to see her
again. Soon she appeared, coming softly towards me, but seeming to
scrutinise the bank sharply, and, all at once, spying me, down she
went, with extraordinary force and velocity, so that a little shower
of spray--and, indeed, more than spray--was flung quite high into the
air. I had not seen a sign of the chicks, and it seemed hardly possible
that they could be on her back, all the time--but we shall see. Coming
up, after her dive, turned round the other way, she swam steadily up
the stream, and I soon lost her, round a bend of it. In order to see
her again, and as a means of allaying her fears, I now climbed into a
willow-tree, and from here I saw her, resting, in a pretty little pool
of the stream. For ten minutes or more, now, with the glasses full upon
her, I could see no sign of a chick, except, perhaps, that the wings
were a trifle raised--but nothing appeared underneath them. All at
once, however, I caught something; there was a motion, a struggling,
and then a little red bill and round black head appeared, thrust out
between the two wings, in the dip of the neck. Then a second head
showed itself, and, at last, with a peep here, and a scramble there,
I made out all three. I am not quite sure of this, however, when the
partner bird--the male, as I think him--swims into the pool, and
instantly, as he appears, a chick tumbles down the mother, and comes
swimming towards him. It is fed on the water, and, directly, afterwards
the old bird dives several times in succession, at the end of which he
has a piece of weed in his bill, which he reaches to the chick. The
chick is thus fed several times, and then climbs on to his father’s
back, who, almost before he is under the wing, dives with him. On
coming up, again, he rises a little in the water, and shakes himself
violently, but the chick is not thrown off--he sits tight all the
time. A second chick now swims up from the mother, and is fed in just
the same way. Then, as the male dives again, the first chick becomes
detached, and the two are on the water together. Both are soon fed, the
male diving for them as he did before, and, whilst this is going on, I
see the third chick, looking out between the wings of its mother. All
three, then, have been on her back, and there, without the smallest
doubt, they were, when she dived down in that tremendously sudden
manner. It is a pity I had not seen them get up, first, as in the case
of the male, and, also, that I lost sight of the female for a few
moments, but it is quite improbable that the chicks should have been
waiting, somewhere, for the mother, and taken their seats during the
one little break in the continuity of my observations. At this early
age the chicks are hardly ever to be seen without one of the parents,
even in the nest--I doubt, indeed, if I have ever seen them there alone.

The dabchick, therefore, is in the habit, not only of swimming with
all its family on its back, and quite invisible, but of diving with
them thus, too, and so accustomed are the chicks to be carried, or
to sit, in this way, that during the early days of their life they
may almost be said to lead a parasitical existence. Though they mount
upon either parent, yet it has seemed to me that they prefer one to
the other, and I think it more likely, on the whole, that the one who
sits habitually with them, thus perched, in the nest, is the mother
rather than the father, though, if so, it is the latter who does most
of the feeding. It has appeared to me, too, though it may be mere
fancy, that the chicks not only prefer the mother’s back, but that they
find more difficulty in getting upon the male’s. Thus, upon the last
occasion mentioned, when two out of the three left the mother, to go
to the father, the first one to get up on him only succeeded in doing
so after a great deal of exertion, whilst the last was struggling for
such a very long time that I began to think he never would succeed,
and when, at last, he did, he lay, for a little, in full view, as
though exhausted. It is natural, of course, that the chicks should
leave either parent, to be fed by the other, but I remember, once, when
they happened to be sitting on the male’s back, in the nest--which was
unusual--at one soft sound from the mother, they all flung themselves
off it, into the nest, and scrambled up with equal haste on to hers, as
soon as she had taken her place there, which she did directly. Possibly
they thought they would be fed, and were hungry, but they did not
seem disappointed, though they were not, nor had I ever seen so much
enthusiasm shown before. However, as I say, this may be mere fancy,
but whether they prefer it or not, they certainly do seem to sit much
more on one parent, than on the other. It would be difficult to imagine
a more comfortable seat than the back of either must be. It is like a
large, flat powder-puff--but a frightened powder-puff, with its fluff
standing all on end--whilst right upon it, though, of course, far back,
a tiny little brush of a tail stands bolt upright. The wings, as a
rule, cover most of this, and it is under their awning that the chicks,
mostly, live. The chicks are pretty little things. At first they look
black all over, but, on closer inspection, they are seen to be striped
longitudinally, like little tigers--black and a soft, greyish yellow
or buff--the beak being a mahogany red. The young of the great crested
grebe are striped like this, also. Probably it is a family pattern, and
represents the ancestral coloration, like the tartan of a Highlander,
which, however, lasts through life--or used to.

On the 13th of August, after having watched them from the 8th, I made
a discovery in regard to this pair of dabchicks, and thus, through
them, the species, similar to that I had made with the moorhens, in
my pond--similar, but not, I think, quite the same--and when I say a
discovery, I mean, of course, that it was one for myself, which is,
indeed, all I care about. I had got to my watch-tower before it was
light, and could not, for some time, make out the nest. At length, when
I could see it, I saw the one white egg lying in it, which showed
me that the bird was not there. Shortly afterwards, I heard both of
them near the nest, and thought they would soon appear. As they did
not, however, but seemed to keep in a spot which, though only a few
paces off, was yet invisible from where I sat, I came down and climbed
a willow-tree, commanding a view of it. I then saw the female (as I
think) floating, or, rather, sitting, on the water, and, after a while,
the male came up, and one of the chicks, going to him from off her
back, was fed in the usual way. The female then--owing, perhaps, to
the noise which I could not help making, for I was most uncomfortably
situated, and the willow, though thin, was full of dead branches
which kept snapping--swam up the stream. The male, however, remains,
and, all at once, greatly to my surprise and interest, jumps up upon
what I now see to be another nest, or nest-like structure, though I
have not noticed it there before. Hardly is he on, when he jumps off
again, and this he does two or three times more, at short intervals,
in a restless, nervous sort of way. Having jumped down for the last
time, he swims a little out, and appears, to my alarmed imagination,
to keep glancing up into the tree, where I now, however, though it is
very difficult to do so, keep perfectly still. At length, losing his
suspicions, he floats again on the water, whilst the chick swims out
from him, and then climbs again on his back. Then comes an interchange
of ideas, or, at any rate, feelings, between him and his mate. He
gives a little “chook-a-chook-a-chook-a,” and this is answered,
from the neighbourhood of the nest, by a similar note. Pleased, he
rejoins, is again responded to, the “chook-a-chook-a” becomes quicker,
higher, shriller, and, all at once, both birds--each at its separate
place--break into that little glad duet which I have mentioned so
often, but cannot help mentioning here again. Then, swimming once more
to the pseudo-nest, the male again jumps up on to, or, rather, into
it, and remains sitting there, for some little time. The little chick
has swum beside him to it, and now makes strenuous efforts to climb
up after his dam, but he does not quite succeed, though I think, in
time, he would have done, had not the latter come off, when he, at
once, follows him. The chicks, however, had never had any difficulty in
getting on to the real nest.

The discomfort of my position approaching, now, to the dignity of
torture, I was obliged to get out of it, and, in doing so, made so much
noise that the bird swam off, up the stream. Upon this I came down
and examined the new nest, which was close to the bank. It was quite
different to the other, being six or eight inches high, round the edge,
with a deep depression in the centre, and seemed made, altogether,
of the flags amongst which it was situated, some of the growing ones
being bent inwards, so as to enter into its construction. But this
is a moorhen’s nest and not a dabchick’s, which latter is formed of
dank and rotten weeds, fished up by the birds from the bottom of the
water. It is made flatter, moreover, and does not rise so high above
the surface of the stream, though in both these points there is, no
doubt, considerable variation. Here, then, was something new in the
domestic life of the dabchick. For two days after this I was too busy
elsewhere to come to the stream, but on the morning of the third I
got there about 6.30, and climbed into the same tree as before. I did
not see either of the dabchicks, but heard them dipping about, some
way lower down the stream, as I had before, when they did not come
to the nest. I therefore came down and climbed another tree, and, as
soon as I had done so, I saw a little beyond me--about as far from the
first pseudo-nest as the latter was from the nest itself--two other
structures, a few feet from each other, both of which had more or
less the look of a moorhen’s nest. In one of these sat, with an air
of absolute proprietorship, a dabchick with one chick, and here they
remained till the partner bird swam up, a little while afterwards, when
they came off, and there was the usual pretty scene. The chick had been
sitting, not, as it appeared to me, in the basket or depression of
the nest, but only just beyond the edge of it, as though--and this I
had noticed on the former occasion--it had struggled up as high as it
could, and there remained.

From now till about a quarter to 9, when they all went off, and I came
down, both the old birds frequently ascended and sat in this nest,
whilst one or other of the chicks--for there were now two, if not
three--tried to do so too, but never succeeded in getting quite over
the edge of it, though struggling to accomplish this feat. The old
birds, too, had necessarily to make a much more vigorous and higher
jump than they were accustomed to take when getting into their real
nest. All this seemed to point to its being a moorhen’s and not a
dabchick’s nest, and when I came down and looked at it more closely--it
being only a few feet from the bank--that is what it seemed to be.
The other nest near it seemed, still more obviously, a moorhen’s, but
this only because it was newly made, and had not yet been pressed
down. In both, the growing flags had been turned down, to aid in the
construction. Now, both these nests were near to the one which I had
been watching, and one of them was not more than a few paces off. If we
say a dozen--and I do not think it could have been more--then the three
lay along a length of twenty-four paces of the stream, nor was there
anything in the configuration of the latter, to cut off the owners of
the one from those of the others. It seems, indeed, quite impossible
that in this tiny little stream, which I was constantly scanning, up
and down, I should never have seen more than one pair of dabchicks, at
the same time, had three, or even two, pairs of them built within so
limited an area. There was, indeed, one other pair--and, I think, from
having watched the place through the winter, only one--in this lower
part of the stream, but in another reach of it, some little way off,
where they had a nest of their own. In this nest I had seen one of
them sitting with its chick, which was about half-grown, and therefore
more than twice the size of the largest of my own birds’ brood. I can,
therefore, have no doubt that the birds I saw in these two later-used
extra nests, were the same that I had watched hatching out their eggs
in the original one, nor did I ever see them on the latter, after they
had once left it for the others.

It seems, then, either that the dabchick must make, besides the true
nest in which the eggs are laid, one or more other ones of a different
type, and which are put to a different use; or else, that it habitually
uses those of the moorhen, for this purpose--to sit in, namely, after
leaving its own--thus taking advantage of the latter bird’s habit of
building several nests. I believe, myself, that the two extra nests,
in which I saw my dabchicks, were moorhen’s nests, for not only did
they look like them, but once, when their usurpers were away, I saw two
large moorhen chicks climb, first into one, and then the other; and, on
another occasion, they were driven away from both of them by the mother
dabchick, who pursued them in fierce little rushes through the water,
with her family on her back. Some may think that I have taken a long
time to make out a simple matter. What more natural than that a mass of
reeds and rushes--which is all a moorhen’s nest is--should sometimes
serve as a resting-place for other reed-haunting birds? But there is
a difference between something casual and something habitual, and
everything I saw in the case of these two dabchicks suggested a regular
practice. Parasitism in one species of bird, in regard to the nest of
another, though not extending to the loss of the building or incubatory
instinct, is almost as interesting as if it did, for we see in it a
possible stage in a process by which this might be reached.

Why should the dabchick, after the hatching of its eggs, leave its own
nest, in which it has hitherto sat, and sit in those of another bird? I
examined the nest thus deserted, and found it to be sinking down in the
water, which was still more the case with some other and older ones.
This, I believe, is the answer to the above question. The bird’s own
nest is no longer quite comfortable, and others are to hand which are
more so. Having stayed, therefore, as long as its incubatory instinct
prompts it to, it resorts to these, and being no longer tied to one,
uses several. But a habit at one time of the year, might be extended to
another time, and if certain dabchicks were to take to sitting in the
nests of moorhens, before they had made their own, some of these birds,
whose nest-building instinct was weaker than in most, or who, finding
themselves in a nest, imagined that they had made it themselves--which,
I think, is possible--might conceivably lay their eggs there. It would
then, in my opinion, be more likely that the usurping bird should
remain, and hatch out, possibly, with its own, some one or more eggs
of the bird it had dispossessed, than that the contrary process should
come about.[34] However, the first business of a field naturalist (“and
such a one do I profess myself”) is to make out what does occur, and
this I have tried to do.

I think it curious that neither of the two pairs of birds that I
watched, hatched out, apparently, more than three of their eggs. The
first pair certainly did not, and I saw the fourth egg in the nest of
the second, after the birds had left it for another one, though my
notes do not make it clear if it continued to lie there or not. I think
it did not, but, at any rate, I never could make out more than three
chicks together, with either one or both of the birds. It struck me
that, after the family had left the nest, there was a tendency for the
parents to divide, one taking two chicks, and the other the remaining
one, since they could not take them two and two. It interested me,
therefore, to come, now and again, on one of another pair of dabchicks,
sitting in the nest--or _a_ nest--with one half-grown chick only.
Whenever I saw them, this dabchick and one chick were always by
themselves. The question arises whether it is usual for only three out
of the dabchick’s four eggs to be hatched out. But whether this is
possible, or why, if it is, it should be so, I do not know.



INDEX



INDEX


  Animals, mysterious faculties possessed by, 290, 291

  Animal world, the, its existence ignored by writers on psychical
      subjects, 294

  Antics, possible origin of some kinds of, 184, 185, 191-193

  Artists, leave the fenlands alone, 3

  Australian parrakeet (_Melopsittacus undulatus_), roosting habits
      of, 5, 6

  Australian swan, nest-building actions of the, 174


  Birds, roosting habits of, 5, 6
    Song of, at dawn, 74, 75
    Chases _à trois_ of, 109, 110
    Nuptial rite performed habitually on nest by some, 181
    Some peculiarities in the fighting of, 185
    Mixture of pugnacity and timidity in, 191
    Their delight in nest-building, 199, 200;
      false ideas on this subject, 199, 200
    Parental love in; from what period does it date? 208, 209
    Parental affection and instinct of incubation; are they distinct? 208
    Performance of parental duties by male; in what originating? 208-211
    Male feeding female, remarks on, 210, 211
    Nebbing or billing, origin of habit in, 211-213
    More interesting questions in regard to, avoided by ornithologists, 210
    Kiss in proper sense of the word, 211-213
    Collect insects, &c., to feed young, 216
    Sexual relations of, 234-236
    Permanent unions of, 265
    Power of expression in, 274
    Cries of, definite significance falsely attributed to, 278
    Maternal ruses practised by, 279;
      suggested origin of these, 181, 279, 280
    Our commoner ones related to foreign species with interesting habits
        should be more closely observed, 286, 287

  “Bird Watching,” referred to, 127, 128, 158, 175, 181, 253

  Blackbirds, roosting note of, 4, 5
    Variety of notes of, 4, 5
    Alarm-note, so-called, of, 5
    Strange actions of, in construction of nest, 173, 174
    Hen alone observed to build by author, 206;
      cock seen to, also, by Mr. Dewar, 206;
      transition process probable; but which way? 206, 207
    Cock does not incubate, 207
    But helps feed the young, 208

  Blue-Tit, movements of, compared with those of long-tailed tit, 17
    Note of, 18
    Steals materials from blackbird’s nest, to build with, 205

  Bower, the, may have grown out of the nest, 70;
    or out of the cleared space where some birds meet to court, &c., 70

  Bower-Birds, possible origin of bowers, &c., of, 64-70


  Cat, effects of a, on author’s observations, 265, 268

  Chaffinch, hen demolishes the nest of golden-crested wren, 205
    Hen alone observed to make nest, 205
    Nest-building actions of hen, 205, 206

  Cheerful constitution, a, a good thing but not a good argument, 231

  Children, death of, in quantity not affecting, 153

  Cinnabar moth caterpillar, pupating habits of, 15
    Ignored by fowls, 15
    May offer example of warning coloration, 15

  Coal-Tit, feeds on spruce-buds, 16;
    and on larch-buds, 16
    Note of, 16
    Motions of, 16
    Extracts seeds from fir-cones, 18, 19
    Possible origin of name, 19, 20
    Nesting habits of, 194-197
    Flies directly into nest, 195, 196
    Composition of nest of, 197
    Size of nest of, 197

  Commensalism, possible origin of, 120, 121

  Coot, change of coloration in the, 276
    Has become more aquatic than moorhen, 285
    Dives better than moorhen, 285
    Bathes floating on water, 285

  Cow-birds, their habit of destroying their own, and foster-parents’,
      eggs, 273

  Cuckoo, comes late in April, 92
    Playground of, 93, 94, 97, 98
    Nuptial and social sportings of, 93-95
    Various notes of, 95, 96
    Does the male only say “cuckoo”? 96, 102, 103;
      difficulty of making sure of this, 102, 103;
      some evidence on the subject, 104, 105
    Tune of, changed before June, 96;
      the old rhyme about, not trustworthy, 96
    Manner of feeding of, 98, 99
    Becoming nocturnal, 99, 100
    Persecuted by small birds, 100, 101
    Possible relations to, of small birds, 100, 101
    Not confounded by small birds with hawk, 101, 102

  Dabchicks, haunt the river Lark, 261
    Eleven together seen on Lark in winter, 261
    Fascination in becoming acquainted with, 261
    Curious note of, 262-264;
      and what it suggests, 262;
      is not “whit” but “queek,” 263, 264
    _Grande Finale_ of, 262, 263
    Matrimonial duet of, 263, 299, 300, 303, 305, 314, 315;
      and what it expresses, 263-265;
      is performed summer and winter, 299, 300
    Mate for life, 263, 265
    Observations on a pair of, at Tuddenham, 296-306
    Domestic habits of, 296-320
    Additions to nest by, after apparent completion and during
        incubation, 297-299, 301
    Such additions seem unnecessary, 301
    Leap on to nest of, 297, 302
    Removal of weed from eggs by, 297, 299, 303
    Nest of, described, 298
    Close sitting of, on occasions, 298
    Eggs sometimes left uncovered by, 298, 299, 300, 303, 304
    Change on the nest of the, 299, 301, 304
    Difficulty in eluding observation of, 299
    Habit of covering eggs of, seems fluctuating and unintelligent, 300;
      probable origin of the habit, 300
    Chicks fed by parents with weed, 301, 302, 304, 307, 308, 311
    Chicks ride on parent’s back, 302, 303, 304
    Jump up on to nest, with young on back, 302, 303, 305
    Sit still in water as though on nest, 303, 305
    Family scenes, 303, 305, 311
    Three chicks on parent’s back, 304
    One egg out of the four laid by, left unhatched, 305, 306, 307, 319,
        320
    Pair of, observed from pair of Hatherley steps, 306
    Chicks divided between parents after leaving nest for good, 307, 320
    Subdivision of parental labour in, 307
    Assiduous feeding of chicks by male, 307
    “Peep, peep” of, whilst feeding young, 308
    Chicks sit under parent’s wing, on back, 308, 309, 313
    Natural hollow on back of, for chicks to sit in, 308, 309
    Chicks rarely sit in true nest with parent except on back, 309
    “Dearest chuck,” note of, 309
    Invisibility of chicks on parent’s back, 310
    Parent dives with three chicks on back, 310-312
    Chicks prefer mother’s back, 312, 313;
      and mount male’s with more difficulty, 312
    Back of, as seat for young, 313
    Chicks striped like tigers, 313
    Discovery made in regard to, 313
    “Chook-a, chook-a,” note of, 314
    Moorhen’s nest used by, to sit in with chicks, 314-318;
      probable origin of this habit, 319

  Darwin, views of, as to origin of music, 10, 11;
      ignored by the late Mr. F. W. H. Myers, 10
    Attributes colours of tiger, leopard, jaguar, &c., to sexual selection,
        44, 45
    “_Laudetur et alget_,” 45


  Fenlands, charm of the, 3

  Fieldfare, scolding of, 4

  Firs, planted near Icklingham fifty years ago, 4

  Frank Buckland, his brown paper parcel, 85
    His half-part edition of White’s “Selborne,” 85


  Gilbert White on House-Martins, 243, 249, 251, 252;
      unfair treatment of, 259, 260

  Great Crested Grebe, consummates nuptial rite on the nest, 68

  Great Tit, movements of, compared to those of long-tailed tit, 17

  Green Woodpecker, nest of, often seized by the starling, 129;
      is not much the worse for this, 130, 131;
      possible result of such deprivation, 131, 132
    Feeds on ants, 31
    Ants, how procured by, 219, 230
    Young of, fed by regurgitation, 31, 217, 218
    Does not bring insects in beak to young, 216, 217
    Almost wholly an ant eater, 218-221
    Contents of excrements of, 220, 221
    Almost as salient an instance of changed habits as Darwin’s La Plata
        woodpecker, 220
    Ant diet of, related to regurgitation of food in feeding young, 221
    Must mate for life, 221
    Conjugal habits in winter, 221, 222
    Tail not required as support, 222
    A fighter, though the contrary has been stated, 223
    Spring tide activities of, account of, 224-238
    Hostile demonstrations of, 225
    Its method of fighting, 226-230, 233, 237
    Fighting actions of, have become stereotyped, 227-230
    Sexual relations of, 233, 234, 236, 237
    Divergence of habits of, from those of the family, 236, 237
    Ant-eating habits of, 236, 237
    How does it roost? 237


  Hatherley steps make good observatory for watching birds, 306, 307

  Heart of man, Chinese proverb in regard to, 286

  Hedge-Sparrow, steals building material from blackbird’s nest, 205

  Heron, cries, &c., uttered by, 72, 73, 75, 76, 77, 79
    Nuptial flight of, 73, 80, 81
    Uncouth appearance of, 73, 74, 81, 82
    Ordinary flight of, 74
    Domestic habits of, 72-80
    Change on the nest, the, 75-78
    Sits firm in a hurricane, 78, 79
    A close sitter, 79
    Watchfulness of, 79, 80
    Descent of pair on to nest, 80
    Can rise with single flap, 82
    Eats frogs, moles, mice, shrews, &c., 82, 83
    Its manner of catching and eating fish, 83, 84, 119
    Delicacy of beak, 84
    Beak of, compared with human hand, 84
    Serratures in beak, 84
    Serrated claw of, how used, 84-86
    Management of large eel by, 85, 86
    Supposed filament of, 86
    Stalks his prey, 87
    Settling on nest, 87, 88
    Sometimes overbalances in catching fish, &c., 83

  Heronry, a, near Icklingham, 72
    The awakening of the, 72, 73

  Historians, their song to an old tune, 231

  Hooded-Crow, common in West Suffolk during winter, 51
    Called “carrion crow” by the people, 51
    Feeding habits of, 51, 52, 55
    Haunt open warren lands, 51
    Mingle with rooks, 52, 58
    Disagreements of, with rooks, 52-54
    Fighting methods of, 54
    Rules of precedence of, when feeding in company, 53
    Gregarious instincts of, compared with those of rooks, 54, 55
    May sometimes roost with rooks, 55
    Eats thistle roots, 56
    Mysterious relations of, with rooks, 58-60
    One seen flying with peewits, 127

  House-Martin, domestic habits of, 239-259
    Nest building of, 240-243, 246-248
    Musical meetings of, 242-244, 253, 256
    Gilbert White’s reference to slow rate of building of, 243, 249;
      his explanation of this not the true one, 243, 249
    Possible intercommunal marriages of, 244, 245
    Sexual relations of, 244, 245, 252, 253, 255, 256, 259
    Oppressed by sparrows, 243-246, 248
    Quick building of nest of, 245, 249
    Social and communistic relations of, 248, 250, 251, 252, 259
    Fighting of, 248
    Apparent inability to resist sparrows, 248
    Suggested explanation of this, 248, 249
    Builds nest on site of old one, 249;
      curious fact in relation to this, 249, 250
    Young, feeding of, 253-257
    Young, fed by regurgitation, 254-258
    Insects, how caught by, 258;
      and how brought to young, 257-259


  Icklingham, where situated, 1, 3
    The country about, 1, 2, 4
    Some seven miles from the fenlands, 56

  Incubation, is instinct of, differentiated from parental love? 208

  Instinct, may sometimes have grown out of mere mechanical movements,
        179-180, 184, 185, 300, 301;
      evidence in regard to this, 180, 181
  Resulting from lapsed intelligence, 185

  “Intimations of immortality,” supposed, 10


  Jackdaws, seem conscious of their superiority when with rooks, 54
    Decorate their nests, 68

  Jaguar, theory of protective colouring in regard to, questioned, 43, 44


  Kestrel flying with peewits, 127

  Kissing, origin of, in man probably utilitarian, 211-213
    In relation to birds, 211-213


  Landseer, false criticism of, 88, 89
    Masterpiece of, removed from the National Gallery, 89

  Larks, various ways of mounting and descending of, 107, 108
    Individual variety in flight of, 108
    Winter ways of, 108, 109
    Piping note in winter of, 109
    Song in February of, 109
    Chases _à trois_ of, 109
    Change locality according to season, 110

  Leopard, theory of protective colouring in regard to, questioned, 43, 44

  Lesser Spotted Woodpecker brings collection of insects in beak to feed
      young, 216

  Lion, theory of protective colouring in regard to, questioned, 43

  Long-tailed Tit, roosting habits of, 6
    Movements of, 16-18;
      compared with those of blue tit, 17, 18
    Aerial forced march of, 17
    Note of, 18
    Nest-building habits of, 198-204
    Origin of dome of nest of, 199;
      and of entrance to, 200, 201, 203
    Uniform way of entering and leaving nest of, 200
    Contortionist powers of, 202, 204
    Approaches and leaves nest by one set path, 202, 203
    The “sweep” up to nest of, 203

  Man, the chief animal in this world only, 295

  Maternal affection, beauty of, 214
    All hail to, 216

  Mellersh, Mr., letter of, to _Standard_ about starlings referred
      to, 160

  Migration, facts of, marginal reference to, 290

  Missel-Thrush, harsh strident note of, 4
    Puts a peewit to flight, 123
    Skirmishes of, with stone-curlews, 123, 124
    Retreats with honour, 124

  Moorhen, haunts the river Lark, 261
    Pair of, built yearly in author’s pond, 265
    Supernumerary nests made by, 265-269
    Sits in two or more nests, 266-269
    Bathing habits of, 267
    Special bathing-places of, public and private, 267
    Pronounced habit of over-building of, 269
    Destruction of its own eggs by, 269-273;
      possible explanation of this habit, 272, 273;
      may be compared with that of the cow-birds of America, 273
    Continued building of nest by, during incubation and rearing
      of young, 273
    Due, probably, to a blind impulse, 273, 274
    Legs of, gartered in male alone, 275
    Triple successive coloration of the cere in, 275
    Difficulty of explaining this, 275, 276
    Precocity of young, 276, 277
    Fear of man in the newly-hatched chick, 277
    Carries shell of hatched egg to shore, 277
    Young, fed by dams, 277
    Young, notes of, 277, 278
    Maternal cries of, 277, 278
    Clucking note of, to call young, 277, 278;
      and for other uses, 278
    Variety of expression in cries of young, 278
    Young, sit in nest with one parent, 278
    No maternal ruse employed by, 181, 278, 279;
      material for the evolution of one possibly observed, 279
    Nerves of, highly strung, 280
    Effect of report of gun on, 280
    Motions, actions, &c., of, 280
    A bundle of caprices, 280
    Habit of flirting tail of, 280
    Pugnacity of, 281
    Scene in “The Rivals” acted by, 281
    Warlike display of, 281-283
    Method of fighting of, 283-285;
      is essentially unaquatic, 284, 285
    Pugnacity of, even in winter, 281
    Bathes only in shallow water, 285
    Analogy between some actions of, and more developed ones of Ypecaha
        rail, 285, 286
    Nuptial antic or pose of, 287, 288
    Emotional hermaphroditism of, 288
    Interchangeable performance of nuptial rite in sexes of, 288;
      bearing of this on questions of nature and origin of sexual display,
          and of inter-sexual selection, 288, 289;
      as, also, on the subliminal self theory, 289

  Myers, the late Mr. F. W. H., has ignored Darwin’s views as to origin
      of musical faculty in man, 10


  Natural history, no finality in, 249

  Nature, sometimes looks unnatural, 88
    Two voices of, 110
    Full of irony, 245

  Nest, false, of peewit, the, 166-168;
      is the real nest, 168
    Of birds, suggested origin of the, 168-180
    May have been originally a _thalamum_ more especially, 181, 182
    Was once put to two uses habitually, 181, 182;
      as it still is in some instances, 182

  Nest-building instinct, suggested origin of, in birds, 168-184

  Nightingale, hen alone seen to build, 206

  Nightjar, common about Icklingham, 21
    Sits on extreme tip-top of spruce or larch, 21
    Its habit of clapping its wings, 21-23;
      sometimes a great many times consecutively, 22, 23
    “Quaw-ee,” note of, 21
    Beauty of flight and aerial mastery of, 22
    A new sensation obtained by seeing it, 22
    Domestic habits of, 23-37
    Change on the nest of, 24
    Churring note uttered by both sexes, 25
    Expressive power of the churr, 26
    Incubation shared by male and female, 23, 24, 26
    Sexes hard to distinguish, 26
    Male less skilful in incubation than female, 26
    Hen, the more assiduous sitter, 26
    Interesting scene observed, 26-29
    Method of moving eggs adopted by, 27
    Mahomet and the mountain, 28
    Both parents feed chicks, 29
    Low querulous note of, whilst in unharassed circumstances, 29
    Chicks fed by regurgitation, 29-32, 34
    Probable mode of catching insects of, 30-33
    Kind of insects, &c., mostly eaten by, 31-33
    An aerial whale, 33, 258
    Difference in size between the two chicks of, 35
    Early quiescence and later activity of chicks, 35, 36
    Nesting site gradually deserted, 35
    Chicks called up by parents, 35, 36
    Maternal ruse practised by, 36
    Anxiety of parents in regard to chicks, 36, 37
    Chicks walk or run easily, 37;
      as do also the grown birds, 37
    Nuptial rite may be performed on the ground, 37
    Variety of notes of, 37-39;
      no special limited meaning assignable to these, 37-39
    Resemblance of, to piece of fir-bark, 40, 41;
      possible meaning of such resemblance, 41, 42
    Generally protective colouring in relation to incubative, &c., habits
        of, 42, 43
    Returns, each year, to same locality, 50
    Has favourite trees and branches, 50
    Does not always nest in same spot, 50

  Nuptial antics, suggested origin of, 180, 181


  Optimists, as reasoners, 231

  Ostrich, nesting habits of, as described by Mr. Cronwright Schreiner,
         176-178;
      suggestions as to the meaning and origin of these, 177-179
    Rolling of, in courtship, 178
    Two kinds of, 178

  Ornithologists, works of seem written to assist bird-nesters, 210


  Parasitic instinct, in birds, possible origin of, 132

  Parental ruses, suggested origin of, 180, 181

  Partridges, curious chasings of one another of, 188-191;
      nature and suggested explanation of, 189-192

  Peewits, repair to fens towards end of October for the winter, 3, 116
    Return in February, 116
    Appearance, &c., of, 117
    Their way of bathing, 117, 118;
      and of feeding, 119
    Chased by missel-thrush, 124
    Rolling and other strange sexual antics of, 163-166, 174, 175;
      nature of such movements, 167, 168, 171-173;
      theory founded upon them as to origin of nest-building amongst birds,
          166-184
    “False nests” of, 166-168;
      not essentially differing from the real nest, 168

  “_Pesses_,” formerly used in Icklingham church, 56

  Pheasant, at roosting time, 5
    Roosting habits of, 6
    Trumpety note of, 7
    Soft note of, at roosting, 7
    Partial paralysis produced in, by sudden fright, 279, 280
    A cock, put to flight by stone-curlew, 123

  Philistines, the, bloodthirsty shouts of, 156
    False plea of the, 156, 157
    Having no appreciation of anything, can destroy everything with
        impunity, 156, 157
    Hypocritical pretence of, to an æsthetic motive, 157

  Poet, the, not a teacher, 11
    His aptitude to feel and express, 12

  Protective coloration theory, unsatisfactory in regard to tiger, leopard,
        jaguar, &c., 43-49
    Inapplicable to animals that hunt at night by scent, 47
    Versus sexual selection, 43-50

  Psychical Research Society, great mistake made by, 143-145
    Its man-worshipping attitude, 143-145
    Its neglect of the comparative method, 143-145
    Indifferent to field natural history, 145
    Should let the dogs into church, 145
    Conclusions of, reared on too narrow a basis of fact and observation,
        290


  Rabbits, the stamping of, with hind legs may have various meanings, 38
    Theory in regard to white tail of, unsubstantiated, 46, 47
    Browse lichen, 92
    One warming his paws at camp fire, 93

  Rhyme, old, about cuckoo changing its tune in June not trustworthy, 96
    Truth sacrificed for sake of, 96, 97
    So-called cockney, the, the bugbear of pedants and purists, 97
    Fetters of, should be loosened, not tightened, 97

  River Lark, description of, 2

  Rooks, feeding habits of, 52
    Mingle with hooded crows, 52, 58
    Disagreements of, with hooded crows, 52-54
    Rules of precedence of, when feeding in company, 53
    Fighting methods of, 54
    Partial reversion of some, to less social state, 55
    Gregarious instinct of, sometimes in abeyance, 55, 56
    Eat roots of thistles, 56
    May sometimes roost singly, 57
    Are more civilised than the hooded crow, 57
    Mysterious relations of, with the hooded crow, 58-60
    Visits of, to nesting-trees during winter, 60-63;
      reasons for, and suggested origin of these visits, 63-70
    Compared to bower-birds, 64-70
    Often pair on nest, 68
    Are swayed by love in winter as well as in summer, 70
    Their round of life during winter, 70, 71


  Sand-martins, fight violently, 248
    Late appearance of several, 259

  Schiller, his two great forces “hunger and love,” 70
    Has forgotten sleep, 71

  Scott, his style not appreciated by the inappreciative, 82

  Sense of direction referred to, 290

  Sexual selection, prejudice in regard to theory of, 45;
      the reason for this, 45
    May account for white tail in rabbit, 47
    And for posterior markings, colours, &c., generally, 47
    Stripes and spots of tiger, leopard, jaguar, zebra, &c., probably due
        to, 43-50

  Shag, decorates its nest with flowers, &c., 68

  “She oaks,” characteristic of country round Icklingham, 3, 4
    Of the poplar tribe, 3
    Their great size, 3
    Are, fortunately, valueless, 3

  Sleep, a third ruling power, forgotten by Schiller, 71

  Snipe, one as part of picturesque scene, 119
    Their odd, stereotyped way of fighting, 185-189;
      and of pursuing one another, 188;
      suggested explanation of these and similar phenomena exhibited by
          other birds, 190-193

  Song-Thrush, a fighter, though said not to be, 223

  Sparrow with a grievance, a, 245
    Nest-building habits of, 245-247
    Oppression of house-martins by, 243-246, 248

  Spiders, one answers query, 14
    Hibernate under bark of trees, 14

  Spiritualism, doctrine of, does not answer certain questions, 232
    Makes best of bad job, but the bad job remains, 232
    Presents many difficulties, 232

  Spur-winged lapwing, antics, _à trois_ of, 110;
    suggested origin of, 109, 110

  Starlings, bathing, 119
    Feeding over the land, 119
    Enjoy company of peewits, 120
    A single one flying with peewits, 120
    One welcomed back by another, 120, 121
    Have hearts even in winter, 121, 122
    Imitate note of peewit, 122
    Relations of, with green woodpecker, 129-132;
      may lead to one or other acquiring parasitic instinct, 131, 132
    As architects, 133-136
    Their nests in sand-pits, 133-135
    How made? 133-136
    Social nesting habits of, 136-138
    Make morality seem a bore, 137
    Roosting habits of, 138-154
    Flocking of, before roosting, 138, 139
    _Susurrus_, or sing-song of, 138
    Erratic descent into trees of, 139
    Simultaneous aerial movement amongst large bodies of, 140, 142, 143;
      some form of thought-transference seems necessary to explain
          these, 143
    Distinctive note uttered by, whilst flying, 145, 146
    Twitter whilst flying, 146
    Varied entry of, into roosting place, 146
    Exodus of, from wood in regiments, 147-152;
      back regiments fly first, 150
    Breaking back of, during exodus, 150, 151
    Increase altitude when passing hedges, &c., 152
    Great flights of, a study for Turner, 152
    Poetry in numbers of, 152
    Actions of, in the roosting place, 153, 154;
      a disseminating process observable, 153;
      slow diminution of the sing-song, 153;
      sudden flights and scurryings, 153, 154;
      silence not till long after nightfall, 154
    Morning flight out from roosting-place, 154, 155;
      takes place by successive bands or regiments, 154, 155
    Kind of bushes, &c., chosen to roost in, 155, 156;
      possible explanation of this, 155, 156
    Letter written to _Daily Telegraph_ about, 157-160
    Good done by, 160, 161
    Harm done by, to fruit inconsiderable, 160, 161
    Small space occupied by, to sleep in, 157-161
    Do no harm to song-birds, 158, 159, 161, 162
    Do not “infest,” but country gentlemen do, 162

  Statesmen, good that might be done by “translation” of, into
      dabchicks, 305

  Stevenson, style of, preferred by Stevenson to Scott’s, 82
    But not by author, 82

  Stock-dove, odd formalities in combats of, 185;
      explanation of these, 185

  Stone-chat, his motions, &c., 115, 116
    An angry bird, 115
    His tail flirted at you, 116;
      his certain answer if questioned on the subject, 116
    Variation in appearance of, 116

  Stone-curlew, a special feature of country round Icklingham, 124
    Often feeds with peewits, 122
    A fighter, 122, 123
    Puts a cock pheasant to flight, 123
    Skirmishes of, with missel-thrushes, 123, 124
    Warlike display of rival males, 123;
      not employed when attacking another species, 123;
      suggested explanation of this, 123
    Sad cry of, 124, 125
    The _clamour_ of, 125
    Other notes of, 125, 126
    Cry of, recalling piping of oyster-catcher, 126
    The gathering of the clans, 125
    Pursued by sparrow-hawk, 126
    The _Heimkehr_ of, in the early morning, 127
    Is _di-nocturnal_, 128
    More active during the day in spring, 128
    Crouching habits of, 128
    Evening dances of, in autumn, 128
    Migration of, 128

  Subliminal self, theory of the, a criticism of, 289-294
    Numerous objections to, 292-294
    Author’s counter hypothesis to, of innumerable ancestral subliminal
        _selves_, 289, 290

  Swallow tribe, the, insects, how caught and swallowed by, 258

  Swan, nest-building actions of the male, 174


  “Test of time,” the, a misleading expression, 89-92

  Tiger, protective coloration theory in regard to, questioned, 43-45
    Beauty of the, Darwin’s view as to how acquired, 44-46
    Coloration of, in relation to man, 47, 48
    Chinese proverb in regard to Coreans and the, 48
    Eye-witness’s account of the stalking of a cow by a, 48, 49

  Titlark, mounting and descent of, 110, 111
    More like a lark than a wagtail, 111, 112;
      resembles a wagtail also, 113

  Tits, a feature of Icklingham, 194

  Tree-pipit, voice of, like the skylark’s, 112

  Tuddenham, observations on pair of dabchicks at, 296-306


  Voice, importance of the, in classification, 112, 113


  Water-wagtail, courting actions of male, 113, 114;
      similarity in, to those of pheasant, 114
    Nest of, in that of song-thrush, 213
    Hen alone seems to incubate, 213
    Alternates eating with building, 213, 214
    Open bills of young, like Venetian glass vases, 214
    Collects a number of flies, &c., for young, 214
    Beauty of maternal love as exemplified by, 214
    Skill of, in collecting flies, 215, 216

  Weather, the, and the cries of birds, 6, 7

  Wheatear, characteristic of the steppes of Icklingham, 106
    Arrival of first pair of, 106
    Arrives in splendid plumage, 106
    Ways of the male, 106, 107
    Plumage of male, 114, 115
    Courtship of male, 107, 114
    Curious sexual actions of male, 175, 176

  Wood-pigeons, cooing of, 8, 9
    Roosting of, 9, 10, 12, 13
    Emotions raised by rushing sound of wings of, 9, 10;
      remarks as to this, 10-12
    Numbers of, in West Suffolk, 12, 13
    _Pigeon-trees_ made by, 13
    Less characteristic coo of, 74, 75
    Single one flying with starlings, 127
    Partial paralysis produced in, by sudden fright, 279, 280

  Wordsworth, his “intimations of immortality” due to the laws of
        inheritance, 10, 11
    No evidence contained in the famous ode of, 11, 12

  Wren, house-hunting of, 13, 14
    Food of, in winter, 14
    Seen to enter long-tailed tit’s nest in absence of owner, 204, 205


  Ypecaha rails, screaming dances of, referred to, 285


  Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO.
  Edinburgh & London

[Illustration:

  GEORGE ALLEN
  PUBLISHER LONDON
  RUSKIN HOUSE
  156 CHARING CROSS ROAD]



FOOTNOTES:

[1] The late F. W. H. Myers explains music in his own way--in
forced accordance, that is to say, with his subliminal self
hypothesis--without even a reference to Darwin! Did he not know
Darwin’s views, or did he think himself justified in ignoring them?

[2] As reported in “Proceedings,” March 1902. Part xliii.

[3] Or in The Tempest as produced and acted at Stratford-on-Avon during
the last anniversary.

[4] The accuracy of Jenner’s observations on this point, was
questioned, not long since, by his enemies: but most triumphantly was
it vindicated.

[5] Or some days later.

[6] The pursuit, namely, just alluded to; but the birds were soon lost
amongst the nettles.

[7] I can see no reason why those who think the leopard’s spots and the
tiger’s stripes protective, should hold the same theory in regard to
the quiet and uniform colouring of the lion. To others, however, this
and the obscure markings on the young animal certainly suggest that,
here, sexual adornment has given place to harmony with the surrounding
landscape. The male lion, however, has developed a mane, and this, by
becoming fashionable at the expense of colour and pattern, may have
led to the deterioration of the latter. The aboriginal colouring of
all these creatures was, probably, dull, and to this the lion may
have reverted. But if _he_ is protected by his colouring, how can the
leopard--in the same country and with similar habits--also be? The
same question may be asked in regard to the puma and jaguar, who roam
together, seeking the same prey, over a vast expanse of territory.
Again, if the lion was once spotted, and if his spots, like the
leopard’s, were a protection, why has he lost them?

[8] In Indian sporting works one more often reads of tigers being
located in “nullahs” or patches of jungle than amongst bamboos. The
tiger, moreover, ranges into Siberia, and to the shores of the Caspian,
where bamboos, presumably, do not grow, or are not common.

[9] “Descent of Man,” pp. 543, 545.

[10] Darwin mentions one conspicuous instance.

[11]

    “As the pine shakes off the snow-flakes
    From the midnight of its branches.”

    --_Hiawatha_, xix.


[12] By inappreciative _asses_.

[13] Or the man he quotes--and absorbs.

[14] “Bird Watching,” p. 28.

[15] “Bird Watching,” pp. 9-15.

[16] The _nakedness_ in this case rather; but I use the term
conventionally.

[17] Or might be, if any one cared to witness them. Nobody does.

[18] “The Descent of Man,” pp. 41, 42.

[19] “Bird Watching,” p. 284.

[20] December 8, 1904, I think, or thereabouts.

[21] Page 72.

[22] There are two kinds of ostriches--the scientific, or professorial
kind, that behaves in a way peculiar to itself, because it is “a
_ratite_ bird,” and the common, vulgar kind, as known to people in
South Africa, who have observed its habits on the ostrich-farms. For
the first, see various authorities, and for the second, Mr. Cronwright
Schreiner, in the _Zoologist_, as mentioned above.

[23] “Bird Watching,” pp. 60, 61.

[24] The female peewit, it must be remembered, acted in much the
same way as the male, and the sexual antics of many birds seem to be
identical in both sexes.

[25] This, in itself, has the appearance of design only. The bird,
however, works from within, and, if I mistake not, there would be a
growing tendency for the structure, as it rose in height, to bend over
inwards rather than outwards.

[26] Something, that is to say, of a _utilitarian_ nature. One should
watch monkeys also.

[27] As, were it the true one, this nest should have done--but did not,
as I remember. Instead, it stood firm through the time of sitting and
rearing.

[28] “Bird Watching,” pp. 104, 105.

[29] Hudson’s “Argentine Ornithology,” vol. i., pp. 72-79.

[30] The facts of migration should be studied in regard to this. See
Professor Newton’s “A Dictionary of Birds,” pp. 562-570.

[31] Compare, for instance, with the “Out of the Deeps,” &c., these
lines of Catullus--

    “Soles occidere, et redire possunt,
    Nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux
    Nox est perpetua una dormenda.”


[32] “Translated,” like Bottom--but more radically.

[33] But see pp. 319, 320.

[34] See _ante_, pp. 131, 132.



      *      *      *      *      *      *



Transcriber’s note:

Inconsistent spelling and hyphenation are as in the original.





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