COUNTRY WALKS OF A NATURALIST
REV. W. HOUGHTON, M.A., F.L.S., RECTOR OF PRESTON ON THE WILD MOORS, SHROPSHIRE.
ILLUSTRATED WITH EIGHT COLOURED PLATES AND NUMEROUS WOOD ENGRAVINGS.
LONDON: GROOMBRIDGE AND SONS, 5, PATERNOSTER ROW.
In this little book my desire has been, not so much to impart knowledge to young people, as to induce them to acquire it for themselves. I have endeavoured to show that Country Walks may be full of interest and instruction to all who care to make good use of their eyes. If I have failed, the fault rests with me for the way in which I have treated the subject. I am aware that I have occasionally used words and phrases which may puzzle young brains, but I hope that nearly all will be intelligible to boys and girls of nine or ten years old, with a little explanation from parents or teachers.
The chief, if not the sole merit of this little book consists in the illustrations which adorn it; and I must express my sincere gratitude to Mr. Gould, the eminent ornithologist, for his kind permission to copy some of the magnificent drawings in his work on 'The Birds of Great Britain.' To Mr. R. S. Chattock, of Solihull, I am also deeply indebted, for the pains he has taken in reproducing, on a reduced scale, Mr. Gould's drawings, and for the drawings of the sticklebacks and the frontispiece. My generous friend and neighbour, Mr. Eyton, of Eyton, has furnished another instance of his numerous acts of kindness, in allowing me the use of Mr. Gould's work and of various woodcuts. To two lady friends I also express my best thanks; and last, though not least, to the publishers, Messrs. Groombridge, for the care they have taken to present the volume to the public in a very attractive form.
WALK I.—APRIL 1
On the Moors—Swallows—Water-voles—Peewits—Marsh Marigold—Water-primrose—Moles—Herons—Kingfishers— Moschatelle—Water-scorpion.
WALK II.—APRIL 17
Ophrydium—Reed Sparrow—Whirligig Beetles—Fresh-water Mussels—Zebra Mussel—Titmice—Thrushes cracking Snail-shells—Dabbling in a Pond—Dyticus, or Great Water-beetle—Corethra Larva—Weasels.
WALK III.—MAY 36
Searching for Sticklebacks' Nests—Nest-making Fish—Snail Leeches—Other Leeches—Cuckoo Flowers—Blue Speedwell—Stitchwort—Tadpoles—Frogs—Frog and Cat.
WALK IV.—MAY 50
The Melicerta or Tubicolous Wheel-animalcule—Water-crowfoot or Buttercup—Sedge-warbler—Reed-warbler's Nest—Cuckoos—Horsetail—Hydrae.
WALK V.—MAY 69
Drive to Shawbury—Trout Fishing—Parasite on Trout—Curious habit of a Two-winged Fly—Ephemerae, or May-flies—Willy hooking out Dace—Another fish Parasite—Globe Flower—Dragon-flies—Quotation from Thomson's 'Seasons.'
WALK VI.—JUNE 84
In the Fields—St. George's Mushroom—Tree-creepers—A handful of Grasses—Nettles and Dead Nettles—Butterfly—Larvae feeding on Nettle Leaves—Fresh-water Polyzoa—Eggs of Newts—Development of Newts—Donacia Beetles—Planarian Worms.
WALK VII.—JUNE 103
Hedgehog and young ones—Hedgehogs, injurious or not?—On the Moors again—Great Tomtit—Shrikes or Butcher Birds—Lady-bird Beetles—Swifts—Coots—Water-hens—Grebes—Convolvulus.
WALK VIII.—JULY 119
Frog's Spawn Alga—Other Fresh-water Algae—Hawks—Kestrel—Sparrow Hawk—Buzzard—Shrew-mouse, superstitions about—Spiders' Nests and Webs—Spiders' Fangs—Spiders' Feet.
WALK IX.—JULY 133
In the Fields again—Scarlet Pimpernel—Goat's Beard—Caddis Worms and Flies—Forget-me-not—Goldfinches—Cruelty of country lads to young birds—Grasshoppers—Crickets—Pike, voracity and size of.
WALK X.—OCTOBER 145
In the Woods at the foot of the Wrekin—A hunt for Fungi—Fly Agarics—Victims nailed to a tree—Gamekeepers—Squirrels—Rare Fungi—Woodcocks—Ring-marks on fallen timber—Conclusion.
* * * * *
COUNTRY WALKS OF A NATURALIST
We could not have a more pleasant day, children, for a ramble in the fields than to-day. It is warm and bright, and the birds are singing merrily, thoroughly enjoying the sunshine; the little lambs are frisking about, and running races with each other. Put away lessons then, and we will have a holiday. "Oh," said Willy, "it will be so pleasant, and I will take one or two bottles, and my gauze net, because we are sure to find something interesting to bring home. Where shall we go?" "I do not think it much matters where, for there is always much to observe and to admire wherever we stroll in the country." "Let us go on the moors, then," said Jack, "for you know, papa, a little boy in the village told me the other day he had found a peewit's nest with four eggs in, and I should like to try and find one myself." Well, here we are, then; we shall have to jump over a drain or two in our ramble, and as the banks are soft it will be necessary to take great care, or we may tumble in. Ah! do you see, there are two sand-martins, the first I have seen this year. See how fast they fly, now sailing high up in the air, now skimming quite close to the ground. I have not seen any swallows or house-martins yet, but no doubt they will make their appearance in a few days. "Where do they come from, papa," asked May, "because we never see these birds in the winter? You often say, when the spring comes we shall see the swallows, and then they go away again towards the end of summer." Let us sit down on this clump of wood, and I will tell you about the swallows.
We have in this country four different species of the swallow family which visit us every year; they come to us from Africa: these are the sand-martin, two specimens of which we have just seen, the swallow, the house-martin, and the swift. A very little attention will enable you to distinguish these different kinds. The sand-martin is the smallest of the family; as the birds fly by us you notice that the back part is brown, or mouse colour; the under part white. The back of the house-martin is of a glossy black or bluish-black colour; it is white underneath; while the swallow, which is larger than the other two, has a glossy back, like the house-martin; but underneath it is more or less tinged with buff; and see, as I speak here is one flying past us. To-day is the 12th of April, about the time the swallow generally comes to this country. Now you see clearly enough its colour, and you will notice, too, a very marked difference in the form of its tail; see how much forked it is, much more so than the tail of the martin. This forked appearance is produced by the two outer tail feathers, which are much longer than the rest. Now I hope you will take notice of these differences, and call things by their right names, instead of jumbling them all up together under the name of swallow. I have not spoken of the swift, which does not visit this country till May; it is the largest of the swallow family, and has the whole of its body, both above and beneath, of a blackish-brown colour, except a small patch of dirty white under the chin.
"But, papa," said Jack, "do all these four kinds of swallows come from Africa? It is very curious to know how they can find their way backwards and forwards from Africa to this country, and how they come back to the very spots they visited the year before?" Indeed, it is a very curious thing; nevertheless experiments have been made to show that these birds return every year to the same localities.
Many years ago Dr. Jenner procured several swifts from a farmhouse in Gloucestershire, and marked them by cutting off two claws from the foot of twelve of them. Next year their hiding places were examined in the evening, when the birds had gone to roost, when Dr. Jenner found many of the birds he had marked by cutting off the two claws. For two or three consecutive years he examined their nesting places, and always found some of his marked birds. At the end of seven years a cat brought a swift into the farmer's kitchen, and this was one of those which Dr. Jenner had marked. Now, Willy, I will ask you a question in geography. The swallow family visits this country from Africa. What sea, then, must the birds fly across? "The Mediterranean, papa." Quite right; and now can you tell me the narrowest part of the Mediterranean Sea? "The Straits of Gibraltar." Right again; and there the passage is about five miles wide; and at Gibraltar swallows, swifts, and martins are often seen as well as several other bird-visitors of this country. People on board ship have seen swallows a long way from land passing between Europe and Africa. Sometimes the poor birds are so tired from their flight that they are obliged to rest on the masts, yards, and rigging of the vessels. This often happens when the weather is hazy. Holloa, Jack, what is that splash in the water about six yards off? Keep quiet, and we shall see what it was. Ah! it is one of my friends, the water-voles; I see the rogue, with his large yellow teeth and black eyes. Do you see? He is on the other side of the drain, nibbling away at something. People generally call him a water-rat, but he is no relation at all to a rat, nor is he an injurious creature like it. "Well, but papa," said Willy, "the lads in the village always kill these water-rats, as they call them, whenever they can. I suppose they take them for common rats. Do you say they do no harm?" Very little, water-voles will not eat young chickens and ducklings; nor do they find their way into stacks and consume the corn; their food is entirely confined to vegetables, such as the roots and stems of water-weeds. I feel, however, pretty sure that the water-vole is fond of beans, and will occasionally do some mischief where a field of newly-sown beans adjoins the river or stream, in the banks of which these animals form their holes. I will clap my hands, and off our little friend with his dusky coat starts, diving under the water, whence when he comes out he will probably escape into a hole on the bank. Some day I will show you the skulls of a water-vole and a rat, and you will see there is a great difference in the form and arrangement of the teeth, and that the first-named animal is not, as I said before, related to the rat. The water-vole is really a relative of that interesting creature you have often read of—I mean the beaver. "Well, papa," said Jack, "I am tired of sitting here, let us now go and hunt for peewit's eggs." All right, Jack, and if you find any you shall each have one for your breakfast in the morning. When hard-boiled and cold, a peewit's egg is a very delicious thing, though I think the peewits are such valuable birds, and do so much good, that I should not like to take many of their eggs. We had better separate from each other, so as to have a better chance of finding a nest. Soon we hear a shout from Willy, whose sharp eyes had discovered a nest with four eggs in it; so off we all scamper to him. See how the old bird screams and flaps, and how near she comes to us; she knows we have found her eggs, and wishes to lure us away from the spot; so she pretends she has been wounded, and tries to make us follow after her. Now, Jack, run and catch her. Hah! Hah! There they go. I will back the peewit against the boy. So you have given up the chase, have you? Well, rest again, and take breath. The peewit, as you saw, makes scarcely any nest, merely a hollow in the ground, with, perhaps, a few dried grasses. The peculiar instinct of the peewit in misleading people as to the whereabouts of its eggs, or young ones, is very curious.
A very observant naturalist says, "As soon as any one appears in the fields where the nest is, the bird runs quietly and rapidly in a stooping posture to some distance from it, and then rises with loud cries and appearance of alarm, as if her nest was immediately below the spot she rose from. When the young ones are hatched, too, the place to look for them is, not where the parent birds are screaming and fluttering about, but at some little distance from it. As soon as you actually come to the spot where their young are, the old birds alight on the ground a hundred yards or so from you, watching your movements. If, however, you pick up one of the young ones, both male and female immediately throw off all disguise, and come wheeling and screaming around your head, as if about to fly in your face." Peewits are certainly bold birds when their young ones are in danger. Mr. Charles St. John says he has often seen the hooded crows hunting the fields frequented by the peewits, as regularly as a pointer, flying a few yards above the ground, and searching for the eggs. The cunning crow always selects the time when the old birds are away on the shore. As soon as he is perceived, however, the peewits all combine in chasing him away. We are told that they will also attack any bird of prey that ventures near their breeding ground; they are quarrelsome, too, and the cock birds will fight with each other should they come into too close quarters. A cock bird one day attacked a wounded male bird which came near his nest; the pugnacious little fellow ran up to the intruder, and taking advantage of his weakness, jumped on him, and pecking at his head, dragged him along the ground as fiercely as a game cock. This was witnessed by Mr. St. John.[A] "I have often heard peewits uttering their peculiar noise," said Willy, "quite late at night. What do they feed on? I should so much like to have a tame young one." The food of the peewits consists of insects, worms, snails, slugs, the larvae of various insects; I am certain they do much good to the farmer by destroying numerous insect-pests. "Oh, papa," exclaimed May, "do come here, what a splendid cluster of bright golden flowers is growing on the side of the drain." Yes, indeed it is a beautiful cluster; it is the marsh-marigold, and looks like a gigantic buttercup; it is sometimes in flower as early as March, and continues to blossom for three months or more. Country people often call it the may-flower, as being one of the flowers once used for may-garlands. I dare say you have sometimes seen wreaths hanging on cottage doors. Some people have invented what I think very ugly names for this showy plant, such as horse-blob, water-blob.
"Beneath the shelving bank's retreat The horseblob swells its golden ball."
I have somewhere read that the young buds are sometimes pickled and used instead of capers, but I do not think I should like to try them. "And what," asked May, "are those bright green feathery tufts under the water? they are very pretty, but they do not bear any flowers." No, there are no flowers at present, but in about a month's time you will see plenty. Out of the middle of the feathery tuft there grows a single tall stem with whorls of four, five, or six pale purple flowers occurring at intervals. Its English name is water-violet,—not a fitting name for it, because this plant is not at all related to the violet tribe, but is one of the primrose family; so we should more correctly call it water-primrose. Its Latin name is Hottonia palustris; it is called Hottonia in honour of a German botanist, Professor Hotton, of Leyden. Willy will tell us that the word palustris means "marshy," in allusion to the places where the water primrose is found growing. It is a very common plant in the ditches on the moors here, and I will take care to show you its pretty tall stem when the flowers appear. While I was talking to May about the water primrose, Jack espied a sulphur-coloured butterfly, and off he set in full chase; he did not, however, succeed in capturing it, for his foot tripped over a molehill and down he tumbled—the beautiful sulphur butterfly having fled across a wide ditch and escaped. Not far from where he fell there was a thorn bush and a number of unfortunate moles gibbeted thereon: some had been killed quite recently, so I took three or four from the thorn with the intention of taking them home and examining their stomachs to see what they had eaten. In the meantime, down we sat on an adjoining bank covered with primroses looking so gay and smelling so sweet. Willy then wanted to know the history of the mole; why people generally think it right to kill these animals, and whether they really are blind. May, of course, could not resist the charm of collecting primroses for mamma. The two boys cared more for animals, so I answered their questions about the mole. First of all I pointed out the amazing strength of its feet, its soft and silky fur, the form of its body so well adapted for a rapid progress through the underground passages it forms. Look, I said, at its soft fur, how it will lie in any direction; each delicate hair is inserted in the skin perpendicularly to its surface, so that the mole can move rapidly either backwards or forwards with great ease; the fur, lying as readily in one direction as another, makes no difficulty to a backward retreat. If you look closely when I push away the fur with my finger and breath in the neighbourhood of the eyes, you will see two tiny black specs; so we can hardly call the mole a blind animal; but as it lives for the most part underground its power of vision must be small. The fore feet do the work of the spade and potato-fork combined; its sense of smell is acute, and this, no doubt, aids the animal in the search of its food; the mole's sense of hearing is also very good. "Well, but, papa," exclaimed Jack, "a mole has got no ears, so how can it hear?" There is no outward appearance of ears, it is true, but look: I blow away the fur, and now you see clearly a hole which is the beginning of the passage that leads to the internal ear. The ears of many animals are very admirably made and fitted for the purpose of receiving sounds, but you must not suppose that because some animals—as moles, seals, whales, &c.—have no outward appendages, they are destitute of ears and the power of hearing. But you must wait till you are a little older, and then I will explain to you the matter more fully. The little curiously shaped earbones which are found in all mammalia are found also in the mole; and I have in my drawer at home a mole's earbones which I dissected from the animal.
But here comes, I do think, the mole-catcher himself; let us hear what he has to say. "Good morning, Mr. Mole-catcher; have you been setting any more traps to-day? I suppose those unfortunate fellows gibbeted on yonder thorn were caught by you." "Well, yeez, sir," he replied, "I reckons as they were; I have stopped their play, I guess; but there's a plaguey lot more on them about, I'm a thinking." "What harm do you consider that moles do?" I asked. "Harm, maister? why, lor' bless you, see them hummocks they throw up all about. The farmers dunna like them ugly heaps, I can assure you." "Probably not; still if they were spread on the land the soil would be as good as top-dressing. Do you know what moles eat?" "Well, sir, I believes they eats worms." "Yes, they feed principally on worms, but they also devour wireworms and other creatures which prey upon the farmer's crops. I think moles do more good than harm, and I have examined the stomachs of many, and I am of opinion that it is a mistake to kill them." "Lor', sir, you be's a gemman that has seen the inside of a mole's stomach, has you? You may be a cliver sort of a mon, but moles be varmint." Thus saying, the old fellow wished us good morning and left us. "Papa," said Willy, "do not moles make very curious places under the ground in which they reside at times? I think I have somewhere seen pictures of these encampments." Yes, they do; but I only know of them from description and figures; the fortress is generally made under a hillock; it consists of many galleries connected with each other, and with a central chamber. You remember a young mole was brought to us last summer, and that we put it into a box with plenty of loose earth and some worms. We only kept it a day or two. One morning I found it dead. I suppose it had not enough to eat. The mole has an insatiable appetite, and, according to the observations of some naturalists, it will devour birds. Mr. Bell says that "even the weaker of its own species under particular circumstances are not exempted from this promiscuous ferocity; for if two moles be placed together in a box without a very plentiful supply of food the weaker certainly falls a prey to the stronger. No thoroughbred bulldog keeps a firmer hold of the object of its attack than the mole. Mr. Jackson, a very intelligent mole-catcher, says that, when a boy, his hand was so severely and firmly laid hold of by one that he was obliged to use his teeth in order to loosen its hold."
We now proceeded on our ramble, and I espied about one hundred yards off a heron on the bank of the Strine. He did not see us at first, but when we got a little nearer, off he flew, with his long legs stretched out behind, and his head bent close to his shoulders. He had evidently been fishing, for we could see the scales of fish on the side of the bank. Willy asked whether herons built on trees, and Jack wanted to know how they managed with their great long legs while sitting on their nests. These birds in the breeding season assemble together and make their nests on tall firs or oak trees; sometimes they build on rocks near the sea coast. It is said, too, that they will occasionally build on the ground. The heron's nest is not unlike that of the rook, only larger and broader; it is made of sticks and lined with wool and coarse grass; the female lays four or five eggs of a green colour, her long legs are tucked under her. Rooks and jackdaws sometimes take up their quarters near to a heronry, and do you know they steal their eggs, the rogues, and devour them. Both male and female herons take great care of their little ones and bring them food. Besides fish the heron will eat frogs, rats, young ducks, and coots. Eels are great dainties in the opinion of Mr. Heron; and sometimes an eel, after being pierced through the head by the sharp and strong bill of the heron, manages to wrap himself so tight round the bird's neck as to stop his breathing and cause his death. A good many years ago herons were protected by the law; they were considered royal game, and their capture by the peregrine falcon was looked upon as very exciting sport. As we followed the bank of the stream out flew a couple of kingfishers with straight and rapid flight; we distinctly heard the shrill note these birds utter; they flew about two hundred yards and lighted on a rail near the water's edge. Let us see if we can get a little nearer to them, I said, and then sit down and see what they will do. "Papa," said May, "is not the kingfisher a very beautiful bird, and the most brightly coloured of all British birds?" Yes, it is; its splendid colours remind one of the gorgeous plumage of tropical birds, and we have no other British bird with such brilliant colours. There, did you see that? one of the birds darted off the rail into the water. I have no doubt he has caught a small fish; and now he has lighted on the same rail, and with my pocket telescope I can see him throw his head up and swallow some dainty morsel. It is not at all an uncommon sight to see a kingfisher hover over the water after the manner of a kestril-hawk; suddenly it will descend with the greatest rapidity and again emerge, seldom failing to secure a fish for its dinner. "Did you ever find a kingfisher's nest, papa?" Willy inquired. Yes; some years ago I found one in a hole in a bank; there were four eggs in it, and I had to put my whole arm into the hole before I got at the nest, which consisted of sand mixed with a great quantity of very small fish bones. The eggs are very pretty, having a delicate pink tinge, the shell is thin, and the form of the egg almost round. "But where," asked Jack, "do the little fish bones of the nest come from?" I think I have told you that many birds—hawks, eagles, owls, shrikes, &c.—throw up from their crops the indigestible portions of their food. It is not uncommon to find these on the ground in the course of one's rambles. Kingfishers possess this power; they throw up the undigested fishbones, and curiously enough, as it would appear, form them into a nest. There is a kingfisher's nest in the British Museum, which I remember to have seen a few years ago. It has been a disputed point whether the parent bird throws the fishbones up at random into the hole where she is going to lay, or whether she forms them into a nest. The nest in the British Museum was secured at the expense of great patience and pains by the celebrated ornithologist and splendid draughtsman, Mr. Gould, whose drawings you may one day see in the library of the museum at Eyton. This specimen, if I remember right, was of a flattened form and fully half an inch thick. It is said that the kingfisher always selects a hole that has an upward slope, so that, though heavy rains may cause the water of the river bank to rise into the hole, the eggs will be dry. Some naturalists have said that kingfishers do not make their own holes, but use those already made by other animals. Mr. Gould, however, is of opinion that kingfishers drill their own holes. The tunnels always slope upwards, as I said; at the further end of the tunnel is an oven-like chamber where the nest is made. The fish-bone nest is thought by Mr. Gould to be really a nest, and intended to keep the eggs off the damp ground. However, there is difference of opinion on this point, and I reserve my own. We will see if we cannot find a kingfisher's nest some time this summer. Now, May, what little plant have you got hold of? "Indeed I don't know, papa, but it is a very curious little plant; I gathered it at the bottom of that hedge bank." Ah, I know it well, and a little favorite it is too; it is the moschatell. You see it is about five inches high, with pale green flowers and leaves; the flowers are arranged in heads of five each, namely, four on the side, and one on the top; it has a delicate musk-like odour, very pleasant and refreshing. Take a few specimens home and put them in water with your primroses. Mamma, I know, is very fond of the pretty little moschatell.
"Oh, papa," exclaimed Willy, "look at the bottom of this drain; what is that strange-looking insect crawling slowly about at the bottom?" I see; it is a water-scorpion, a very common insect in these drains on the moors,—indeed, it is common everywhere; let us catch him and take him home for examination. He is a queer-looking creature, with a small head and pointed beak; his forearms are something like lobster's claws; his prevailing colour blackish-brown, like the mud upon which he crawls; his body is very flat, and ends in two long stick-like projections; underneath these horny covers of the creature may be seen his two wings. He is an aquatic murderer; inserting that pointed beak into the body of some other insect, and holding his victim in his lobster-like forearms—oh! fatal embrace—he sucks out the juices of the struggling prey. Kirby and Spence say that some of the tribe of insects to which the water-scorpion belongs are so savage that they seem to love destruction for its own sake. A water-scorpion which was put into a basin of water with several young tadpoles killed them all without attempting to eat one. The tail projections, I ought to tell you, are connected with the insect's breathing; they are protruded out of the water and conduct the air to the spiracles at the end of the body, about which I must tell you more at another time. The eggs of the water-scorpion I have frequently found; they are of an oval form, with seven long hair-like projections at one end. But it is time to go home, our walk to-day is over; let us look forward to another holiday and another country ramble.
[Footnote A: 'Wild Sports of the Highlands,' p. 136.]
We will walk to-day along the side of the canal bank as far as the aqueduct, then take the Duke's Drive and home by Lubstree Park; we shall find lots to see and to admire in the course of our ramble. We notice plenty of those beautiful balls of green jelly (Ophrydium versatile) in the clear water of the canal which, you know, we see every spring. These balls vary in size from that of a pea to that of Jack's fist; they are, you see, generally attached to some water-weed, and consist of myriads of very minute creatures called infusoria, which are imbedded in a mass of whitish jelly; these animals can detach themselves from the jelly and swim freely about; of course it requires a microscope to see the tiny green animalcules. If we examine a single specimen under a high power of the microscope we shall see its shape, which, when fully extended, is long and cylindrical, having at one end a mouth surrounded, as is usually the case in the infusoria, by a circle of very fine hairs, or cilia, as they are called, from the Latin word cilium an eyelash; the mouth opens into a long narrow channel; the creature's throat, which leads to its stomach; towards the opposite extremity the animal tapers, till it ends in an extremely long fine hair-like tail which is fixed in the jelly-like ball; when the little creature prefers to swim freely about in the water it leaves its tail behind it, unlike, in this respect, to little Bo-peep's sheep! These balls were once supposed to belong to the vegetable kingdom, but there is no doubt about their animal nature.
"Oh! papa, what is that bird with a black head that flew from the side of the canal to the hedge?" said Willy. "There, don't you see it?" Yes! I see, my boy, it is the black-headed Bunting or Reed Sparrow, common on the sides of rivers, canals, and ponds. The specimen you see on the hedge is a male bird, the females are a little smaller and have not black heads. See how beautifully contrasted are the deep-black head and white collar on the neck. In the spring and summer these birds may be frequently seen, male and female together; in winter they associate with others of the finch tribe, forming large flocks. The nest is generally placed on the ground amongst the sedges and coarse grass; the eggs, which are four or five in number, are laid in May and, I believe, a second brood sometimes is produced in July. The nests of the Reed-bunting are difficult to find, at least, I have seldom been successful. You know how cunning the peewit is in trying to lead people away from its nest or young ones. Well, some observers have remarked the same thing in the case of the reed-bunting. One writer says, "Walking last spring amongst some rushes growing near a river my attention was arrested by observing a black-headed bunting shuffling through the rushes and trailing along the ground, as if one of her legs or wings was broken. I followed her to see the result, and she, having led me to some considerable distance, took wing, no doubt much rejoiced on return to find her stratagems had been successful in preserving her young brood." "Ha! ha!" interrupted Jack, "the gentleman was nicely deceived then." No, not entirely, because he goes on to say he afterwards found the nest, which had five young ones in it. One thing more I ought to tell you; not to confuse the reed-bunting with the reed-warbler, a very different bird, which very probably we may notice in to-day's ramble.
We now had another look into the canal, and saw numerous little whirligig beetles, performing their merry-go-rounds on the top of the water. With what amazing rapidity they skim along, to be sure! Some diving beneath the surface, some resting on a water leaf. If we catch one in our net and examine it more closely we shall see that, in form, it is like a miniature boat. It seems surprising that these little "whirligigs," "whirl-wigs," or "shiners," as they are called, should perform their rounds so closely together, without sometimes coming into collision. If you will look ever so long a time you will not see one animated boat run foul of another. Just think of a couple of hundred skaters on a small piece of ice playing at cros-stick. Oh! would they not be constantly knocking one another over?
Now look at Mr. Whirligig's eyes, you see each is separated into two parts by a division; the one is on the upper part of the head and looks towards the sky, the other is on the under part of the head and looks into the water. Now let us all keep quite still—the whirligigs rest. Now let us move—just look, they see our motions and off they start on their merry-go-rounds. It was with this upper part of the eye they saw us; should some sly fish, from below the surface of the water, make a rush at one, the beetle sees the enemy with his under eye and avoids him. What have you caught now, Jack? fish him out whatever it is. Oh! a fresh-water mussel, and a very fine specimen too; there are plenty of these fellows in the canal all the way from here to Newport. "Are they good to eat, papa?" asked Willy. I never tried one, but, from having often dissected specimens, I should say they were as tough as the sole of a boot. I never heard of anyone eating them. These molluscs carry their eggs, myriads in number, within their gills. The young, at the time they are ejected, are very curious little animals with triangular shells, and, oddly enough, they will fasten upon the fins or tails of fish, on which they will stick for some time, but how long I do not know.
This particular mollusc is known by the name of swan-mussel; the young fry are sent into the water in April and May. There is another kind of fresh-water mussel in rivers and streams, called the pearl-mussel, pearls being occasionally found in them. I had one of these pearls once given me by a lad, taken from a river in the Isle of Man. I took it to a jeweller, in Liverpool, who valued it at a guinea. Your uncle Arthur, to whom I gave it, had it set in gold as a pin "I wish," said May, who had listened to this part of the story with great attention, "I wish pearl-mussels would live in the canal, it would be so nice to get the pearls out of them." Very few mussels are found to contain the pearls; perhaps you might have to open many hundreds before you found a single pearl, and I should not like to cause the death of so many harmless animals for the sake of a single pearl.
"Here is another swan-mussel, and, just look, papa," said Jack, "some other shells are fastened on it." So there are; it is a lot of the curious and pretty little zebra-mussel. How prettily they are marked with zig-zag stripes of reddish brown, especially the young specimens. The name of mussel is better suited to these molluscs than to the large kinds upon which the "zebras" are often attached, because, like the salt water mussel you have often seen at New Brighton, they have the power of spinning, what is called, "a byssus"—here, you see, is the substance I mean—by which they fasten themselves to shells, or to stones, roots, and other things.
There flies one of those pretty little birds, the long-tailed titmouse; it is common enough, certainly, but I never fail to notice several upon the hedges and poplar trees of the "Duke's drive." There are several members of the titmouse family found in Great Britain; let me count them. First we have the great tit, then the little blue-tit, the long-tailed tit, the cole tit, the marsh, the crested and the bearded tit. How many does that make? Seven; but the crested tit is very uncommon, and the bearded tit does not occur in Shropshire. The other five are quite common and we shall, I dare say, be able to see all in the course of to-day's walk. The long-tailed tit, so called on account of the great length of the tail feathers, is a very active, lively little bird. Indeed, activity and liveliness belong to all the tit family. See how the little fellow flits from branch to branch, seldom remaining long on one spot. It is a very small bird, almost the smallest British bird we have; of course I am thinking of the tit's body and not taking into account its tail. The skin is remarkably tender, and thin as tissue paper. Like all the titmice, the long-tailed tit feeds on insects and their larvae. I do not remember to have heard or seen this species tapping the bark of a tree with its beak, as the great and the blue tit are frequently in the habit of doing, but most probably they do the same. "What do they tap for, papa?" asked May. I suppose for the purpose of frightening the tiny insects, which lurk under the bark, from their hiding places, when they quickly snap them up with their sharply-pointed bills and devour them. "Is not this the tit which the people about here call a bottle tit, and which makes a very beautiful nest?" asked Willy. Yes, the nest is indeed a very pretty object, and one that you would never, I think, confuse with the nest of any other bird. The outside is formed of that white-coloured lichen, so pretty and so common, and moss, and if you were to put your finger, May, into the inside, which is full of the softest feathers, you would say it was as nice as your own muff. The nest is oval, with a hole at the side. I believe that sometimes two holes exist, but I have never seen two in a nest. The eggs are very small, and are white with a few lilac spots. As many as a dozen or more are sometimes found in a nest.
The little blue-tit, which has just fled across our path is a very pretty active bird and common everywhere, in lanes, woods, and gardens. The blue-tit makes its nest in a wall or a hole in a tree and lays about nine or ten pretty little spotted eggs. How often I remember, when I was a boy, to have been bitten rather sharply by this little bird into whose nest I had placed my hand; I can fancy I hear the snake-like hissing which the blue-tit utters when some rude hand invades its home. Its food consists of various kinds of insects and insect larvae, which it finds on the bark of trees and in fruit buds. I think it does much good by destroying numbers of injurious insects, though gardeners and others destroy this bird, because they say it harms the fruit buds. Look at that little sprightly fellow, how restless he is; in what curious attitudes he puts himself on yonder branch. Hark! you hear him tapping quite distinctly. Besides insects, blue-tit does not object to make a meal of dead mice or rats. Mr. St. John tells us that a blue-tomtit once took up his abode in the drawing-room, having been first attracted there by the house flies which crawl on the window. "These he was most active in searching for and catching, inserting his little bill into every corner and crevice and detecting every fly which had escaped the brush of the housemaid." He soon became more bold and came down to pick up crumbs which the children placed for him on the table, looking up into Mr. St. John's face without the least apparent fear. Boys sometimes call the little blue-tit Billy Biter, no doubt from personal experience of the sharpness of Mr. Tit's beak. The great tit which we can see under the yew tree in our garden, almost any hour of the day, is very common in the neighbourhood, and I dare say if we look well about us during our walk we shall see some to-day.
"Oh! papa," exclaimed Willy, "there are some birds on the towing-path of the canal, about sixty yards off; they seem to be breaking something with their beaks by knocking it against the ground; just look." Yes, they are thrushes, and I can tell you what they are doing and what we shall find when we come up to the spot. We shall see several broken snail shells (Helix), which the thrushes find on the grassy slopes of the canal bank, and then bring up to the path in order to get at the animals inside the shells by breaking them against the hard ground and stones. There! as I told you, you see at least a dozen broken snail shells. I am sure the thrushes do a great deal of good by destroying both snails and young slugs, and it is a pity their labours are not more appreciated than they are. Lads in the village, and great grown men from the collieries, are continually hunting for the nests, eggs, or young of thrushes, and many other useful birds, which they wantonly destroy. Now we get on the Duke's Drive, and there, on a branch of a poplar tree, I see the great tit. Look at him; he is the king of the titmice, and he seems to know it. He is a restless fellow, like tits in general. Look at his black head and breast, white cheeks and greenish back. Now, by one of his hooked claws, he hangs suspended from a branch; now again he is clinging by both legs; see how busy he is, examining the leaves and bark in search for insects. But Major Tit is a bit of a tyrant sometimes and uses that sharp short straight bill of his with deadly effect upon some of his feathered companions, on whose heads he beats repeated blows till he cracks the skulls and eats the brains! The marsh-tit and the cole-tit are pretty common in this neighbourhood, we may often notice them in our walks.
If Willy were to get over the hedge with his net and dip it amongst the weeds of the pool, I dare say he will succeed in catching a few water-insects, which he can put in his bottle and bring to me. Of course the boy was delighted at the idea of dabbling with his net in the water—boys generally get immense fun from such amusement, and their clothes frequently not a little dirt. A weedy pond is a grand place for naturalists, and various are the beautiful and strange forms of animal life which are found there. Dipping amongst the duckweed and water-crowfoot is always attended with numerous captures, and Willy's bottle was soon full of active little creatures. Let us see what it contains. A large beetle is very conspicuous amongst the contents, now rushing to the top of the water, now sinking to the bottom, scattering far and wide the tiny water-fleas, and other little creatures by the strong and rapid movements of his swimming legs. This is the great water beetle; we will sit down on this clump of poplar tree by the side of the road, and take the beetle out and examine him; we must take care he does not bite our fingers as we hold him, for his jaws are powerful and sharp. Mr. Dyticus, for that is his learned name—from a Greek word which means "fond of diving"—is one of the most voracious of water-insects, but let us first examine his form. You see it is well adapted for the kind of life the beetle leads; look at that long oar-shaped pair of feet, what a broad fringe of hairs besets them, how admirably fitted they are for swimming; the wing-covers are smooth and glossy, without any furrows; by this I know the specimen to be a male, for the wing-covers of the female are furrowed. The structure of the forefeet is very curious; you observe its under portion forms a broad circular shield, covered with a number of sucking-cups, two or three being much larger than the rest; by means of these sucking-cups the beetle can attach itself securely to any object it wishes. The wings are large and strong, and situated, as in all the beetle tribe, under the horny wing-covers. I will put this bit of stick near his mouth; there, Jack, you see his strong jaws, and great use he can make of them I can tell you. If Willy were to put one of these beetles into his aquarium with his favourite sticklebacks, he would soon have cause to lament the untimely loss of some of them; woe betide the unfortunate fish or newt that is once caught by the strong jaws of this fresh-water tyrant! I have seen Mr. Dyticus rush upon a full-grown newt, and no twistings and writhings could free the victim from the fatal embrace. They will attack young gold and silver fish, and Mr. Frank Buckland has told us of the sad havoc these water-beetles do to young salmon, as witnessed by himself in a pond in Ireland. The forefeet you see are strong but small; the beetle uses them as claws in seizing its prey and conveying it to the mouth. A young and tender fish, you can easily imagine, Mr. Dyticus would very readily devour, but he will attack beetles as large and even larger than himself, seizing them on the under side where the head joins the body, the only soft place in a beetle. Dr. Burmeister, a naturalist who paid great attention to insects, tells us that he once kept a beetle related to the great water-beetle, and saw it devour two frogs in the space of forty hours. After the eggs are laid, which always takes place in the water, the larvae are hatched in about a fortnight. In time—I do not know how long—these larvae grow to the size of about two inches in length, and queer fellows they are, and very voracious and formidable-looking. Now, Willy, lend me your net, and I dare say we shall soon secure a specimen. What have we here? how the pond swarms with water-fleas! Oh! here is a treasure! What can it be? a long animated thread of glass—we will put it into a bottle by itself and I will tell you about it afterwards. Splash goes the net again, but no water-beetle larvae. Never mind; what does the child's songbook say—
"If at once you don't succeed, Try, try, try again."
A capital little verse to remember, so we will try again; and there now we are rewarded by the capture of a dyticus larva—a creature with a long body—in some respects reminding one of a shrimp. Oh! look at his jaws, how wide he opens them! You see that the last segment of the body is provided with a long pair of bristly tails, by means of which the creature can suspend itself at the top of the water. I have often kept specimens of these larvae in vessels of water and noticed their predaceous habits; they feed on the larvae of other water insects, but are not able to destroy fish, not being furnished with jaws or bodies nearly so strong as the perfect insect itself possesses. When the larva wishes to turn into its pupa state, it makes a round hole in the bank of the pond it inhabits, and there undergoes its change, turning into a full-grown beetle in about three weeks' time. "Papa," said Willy, "I have often caught beetles that remind me of the great water-beetle, but they are not so large; what are they?" They belong to the same family as the great water-beetles, and are called Colymbetes, Acilius, Cybister; I do not know that they have any English names. Come, we have dabbled in this pond long enough for the present, let us proceed on our walk. "Well, but, papa," said May, "you have not told us what that long worm-like creature is in the separate bottle; do let us look at it again. Oh! really it is a curious creature, why it is as transparent as glass, now it jerks itself about, now it floats without motion in mid-water. What is it?" "I am inclined to think," said Willy, "judging from its wriggling, jerking motions that it must be the larva of some kind of gnat." Right again, my boy, it is the larva of a gnat, and one known to naturalists by the name of Corethra; you see there are eleven divisions or segments in the body; the head is of strange form, and near the mouth are two hooked arms which spring from the middle of the forehead and bend down in front of the mouth; with these weapons the Corethra larva seizes its prey and crushes it between two rows of sharp spikes placed under the mouth; after being bruised and mangled by this apparatus the prey is ready to be swallowed.
"But what," asked Jack, "are those four curious black bodies; one pair near the head, the other pair near the tail of the animal?" They are air-sacs, and are connected with the breathing or respiration of the larvae. Some have supposed that they serve the same office as the swimming bladder of certain fish, which being compressed or dilated at will enables the creature to remain still in mid-water or to rise or sink in it. After a time the larva changes to a pupa, in which state it lives without eating for a few days, and then turns into a gnat. We now proceed on our walk and come to a part of the road which has a plantation on either side; we see a little active creature crossing the road and at once recognise a weasel. Let us keep quite still and silent, and we shall, I dare say, have an opportunity of watching it for a short time. Just look at him! how nimbly the little creature runs along; now he stops and raises his head as if listening for something, now off he starts again; he is evidently hunting, and probably is on the scent of a young rabbit, rat, or field-mouse. Ah! see he has caught something on the grass near the hedge; what has he got in his mouth? it is a small rat, I think; now he throws his flexible body over it and gives it one or two bites. Now, Jack, run up and catch him. Ah! he is off like a shot; you must not think to "catch a weasel asleep." I often see these little animals in my rambles, and always stop to witness their extraordinary activity. Weasels will sometimes climb trees and surprise some unfortunate bird on her nest; they are fond of eggs, and a bird's young brood are very dainty morsels; they will also eat moles and are sometimes caught in mole-traps. An excellent observer mentions a case of a mole-trap having been found many years ago with two weasels in it; they had been hunting in the mole's runs, had come in opposite directions, and "by a curious coincidence, must have both sprung the trap at the same instant." Weasels are generally classed as vermin and killed on all possible occasions; I think it is often a mistake to destroy them; no doubt they will occasionally catch a young rabbit or a leveret or suck a few partridges' eggs, but the common food of the weasel consists of such small animals as mice, moles, rats, small birds. In wheat or other grain ricks, they ought to be encouraged, as they enter them for the sake of the rats and mice they find there. I have been told by a friend that in some parts of Wales the farmers look upon the weasel as a friend, in consideration of the destruction it causes to mice and rats. A gentleman living near Corwen killed a weasel, and expected to receive the thanks of the farmer on whose land it had been killed; he was surprised to find that the farmer was by no means grateful. In this respect I think the Welsh farmers are wiser than the English ones. Hawks sometimes prey upon weasels.
Mr. Bell tells a story of a gentleman who was riding over his grounds, once having seen a kite pounce upon some object on the ground and rise with it in his talons. "In a few moments the kite began to show signs of great uneasiness, rising rapidly in the air, or as quickly falling, and wheeling irregularly round, whilst it was evidently trying to force some hurtful thing from it with its feet." After a short but sharp contest the kite fell suddenly to the ground, not far from where the gentleman was watching the proceeding. On riding up to the spot "pop goes the weasel," none the worse for his aerial journey, but the kite was dead, for the weasel had eaten a hole under the wing. The weasel makes its nest in a bank or in loosely-constructed stone walls; three or four young ones are generally produced. Some years ago I remember seeing a mother-weasel and three young playing about on a bank. It was a most interesting sight. The weasel is much smaller than the stoat, and you can tell it at once by its tail, which is entirely red; that of the stoat has a black tip. But it is getting late and we must hasten home.
To-day we will go and hunt for sticklebacks' nests; as it is calm I think we shall have very little trouble in finding a few; a calm day should always be chosen, because to find the nests of these little fish it is necessary to have very sharp eyes, and to look very closely, and you know if there is much wind the water is ruffled, and then it is not easy to see objects in it. Let us start off, then, with bait-can, canvass-net, and two or three large-mouthed bottles, to that small, clear, shallow pond in Mr. Jervis's field, and see if we can bring home a few fish and eggs. "It will be great fun," said Willy, "and when we have caught the little fish we will bring them home and put them in my aquarium." There are three species of sticklebacks found in this country, the three-spined, the ten-spined, and the fifteen-spined—this last inhabits salt water. All three build nests, and show great care for their little brood. The nests of the three-spined species are those most generally known, though I dare say, if we search carefully in the drains on the moors, we shall be successful in finding a nest of the ten-spined fellow, or tinker, as he is sometimes called.
Here we are at the pond, how clear it is, and how beautifully green are the few patches of star-wort in the water! As the grass is quite dry we can all sit down so as to get our eyes as near to the water as possible; never mind a few crawling ants, May; if they bite you, I shall not feel it. Ah! do you see that little fellow with crimson breast and eyes like emeralds? He sees us, for look how disturbed he seems; now he darts away and hides under a weed, but soon returns to the same spot; it is pretty certain he has a nest close by. I will put my walking-stick into the water near him. Well, actually, the brave little fellow is not the least frightened; see, he bunts his nose against the stick, and is very angry; he is afraid of some danger to his nest—this makes him so bold. Now I have made out where the nest is, it is close under him; do you see a few small holes in the mud at the bottom of the water? No, you don't see anything; well, then, give me my stick and I will point them out. There now, do you see what I mean? Yes, you do; that is all right. "Let us get the nest out of the water," said Jack. Have patience; let us watch what the fish is doing; see, he is busy fanning away with his tiny fins directly over the nest. "What is he doing that for?" said Willy. The quick movements of his fins bring fresh currents of water to the eggs or little fry that may be within. Ah! did you see that? another fish came near the nest; how furiously our brave "soldier" charged him; how quickly the intruder retired! I do not think he will dare to approach so near again for a long time, for those sharp spines on the under side of the soldier are like a couple of bayonets and can inflict serious wounds. Let us leave this nest for a time and try to find some more. Now that you have once seen a nest, you will not have much difficulty in finding others. Willy soon found another nest; "just look," he said, "there are a lot of the tiniest little things close to the nest." Yes, indeed, so there are; the eggs have hatched, and these are the little fry; there is Father Stickles quite proud of his numerous family, and quite ready to fight for them should any enemy be rash enough to intrude, for you must know that sticklebacks, like many other fish, do not object to eat the young fry of their neighbours, and if the parent there—it is the male only that is the protector—were to be removed, a hungry pack of other sticklebacks would crowd around and make sad havoc amongst that happy little family. I remember some years ago having once taken a father stickleback away from his nest, and, after putting him in my collecting bottle, I sat down to watch the result. Soon an invading army of other sticklebacks approached and attacked the nest for the purpose of getting at the clusters of eggs it contained. They pulled it about sadly, till I began to be sorry for what I had done. I returned the captive-parent to the water; at first he hardly knew where he was, and seemed confused, the result, no doubt, of his confinement in the bottle; but he was not long in coming to himself—he remembered his nest and the treasures it contained; he saw that devastating army all around it, and, summoning all his courage, the soldier-parent began an attack, now rushing at one and now at another enemy, till he was left alone on the battle-field, having thus gained, single-handed, a glorious victory indeed.
Well, we will take this one home, with nest and eggs it contains. You see the nest is a mass of tangled grass roots and other weeds; now that it is out of the water it is a shapeless mass. However, here is a cluster of pinkish eggs, and if you look closely you will see two little specks in each egg; so that the fish is being formed, for these are the little thing's eyes. You can see, too, the tiny things jerking their tails about every now and then. It is most interesting to watch the care the parent takes of his little ones when hatched. Some few years ago I put a male stickleback in a basin of water in charge of his nest. When the young ones were hatched it was most curious to notice his anxiety for their welfare. Of course young sticklebacks, like young children, are of an inquisitive turn of mind, and apt to play truant too occasionally; but should some little fellow wander too far from the nest, Father Stickles hurries after him, takes the little truant in his mouth, and spits him out right over the nest. This I repeatedly witnessed myself, and I have no doubt you will be able to see the same thing yourselves.
"Are not sticklebacks quarrelsome little fish?" asked Willy. Yes, they are very fond of fighting, and they are so bold that they do not fear any enemy, whatever his size. I once kept a small pike, about ten inches long, in an aquarium, into which I also introduced five or six sticklebacks. I suppose the pike did not much like the look of the prickles or spines, for he did not eat the fish. Once I saw him make the attempt, but after getting Master Stickles into his mouth, he quickly threw him out again, not relishing, I suppose, the sauce piquante of the spines. The sticklebacks were really masters; they tormented Mr. Pike dreadfully; first one would take a bite at his tail, and then another, till the tail had a woful expression indeed; so I turned the pike into a pool of water, and I dare say the retail business has long ere this been completed.
"Are there any other kinds of fish," asked Willy, "that make nests and take care of their young ones like the three species of sticklebacks?" Yes, there are several kinds of fish which do so, but no other British fresh-water kinds, I believe. There is the salt-water Lumpsucker, a fish of strange form and brilliant colour—you know the pickled specimen in my study—whose young soon after birth fix themselves to the sides and on the back of their male parent, who sails, thus loaded, away to deeper and more safe retreats. There are the long pipe-fishes, the males of which possess each a singular pouch on the tail; in this the eggs of the female are deposited and matured; the young ones occasionally leave their strange abode, and after swimming about for a time return to it again, reminding us in this respect of the kangaroos and opossums amongst mammalia. There are also fish which inhabit the rivers of Demerara which make nests and show great attachment to their young ones, and I dare say several other fish will be found to do the same.
"Oh! papa, do look here; as I was turning over this bit of flat tile I saw in the water I found a creature something like a leech, and on raising it up I saw what looks like a quantity of the animal's eggs, and she seems to be sitting upon them as a hen upon her eggs." All right, Jack; let me look, I dare say it is one of the snail-leeches. Yes, to be sure it is, and here are the eggs which the creature carefully covers with her body, and upon which she will sit till the young ones are formed; the small brood, sometimes one hundred and fifty or more in number, then attach themselves to the under surface of the parent, and are carried about wherever she goes. There are various species of this interesting family; all are inhabitants of fresh water; some incubate or sit upon their eggs, others carry them about in a hollow formed by the contraction of the sides. They have a long tubular proboscis, by means of which they suck out the juices of pond-snails and other water creatures. These snail-leeches move along in the same way as the common horse-leech and the medicinal leech, namely, by fixing the head-part on to the surface of some substance in the water and then drawing the hinder part up to it; they then extend the head-portion and fix it upon another spot, again drawing up the other extremity. But the leeches, properly so called, have all red blood; that of the snail-leeches is colourless.
"Is the leech used to bleed people when they are ill ever found in the ponds of this country?" asked Willy. I believe it is rarely met with now-a-days; most of the leeches used in medicine are imported from Spain, Hungary, the south of France, and Algeria; many millions are brought every year to this country. The medicinal leech, was, however, once pretty common in the lakes and pools of the north of England. The poet Wordsworth introduces us to an old leech-gatherer lamenting the scarcity of the animals in the following lines:
"He with a smile did then his words repeat And said that gathering leeches far and wide He travelled; stirring thus about his feet The waters of the pool where they abide. Once I could meet with them on every side; But they have dwindled long by slow decay; Yet still I persevere and find them where I may."
This sonnet was written in 1807, and when we consider the immense numbers used in medicine, and the utter neglect of leech culture in this country, we shall cease to wonder that native leeches are very scarce. It is said that four only of the principal dealers in London import every year more than seven million leeches. The annual demand in France was estimated in 1846 to be from twenty to thirty millions; Paris requiring three millions a year. "I should be very sorry, papa," said Jack, "to walk about like the old man in the lines you quoted just now, with bare legs in the water, making them a bait for leeches. Ugh! it is horrible to think of; they must suck a good deal of blood from the man's legs." There is nothing like being used to a thing, and when you remember that many people derive their whole support from the leeches they gather, you will not wonder that they do not fear a few leech bites. I do not suppose they lose much blood; no doubt the gatherers pick them up pretty quickly and put them into their collecting cases; besides the chief flow of blood from a leech-bite occurs after the leech has been removed; the flow is encouraged by the application of warm fomentations, but the cold water of a pool would stop the flow of blood in the case of the man's legs. We ought to be thankful for the existence of an animal which is of such immense service to mankind. I suppose it was the appreciation of their value in medicine that induced French ladies, about forty-five years ago, to regard leeches with especial favour. Many people remember the Cochin-China mania and the sea-anemone mania, but, May, what will young ladies say to the fact that in 1824 there existed in France a mania for leeches? The most enthusiastic admirer of Cochin fowls or sea-anemones would never have thought of carrying her admiration of her pets so high as to wear on her dress figures of these animals; but we learn from a French writer that there might have been seen at that period elegant ladies wearing dresses a la Broussais on the trimming of which were imitations of leeches! Broussais, you must know, was a physician, no doubt a fashionable ladies' doctor, and a great patron of leeches. "What," asked Willy, "are the leeches I often find in the drains on the moors and in other places?" I have no doubt you often find these kinds; there is a small leech, the commonest of all, called Nephelis, whose little oval cocoons are so frequent on the under sides of stones in the water and on water plants. I will soon find a few cocoons; look here, under this bit of brick tile are five or six; they now contain eggs, as I will show you, by slitting open the case with my penknife. These gradually change to young leeches, which find their way out of the cocoon through one or other of the two openings at either end. Then there is the horse leech, and another very similar to it, called Aulastoma, which means having "a mouth as wide as a hall;" it has no English name, but we may give it one if you like, and call it "the hall-mouthed leech." Its mouth is capable of great stretching, and can readily take in huge earthworms nearly the size of itself. I once witnessed a curious sight—I put a couple of "hall-mouths" into a glass vessel of water, and introduced also a great fat lob-worm; each leech seized the worm, the one took the head, the other the tail. As the worm got gradually swallowed the two leeches came to very close quarters, and at last touched. What was to happen? would they twist and writhe about and break the worm, and so share the "grub" between them? No; the one fellow quickly proceeded to swallow his antagonist. I watched him carefully, and he succeeded in getting down the red lane about an inch of his companion; but whether he did not like the taste, or whether he had qualms of conscience for taking such unfair advantage of a near relation, I know not; after a few minutes the partly swallowed leech made his appearance again, apparently none the worse for his temporary sojourn in the throat of his companion. This leech may be seen sometimes on damp earth in search of its favorite earthworms. I should mention also that another worm-devouring leech has lately been found in this country; it is known by the name of Trocheta, called after a French naturalist, Du Trochet, who first described it. I dare say if we look carefully we shall find it in this neighbourhood. All these leeches lay cocoons in which the young are developed. Let us leave the pool and take our little fish with us, taking care not to shake the can more than we can help. We are now in the fields; the grass is beautifully green after the late rain. Look at that crab tree in the hedge; did you ever see such a magnificent mass of blossom? The hawthorn hedges are loaded with May-buds; what a show of May there will be in a fortnight's time. Let us gather a sprig of crab blossom and a few bits of May-bud, and see if we cannot gather a pretty handful of wild flowers for May to take home to mamma. Here are a few cowslips with their drooping golden bells and delicious scent; I am afraid we shall not find enough to make a cowslip ball. Here is cuckoo-flower, which, as old Gerarde says, "doth flower in April and Maie, when the cuckoo doth begin her pleasant notes without stammering." Old Gerarde, by the way, ought to have said "his pleasant notes," for it is the male bird alone that cries "cuckoo." Its flowers are of a delicate pale purple when at the height of its beauty; they become nearly white when on the wane. "Ladies' smock" is another name for this harbinger of Spring; Shakespeare speaks of it—
"The daisies pied and violets blue, And lady-smocks all silver white."
Here is blue speedwell and the delicately pencilled stitchwort with its pure snow-white blossoms and delicate green leaves. It is a lovely Spring flower and very common amongst the grass of every hedgerow. We will pluck a few bits; how brittle the stem is. What curious ideas our ancestors must have had; fancy calling this plant "all-bones!" Its name, stitchwort, no doubt alludes to the plant's supposed virtue in cases of "stitches" in the side. The following lines of Calder Campbell on Spring flowers I am sure you will think very pretty:
"The buds are green on the Linden tree, And flowers are bursting on the lea; There is the daisy, so prim and white, With its golden eye and its fringes bright; And here is the golden buttercup, Like a miser's chest with the gold heap'd up; And the stitchwort with its pearly star, Seen on the hedgebank from afar; And there is the primrose, sweet, though wan, And the cowslip dear to the ortolan, That sucks its morning draught of dew From the drooping curls of the harebell blue."
Here is more "May-flower" or marsh marigold; let us take some; it will make a bright show in our wildflower cluster. We will put a sprig or two of copper beech, with its rich brown leaves, which we can get from the garden, two bits of lilac, purple and white; and though the nosegay is common, it is still very beautiful, and mamma will put it in her best vase and give it a place in the drawing-room for those to admire who have hearts to admire the wild gifts of Nature.
Why, Jacko, what are you grubbing up in that ditch? "I am not grubbing up anything," said Jacko, "but here are a lot of black creatures, lively enough when you stir them up; I suppose they must be tadpoles." Tadpoles, Jack, unquestionably, but are they the young of the toad or the frog? Let me see. Well, it is not easy to say which in their present stage, a tadpole is so like a tadpole, whether the young of frog or toad. If you had found the eggs, which you might have done earlier in the year, there would have been no difficulty in saying whether they belonged to a toad or a frog; for the toad lays its black eggs imbedded in a long clear jelly-like line, whereas the frog's eggs are imbedded in a shapeless mass of jelly. Look at some of these little black fellows, as black as niggers; there is a delicate fringe on each side of the head; these are the creature's gills and answer the same purpose as the gills in a fish; the blood circulates through them, and is made fresh and pure by the action of the air contained in the water. In this state the tadpole is more of a fish than a reptile; in a short time, however, these gills will be lost and then the tadpole can no longer breathe the air of the water, but must come to the surface to take in air from the atmosphere. By-and-by we should see two small tubercles appear near the root of the tail; these are the first indications of hind-legs. Meanwhile the forelegs are budding forth, and in time would assume their distinct forms. The changes of the tadpole, when it is a fish, to a frog, when it becomes a reptile, are most curious and instructive. If you have never seen the circulation of blood in a tadpole's tail, you have something to look forward to, and I will promise to show it you some day under the microscope. "What kind of frog," Willy asked, "do they eat in France? because you know the French eat frogs." The frog which the French eat is a different species from our common frog, though I dare say our common frog would be quite as good. The edible frog has been several times found in this country, and Mr. Eyton says that during the time a detachment of the French were prisoners at Wellington, they were highly delighted to find their old friend the edible frog in the wild moors here. I have never myself seen any other than the common frog in this neighbourhood. You may think a frog would make a curious sort of pet, but a gentleman once kept a frog for several years quite domesticated. It made its appearance in an underground kitchen at Kingston on the banks of the Thames. The servants, wonderful to say, showed him kindness and gave him food; one would rather have expected that they would have uttered loud shrieks of terror and fainted away at the unexpected sight. Curiously enough, during the winter seasons, when frogs as a rule are lying asleep at the bottom of a pool, this frog used to come out of his hole and seek a snug place near the kitchen fire, where he would continue to bask and enjoy himself till the servants retired to rest. And more curious still, this frog got remarkably fond of a favourite old cat, and used to nestle under the warm fur of Mrs. Pussy, she in the mean time showing she did not in the least object to Mr. Frog's presence.
Both frogs and toads do a great deal of good by destroying quantities of slugs and injurious insects; they are, moreover, perfectly harmless. Some ignorant people, who love to destroy everything, insist on killing frogs and toads; they say they eat the strawberries in their gardens. Did you ever examine a frog's or a toad's tongue, Willy? You never did; then I hope the next frog you catch you will carefully open his mouth—treat him as if you loved him, as honest Isaac Walton says—and give me some short account of the structure of a frog's tongue. "All right, papa," said Willy, "I will bear the matter in mind. It makes me laugh, though, to think of my examining a frog's tongue; still I wonder what it is like, and I wish I could at once catch a frog to see; but we are now again near home, and I must wait for another walk."
"Papa," said Willy, "you once told me of a very beautiful little creature, almost too small to be seen by the naked eye, that lives in water, and builds its house out of the small particles of clay or mud that float therein. The bricks are not of the shape of house bricks, but quite round. Do you not think we can find some of these animals in the course of to-day's walk? I forget the name of the creature." I know what you mean; you are speaking of a microscopic animal called Melicerta. "Oh, yes, that is its name, now I remember." I have no doubt we shall be able to obtain specimens from the canal; so we will walk along the bank for a short distance and then get into the fields again. We must take with us a clear wide-mouthed bottle, and we shall soon see whether we have captured any specimens. These exquisite little creatures attach themselves to the leaves and stems of water-plants; they are most readily seen on the finely cut leaves of the water-buttercup or spiked milfoil. The way to proceed is to place a tuft of this plant in the bottle and to hold it up to the light, and we shall soon see whether any Melicertae are there.
Here is plenty of water-buttercup—a very interesting plant by-the-bye, and one which is subject to much variation; for when it grows in swiftly flowing water all the leaves are very long and hair-like, but in still water there are flattened leaves as well, and the hair-like leaves are not nearly so long. You see it is now in flower; a beautiful white mass it forms in small still ponds. "Well, but, papa," said May, "the flowers are white, and I thought all buttercups were yellow." Nearly all the buttercups have yellow flowers, but there are two British species which have white blossoms, namely, this one and the little ivy-leaved buttercup, or crowfoot, as it is often called, which is found either in the water or near the water's edge. Though the ivy-leaved crowfoot is generally regarded as a species, I think it is only a variety of the one we are now looking at. Now I fish a plant out with my stick and nip off a tuft of hair-like leaves and pop it into the bottle. Have I anything here? No doubt the microscope would show countless numbers of minute animalcules, but I detect no Melicertae. Let us try again. I nip off another tuft. There! do you see one, two, three, four little things sticking almost at right angles to some of the leaves? No, you see nothing? Well, perhaps not, for your eyes are not so accustomed to these things as mine are, but I will take out my pocket lens; there, surely you see that one close to the side of the bottle, do you not? Oh yes, you see what I mean; well, that is the case or house of a Melicerta, which animal I will describe to you, and when we get home we will look at it under the microscope. The case is about the twelfth part of an inch long and about the thickness of a horsehair, and of a reddish colour generally, though the colour depends on the nature of the material out of which the case is made. Let us sit down and put the bottle on this large stone, and I dare say some of the creatures will soon show their heads at the top of the tubes, for they are all indoors now; the disturbance caused in breaking off the bit of weed and putting it in the bottle has alarmed the Melicertae, and very quickly they sunk within their houses of clay.
Now I see one fellow slowly appearing at the top, after the manner of a chimney-sweeper, but certainly in a much more elegant form. There! it has unfolded four flower-like expansions, of which the uppermost are much the largest. The animal shows only the upper part of its body, and I can see with my pocket lens that it is somewhat transparent and whitish. But my lens has not sufficient magnifying power to reveal more, so I must tell you what I have seen of Melicerta under my compound microscope. Each of these four leaf-like lobes or expansions is surrounded with very minute hairs, which can move with great rapidity in all directions; these you will remember are called "cilia," from the resemblance to eyelashes, for which cilia is the Latin word. The motion caused by these numerous cilia lashing the water brings currents containing particles of food for the Melicerta, and materials for his house. Mr. Melicerta "is at once brick-maker, mason, and architect, and fabricates as pretty a tower as it is easy to conceive." The mouth is situated between the two large leaflets, and leads to a narrow throat, in which are the curious jaws and teeth of the animal. Below the jaws are the stomach and intestine; so you see the Melicerta, though so minute a creature, has a complex structure. "You said, papa," remarked May, "that the little creature makes its own tube; how does it do that?" Upon the upper part of the head there is a small hollow cup, which is lined with cilia, and probably also secretes some sticky fluid to make the pellets of clay adhere together; the particles of clay and mud, having been brought to the space between the leaflets by the action of the cilia, are conveyed to this little cup-shaped cavity, and are then worked about by the cilia within, till a round pellet is formed which completely fits the cavity. The little creature then bends itself down upon the tube and deposits the pellet upon it, then it raises itself up again and proceeds to form another brick, its jaws working all the time. "I wonder," said Jack, "how the little creature manages to set apart and put in its proper place the particles required for food and those required for brick-making; it would be funny if it sometimes made a mistake and put the clay in its stomach and the food in the brick machine!" It is curious, indeed, to know how the materials are put in the proper place; I suppose the Melicerta has the power to change the direction of the currents and thus to place the particles in their proper place. By rubbing a little paint, such as carmine or indigo, in some water and placing a drop upon the glass slide with the Melicerta, these currents may be readily seen; and I have more than once seen rows of coloured bricks, red or blue, which the animal moulded and then deposited on the tube! We will take the bottle home, and if you have patience I doubt not I shall be able to show you a good deal of what I have been describing; but you must have patience, for, as an excellent naturalist has said, "The Melicerta is an awkward object to undertake to show to our friends, for, as they knock at the door, she is apt to turn sulky, and when once in this mood it is impossible to say when her fair form will reappear. At times the head is wagged about in all directions with considerable vehemence, playing singular antics, and distorting her lobes so as to exhibit a Punch and Judy profile."[B]
Hark! what is that bird singing so sweetly and with such animation in the hedge? Do you hear? It is the dear little sedge-warbler; often, indeed, heard, but not so often seen, for it is fond of hiding itself in bushes or sedges. The sedge-warbler, like the migratory warblers generally, comes to us in April and leaves us in September. How often have I listened with delight to its music when returning home quite late at night in summer months! If the bird stops its music for a few moments, you have only to throw a stone among the bushes and the singing commences again. I am not clever in describing musical sounds, and I cannot describe that of the sedge-warbler, nor can I always distinguish it from the song of its near relative the reed-warbler. Both imitate the songs of other birds, and their incessant warblings and babblings at night cause them to be often mistaken for nightingales. I have generally found the nest of the sedge-warbler on the ground, on a tuft of coarse grass or sedge; the nest of the reed-warbler is supported on four or five tall reeds, and is made of the seed-branches of the reeds and long grass wound round and round; it is made deep, so that the little eggs are not tossed out when the reeds are shaken by the high winds.
Hark! there is the cuckoo; how clearly he utters "cuckoo! cuckoo!" He is not far away. Some people can imitate the well-known note so well as to deceive the bird and bring it near the place where they are hiding. Your Uncle Philip only the other day made a cuckoo respond to him; had the day been calm instead of windy, he would, no doubt, have induced the bird to come close to us. There he goes with his long tail, flying something like a hawk. You should remember the rhyming lines about the cuckoo's visit to this country:
In April, Come he will. In May, He sings all day. In June, He alters his tune. In July, He prepares to fly. Come August, Go he must.
"I think you said, papa," said May, "that it is only the male bird that utters the cuckoo note; what kind of a voice has the female?" I have never heard the note of the female cuckoo. Mr. Jenyns says, "The note of the female cuckoo is so unlike that of the male, which is familiar to every one, that persons are sometimes with difficulty persuaded that it proceeds from that bird. It is a kind of chattering cry, consisting of a few notes uttered fast in succession, but remarkably clear and liquid." Very curious are the habits of the cuckoo. Unlike most other birds, they do not pair; you all know, too, that cuckoos make no nests, but lay their eggs one by one in the nests of various other birds, such as those of the hedge-warbler, or hedge-sparrow as it is generally but wrongly called, robin, white-throat, and other birds. It is probable that the same cuckoo does not go twice to the same nest to deposit her egg. What a curious exception is the case of the cuckoo to the instinctive love of their offspring observable in almost all birds! After the eggs are laid the parent bird has no further trouble with them; no period of incubation to bare the breast of the brooding bird; no anxiety about her young ones, as some idle, wanton lad hunts amongst the trees and bushes, destroys both nest and eggs, or tortures the helpless fledglings! "But, papa," said Willy, "how does it happen that the young birds hatched in the same nest with the young cuckoo always get turned out of it." The cuckoo, being much the larger and heavier bird, fills up the greater part of the nest, consequently the smaller fledgling companions get placed on the sides of the nest, and partially also on the back of the young cuckoo; when, therefore, the latter stands up in the nest he often lifts up on his back one of the small companions, who thus gets thrown headlong to the ground. This seems to me to be the mode in which the ejection sometimes takes place, till at last the young cuckoo is left sole possessor of the nest, and of course gets all the food; at the same time I ought to say that some naturalists attribute a murderous disposition to the young cuckoo, and say that the other inmates of the nest are maliciously thrown out. Others, again, say that the foster birds throw their own young ones out. It is certain that the young are sometimes treated thus, for they have been seen on the ground when the young cuckoo was too small to eject them itself.