This eBook was transcribed by Les Bowler.
CASSELL'S NATIONAL LIBRARY.
THE NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE.
BY THE REV. GILBERT WHITE, A.M.
CASSELL & COMPANY, LIMITED: LONDON, PARIS, NEW YORK & MELBOURNE. 1887.
Gilbert White's home in the quiet Hampshire village of Selborne is an old family house that has grown by additions, and has roofs of nature's colouring, and creeping plants on walls that have not been driven by scarcity of ground to mount into the air. The house is larger, by a wing, now than when White lived in it. A little wooded park, that belongs to it, extends to a steep hill, "The Hanger," clothed with a hanging wood of beech. The Hanger and the slope of Nore Hill place the village in a pleasant shelter. A visit to Selborne can be made by a walk of a few miles from Alton on the South Western Railway. It is a country walk worth taking on its own account.
The name, perhaps, implies that the place is wholesome. It was a village in Anglo-Saxon times. Its borne or burn is a brook that has its spring at the head of the village, and "sael" meant prosperity or health of the best. It is the "sel" in the German "Selig" and the "sil" in our "silly," which once represented in the best sense well-being of the innocent. So our old poets talk of "seely sheep;" but as the guileless are apt prey to the guileful, silliness came to mean what "blessed innocence" itself now stands for in the language of men who, poor fellows, are very much more foolish. So Selborne has a happy old pastoral name. The fresh, full spring, called the "Well Head," which gives its name to Selborne, doubtless brought the village to its side by the constant water supply that it furnished. The rivulet becomes at Oakhanger a considerable stream.
The Plestor, mentioned in the second letter as having once had a great oak in it which was blown down in the great storm of 1703—a storm of which Defoe collected the chief records into a book—bears witness also to the cheerful village life of old. The name is a corruption of Play- stow; it was the playground for the village children. That oak blown down in 1703, which the vicar of the time vainly endeavoured to root again, was said to have lived 432 years before the time of its overthrow. The old yew in the churchyard has escaped all storms.
Gilbert White wrote three or four pieces of verse. Of one of them, "An Invitation to Selborne," these are the closing lines:—
"Nor be that Parsonage by the Muse forgot; The partial bard admires his native spot; Smit with its beauties, loved, as yet a child, (Unconscious why) its scapes grotesque and wild. High on a mound th' exalted garden stands, Beneath, deep valleys, scooped by Nature's hand. A Cobham here, exulting in his art, Might blend the General's with the Gardener's part; Might fortify with all the martial trade Of rampart, bastion, fosse, and palisade; Might plant the mortar with wide threatening bore, Or bid the mimic cannon seem to roar. Now climb the steep, drop now your eye below, Where round the blooming village orchards grow; There, like a picture, lies my lowly seat, A rural, sheltered, unobserved retreat. Me, far above the rest, Selbornian scenes, The pendent forests, and the mountain greens, Strike with delight; there spreads the distant view, That gradual fades till sunk in misty blue; Here Nature hangs her slopy woods to sight, Rills purl between, and dart a quivering light."
LETTERS TO THE HON. DAINES BARRINGTON.
SELBORNE, July 8th, 1773.
Dear Sir,—Some young men went down lately to a pond on the verge of Wolmer Forest to hunt flappers, or young wild-ducks, many of which they caught, and, among the rest, some very minute yet well-fledged wild-fowls alive, which upon examination I found to be teals. I did not know till then that teals ever bred in the south of England, and was much pleased with the discovery: this I look upon as a great stroke in natural history.
We have had, ever since I can remember, a pair of white owls that constantly breed under the eaves of this church. As I have paid good attention to the manner of life of these birds during their season of breeding, which lasts the summer through, the following remarks may not perhaps be unacceptable:—About an hour before sunset (for then the mice begin to run) they sally forth in quest of prey, and hunt all round the hedges of meadows and small enclosures for them, which seem to be their only food. In this irregular country we can stand on an eminence and see them beat the fields over like a setting-dog, and often drop down in the grass or corn. I have minuted these birds with my watch for an hour together, and have found that they return to their nest, the one or the other of them, about once in five minutes; reflecting at the same time on the adroitness that every animal is possessed of as far as regards the well-being of itself and offspring. But a piece of address, which they show when they return loaded, should not, I think, be passed over in silence. As they take their prey with their claws, so they carry it in their claws to their nest; but, as the feet are necessary in their ascent under the tiles, they constantly perch first on the roof of the chancel, and shift the mouse from their claws to their bill, that their feet may be at liberty to take hold of the plate on the wall as they are rising under the eaves.
White owls seem not (but in this I am not positive) to hoot at all; all that clamorous hooting appears to me to come from the wood kinds. The white owl does indeed snore and hiss in a tremendous manner; and these menaces well answer the intention of intimidating; for I have known a whole village up in arms on such an occasion, imagining the churchyard to be full of goblins and spectres. White owls also often scream horribly as they fly along; from this screaming probably arose the common people's imaginary species of screech-owl, which they superstitiously think attends the windows of dying persons. The plumage of the remiges of the wings of every species of owl that I have yet examined is remarkably soft and pliant. Perhaps it may be necessary that the wings of these birds should not make much resistance or rushing, that they may be enabled to steal through the air unheard upon a nimble and watchful quarry.
While I am talking of owls, it may not be improper to mention what I was told by a gentleman of the county of Wilts. As they were grubbing a vast hollow pollard-ash that had been the mansion of owls for centuries, he discovered at the bottom a mass of matter that at first he could not account for. After some examination he found that it was a congeries of the bones of mice (and perhaps of birds and bats) that had been heaping together for ages, being cast up in pellets out of the crops of many generations of inhabitants. For owls cast up the bones, fur, and feathers of what they devour, after the manner of hawks. He believes, he told me, that there were bushels of this kind of substance.
When brown owls hoot their throats swell as big as a hen's egg. I have known an owl of this species live a full year without any water. Perhaps the case may be the same with all birds of prey. When owls fly they stretch out their legs behind them as a balance to their large heavy heads, for as most nocturnal birds have large eyes and ears they must have large heads to contain them. Large eyes, I presume, are necessary to collect every ray of light, and large concave ears to command the smallest degree of sound or noise.
I am, etc.
* * * * *
[It will be proper to premise here that the sixteenth, eighteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first letters have been published already in the "Philosophical Transactions;" but as nicer observation has furnished several corrections and additions, it is hoped that the republication of them will not give offence; especially as these sheets would be very imperfect without them, and as they will be new to many readers who had no opportunity of seeing them when they made their first appearance.]
"The hirundines are a most inoffensive, harmless, entertaining, social, and useful tribe of birds; they touch no fruit in our gardens; delight, all except one species, in attaching themselves to our houses; amuse us with their migrations, songs, and marvellous agility; and clear our outlets from the annoyances of gnats and other troublesome insects. Some districts in the south seas, near Guiaquil, are desolated, it seems, by the infinite swarms of venomous mosquitoes, which fill the air, and render those coasts insupportable. It would be worth inquiring whether any species of hirundines is found in those regions. Whoever contemplates the myriads of insects that sport in the sunbeams of a summer evening in this country, will soon be convinced to what a degree our atmosphere would be choked with them was it not for the friendly interposition of the swallow tribe.
"Many species of birds have their peculiar lice; but the hirundines alone seem to be annoyed with dipterous insects, which infest every species, and are so large, in proportion to themselves, that they must be extremely irksome and injurious to them. These are the hippoboscoe hirundinis, with narrow subulated wings, abounding in every nest; and are hatched by the warmth of the bird's own body during incubation, and crawl about under its feathers.
"A species of them is familiar to horsemen in the south of England under the name of forest-fly; and to some of side-fly, from its running sideways like a crab. It creeps under the tails, and about the groins, of horses, which, at their first coming out of the north, are rendered half frantic by the tickling sensation; while our own breed little regards them.
"The curious Reaumur discovered the large eggs, or rather pupoe, of these flies as big as the flies themselves, which he hatched in his own bosom. Any person that will take the trouble to examine the old nests of either species of swallows may find in them the black shining cases or skins of the pupoe of these insects; but for other particulars, too long for this place, we refer the reader to 'L'Histoire d'Insectes' of that admirable entomologist. Tom. iv., pl. ii."
SELBORNE, Nov. 20th, 1773.
Dear Sir,—In obedience to your injunctions I sit down to give you some account of the house-martin, or martlet; and if my monography of this little domestic and familiar bird should happen to meet with your approbation, I may probably soon extend my inquiries to the rest of the British hirundines—the swallow, the swift, and the bank-martin.
A few house-martins begin to appear about the 16th April; usually some few days later than the swallow. 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, if they do migrate at all, or else that their blood may recover its true tone and texture after it has been so long benumbed by the severities of winter. About the middle of May, if the weather be fine, the martin begins to think in earnest of providing a mansion for its family. The crust or shell of this nest seems to be formed of such dirt or loam as comes most readily to hand, and is tempered and wrought together with little bits of broken straws to render it tough and tenacious. As this bird often builds against a perpendicular wall without any projecting ledge under, it requires its utmost efforts to get the first foundation firmly fixed, so that it may safely carry the superstructure. On this occasion the bird not only clings with its claws, but partly supports itself by strongly inclining its tail against the wall, making that a fulcrum; and thus steadied, it works and plasters the materials into the face of the brick or stone. But then, that this work may not, while it is soft and green, pull itself down by its own weight, the provident architect has prudence and forbearance enough not to advance her work too fast; but by building only in the morning, and by dedicating the rest of the day to food and amusement, gives it sufficient time to dry and harden. About half an inch seems to be a sufficient layer for a day. Thus careful workmen, when they build mud-walls (informed at first, perhaps, by this little bird), raise but a moderate layer at a time, and then desist, lest the work should become top-heavy, and so be ruined by its own weight. By this method in about ten or twelve days is formed a hemispheric nest with a small aperture towards the top, strong, compact, and warm; and perfectly fitted for all the purposes for which it was intended. But then nothing is more common than for the house-sparrow, as soon as the shell is finished, to seize on it as its own, to eject the owner, and to line it after its own manner.
After so much labour is bestowed in erecting a mansion, as Nature seldom works in vain, martins will breed on for several years together in the same nest, where it happens to be well sheltered and secure from the injuries of weather. The shell or crust of the nest is a sort of rustic work, full of knobs and protuberances on the outside; nor is the inside of those that I have examined smoothed with any exactness at all; but is rendered soft and warm, and fit for incubation, by a lining of small straws, grasses, and feathers, and sometimes by a bed of moss interwoven with wool. In this nest they tread, or engender, frequently during the time of building; and the hen lays from three to five white eggs.
At first when the young are hatched, and are in a naked and helpless condition, the parent birds, with tender assiduity, carry out what comes away from their young. Was it not for this affectionate cleanliness the nestlings would soon be burnt up, and destroyed in so deep and hollow a nest, by their own caustic excrement. In the quadruped creation the same neat precaution is made use of, particularly among dogs and cats, where the dams lick away what proceeds from their young. But in birds there seems to be a particular provision, that the dung of nestlings is enveloped in a tough kind of jelly, and therefore is the easier conveyed off without soiling or daubing. Yet, as nature is cleanly in all her ways, the young perform this office for themselves in a little time by thrusting their tails out at the aperture of their nest. As the young of small birds presently arrive at their [Greek text], or full growth, they soon become impatient of confinement, and sit all day with their heads out at the orifice, where the dams, by clinging to the nest, supply them with food from morning to night. For a time the young are fed on the wing by their parents; but the feat is done by so quick and almost imperceptible a flight that a person must have attended very exactly to their motions before he would be able to perceive it. As soon as the young are able to shift for themselves, the dams immediately turn their thoughts to the business of a second brood; while the first flight, shaken off and rejected by their nurses, congregate in great flocks, and are the birds that are seen clustering and hovering on sunny mornings and evenings round towers and steeples, and on the roofs of churches and houses. These congregatings usually begin to take place about the first week in August, and therefore we may conclude that by that time the first flight is pretty well over. The young of this species do not quit their abodes altogether; 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. They are often capricious in fixing on a nesting-place, beginning many edifices, and leaving them unfinished; but when once a nest is completed in a sheltered place, it serves for several seasons. Those which breed in a ready finished house get the start in hatching of those that build new by ten days or a fortnight. These industrious artificers are at their labours in the long days before four in the morning. When they fix their materials they plaster them on with their chins, moving their heads with a quick vibratory motion. They dip and wash as they fly sometimes in very hot weather, but not so frequently as swallows. It has been observed that martins usually build to a north-east or north-west aspect, that the heat of the sun may not crack and destroy their nests; but instances are also remembered where they bred for many years in vast abundance in a hot stifled inn-yard against a wall facing to the south.
Birds in general are wise in their choice of situation; but in this neighbourhood every summer is seen a strong proof to the contrary at a house without eaves in an exposed district, where some martins build year by year in the corners of the windows. But, as the corners of these windows (which face to the south-east and south-west) are too shallow, the nests are washed down every hard rain; and yet these birds drudge on to no purpose from summer to summer, without changing their aspect or house. It is a piteous sight to see them labouring when half their nest is washed away and bringing dirt . . . "generis lapsi sarcire ruinas." Thus is instinct a most wonderful unequal faculty; in some instances so much above reason, in other respects so far below it! Martins love to frequent towns, especially if there are great lakes and rivers at hand; nay, they even affect the close air of London. And I have not only seen them nesting in the Borough, but even in the Strand and Fleet Street; but then it was obvious from the dinginess of their aspect that their feathers partook of the filth of that sooty atmosphere. Martins are by far the least agile of the four species; their wings and tails are short, and therefore they are not capable of such surprising turns and quick and glancing evolutions as the swallow. Accordingly they make use of a placid easy motion in a middle region of the air, seldom mounting to any great height, and never sweeping long together over the surface of the ground or water. They do not wander far for food, but affect sheltered districts, over some lake, or under some hanging wood, or in some hollow vale, especially in windy weather. They breed the latest of all the swallow kind: in 1772 they had nestlings on to October 21st, and are never without unfledged young as late as Michaelmas.
As the summer declines the congregating flocks increase in numbers daily by the constant accession of the second broods, till at last they swarm in myriads upon myriads round the villages on the Thames, darkening the face of the sky as they frequent the aits of that river, where they roost. They retire, the bulk of them, I mean, in vast flocks together about the beginning of October, but have appeared of late years in a considerable flight in this neighbourhood, for one day or two, as late as November 3rd and 6th, after they were supposed to have been gone for more than a fortnight. They therefore withdraw with us the latest of any species. Unless these birds are very short-lived indeed, or unless they do not return to the districts where they are bred, they must undergo vast devastations somehow and somewhere; for the birds that return yearly bear no manner of proportion to the birds that retire.
House-martins are distinguished from their congeners by having their legs covered with soft downy feathers down to their toes. They are no songsters, but twitter in a pretty inward soft manner in their nests. During the time of breeding they are often greatly molested with fleas.
I am, etc.
RINGMER, near LEWES, Dec. 9th, 1773.
Dear Sir,—I received your last favour just as I was setting out for this place, and am pleased to find that my monography met with your approbation. My remarks are the result of many years' observation, and are, I trust, true in the whole, though I do not pretend to say that they are perfectly void of mistake, or that a more nice observer might not make many additions, since subjects of this kind are inexhaustible.
If you think my letter worthy the notice of your respectable society, you are at liberty to lay it before them, and they will consider it, I hope, as it was intended, as a humble attempt to promote a more minute inquiry into natural history, into the life and conversation of animals. Perhaps, hereafter, I may be induced to take the house-swallow under consideration, and from that proceed to the rest of the British hirundines.
Though I have now travelled the Sussex Downs upwards of thirty years, yet I still investigate that chain of majestic mountains with fresh admiration year by year, and I think I see new beauties every time I traverse it. This range, which runs from Chichester eastward as far as East Bourn, is about sixty miles in length, and is called the South Downs, properly speaking, only round Lewes. As you pass along you command a noble view of the wild, or weald, on one hand, and the broad downs and sea on the other. Mr. Ray used to visit a family just at the foot of these hills, and was so ravished with the prospect from Plumpton Plain, near Lewes, that he mentions those scapes in his "Wisdom of God in the Works of the Creation" with the utmost satisfaction, and thinks them equal to anything he had seen in the finest parts of Europe.
For my own part, I think there is somewhat peculiarly sweet and amusing in the shapely-figured aspect of chalk-hills in preference to those of stone, which are rugged, broken, abrupt, and shapeless.
Perhaps I may be singular in my opinion, and not so happy as to convey to you the same idea; but I never contemplate these mountains without thinking I perceive somewhat analogous to growth in their gentle swellings and smooth fungus-like protuberances, their fluted sides, and regular hollows and slopes, that carry at once the air of vegetative dilation and expansion . . .
. . . Or was there ever a time when these immense masses of calcareous matter were thrown into fermentation by some adventitious moisture: were raised and leavened into such shapes by some plastic power: and so made to swell and heave their broad backs into the sky so much above the less animated clay of the wild below?
By what I can guess from the admeasurements of the hills that have been taken round my house, I should suppose that these hills surmount the wild at an average at about the rate of five hundred feet.
One thing is very remarkable as to the sheep: from the westward till you get to the river Adur all the flocks have horns, and smooth white faces, and white legs, and a hornless sheep is rarely to be seen; but as soon as you pass that river eastward, and mount Beeding Hill, all the flocks at once become hornless, or as they call them, poll-sheep; and have, moreover, black faces with a white tuft of wool on their foreheads, and speckled and spotted legs, so that you would think that the flocks of Laban were pasturing on one side of the stream, and the variegated breed of his son-in-law Jacob were cantoned along on the other. And this diversity holds good respectively on each side from the valley of Bramber and Beeding to the eastward, and westward all the whole length of the downs. If you talk with the shepherds on this subject, they tell you that the case has been so from time immemorial; and smile at your simplicity if you ask them whether the situation of these two different breeds might not be reversed? However, an intelligent friend of mine near Chichester is determined to try the experiment; and has this autumn, at the hazard of being laughed at, introduced a parcel of black-faced hornless rams among his horned western ewes. The black-faced poll-sheep have the shortest legs and the finest wool.
As I had hardly ever before travelled these downs at so late a season of the year, I was determined to keep as sharp a look-out as possible so near the southern coast, with respect to the summer short-winged birds of passage. We make great inquiries concerning the withdrawing of the swallow kind, without examining enough into the causes why this tribe is never to be seen in winter; for, entre nous, the disappearing of the latter is more marvellous than that of the former, and much more unaccountable. The hirundines, if they please, are certainly capable of migration, and yet no doubt are often found in a torpid state; but redstarts, nightingales, white-throats, black-caps, etc., are very ill provided for long flights; have never been once found, as I ever heard of, in a torpid state, and yet can never be supposed, in such troops, from year to year to dodge and elude the eyes of the curious and inquisitive, which from day to day discern the other small birds that are known to abide our winters. But, notwithstanding all my care, I saw nothing like a summer bird of passage; and what is more strange not one wheat-ear, though they abound so in the autumn as to be a considerable perquisite to the shepherds that take them; and though many are to be seen to my knowledge all the winter through in many parts of the south of England. The most intelligent shepherds tell me that some few of these birds appear on the downs in March, and then withdraw to breed probably in warrens and stone-quarries: now and then a nest is ploughed up in a fallow on the downs under a furrow, but it is thought a rarity. At the time of wheat-harvest they begin to be taken in great numbers; are sent for sale in vast quantities to Brightelmstone and Tunbridge; and appear at the tables of all the gentry that entertain with any degree of elegance. About Michaelmas they retire and are seen no more till March. Though the birds are, when in season, in great plenty on the south downs round Lewes, yet at East Bourn, which is the eastern extremity of those downs, they abound much more. One thing is very remarkable, that though in the height of the season so many hundreds of dozens are taken, yet they never are seen to flock; and it is a rare thing to see more than three or four at a time; so that there must be a perpetual flitting and constant progressive succession. It does not appear that any wheat-ears are taken to the westward of Houghton Bridge, which stands on the river Arun.
I did not fail to look particularly after my new migration of ring-ousels, and to take notice whether they continued on the downs to this season of the year; as I had formerly remarked them in the month of October all the way from Chichester to Lewes wherever there were any shrubs and covert: but not one bird of this sort came within my observation. I only saw a few larks and whin-chats, some rooks, and several kites and buzzards.
About Midsummer a flight of cross-bills comes to the pine-groves about this house, but never makes any long stay.
The old tortoise, that I have mentioned in a former letter, still continues in this garden; and retired under ground about the 20th November, and came out again for one day on the 30th: it lies now buried in a wet swampy border under a wall facing to the south, and is enveloped at present in mud and mire!
Here is a large rookery round this house, the inhabitants of which seem to get their livelihood very easily; for they spend the greatest part of the day on their nest-trees when the weather is mild. These rooks retire every evening all the winter from this rookery, where they only call by the way, as they are going to roost in deep woods: at the dawn of day they always revisit their nest-trees, and are preceded a few minutes by a flight of daws, that act, as it were, as their harbingers.
I am, etc.
SELBORNE, Jan. 29th, 1774.
Dear Sir,—The house-swallow, or chimney-swallow, is undoubtedly the first comer of all the British hirundines; and appears in general on or about 13th April, as I have remarked from many years' observation. Not but now and then a straggler is seen much earlier; and, in particular, when I was a boy I observed a swallow for a whole day together on a sunny warm Shrove Tuesday; which day could not fall out later than the middle of March, and often happened early in February.
It is worth remarking that these birds are seen first about lakes and mill-ponds; and it is also very particular, that if these early visitors happen to find frost and snow, as was the case of the two dreadful springs of 1770 and 1771, they immediately withdraw for a time. A circumstance this much more in favour of hiding than migration; since it is much more probable that a bird should retire to its hybernaculum just at hand, than return for a week or two to warmer latitudes.
The swallow, though called the chimney-swallow, by no means builds altogether in chimneys, but often within barns and out-houses against the rafters; and so she did in Virgil's time:
. . . "Ante Garrula quam tignis nidos suspendat hirundo."
In Sweden she builds in barns, and is called ladu swala, the barn swallow. Besides, in the warmer parts of Europe there are no chimneys to houses, except they are English-built: in these countries she constructs her nest in porches, and gateways, and galleries, and open halls.
Here and there a bird may affect some odd, peculiar place; as we have known a swallow build down the shaft of an old well, through which chalk had been formerly drawn up for the purpose of manure: but in general with us this hirundo breeds in chimneys, and loves to haunt those stacks where there is a constant fire, no doubt for the sake of warmth. Not that it can subsist in the immediate shaft where there is a fire; but prefers one adjoining to that of the kitchen, and disregards the perpetual smoke of that funnel, as I have often observed with some degree of wonder.
Five or six or more feet down the chimney does this little bird begin to form her nest about the middle of May, which consists, like that of the house-martin, of a crust or shell composed of dirt or mud, mixed with short pieces of straw to render it tough and permanent; with this difference, that whereas the shell of the martin is nearly hemispheric, that of the swallow is open at the top, and like half a deep dish: this nest is lined with fine grasses and feathers, which are often collected as they float in the air.
Wonderful is the address which this adroit bird shows all day long in ascending and descending with security through so narrow a pass. When hovering over the mouth of the funnel, the vibrations of her wings acting on the confined air occasion a rumbling like thunder. It is not improbable that the dam submits to this inconvenient situation so low in the shaft, in order to secure her broods from rapacious birds, and particularly from owls, which frequently fall down chimneys, perhaps in attempting to get at these nestlings.
The swallow lays from four to six white eggs, dotted with red specks; and brings out her first brood about the last week in June, or the first week in July. The progressive method by which the young are introduced into life is very amusing: first, they emerge from the shaft with difficulty enough, and often fall down into the rooms below: for a day or so they are fed on the chimney-top, and then are conducted to the dead leafless bough of some tree, where, sitting in a row, they are attended with great assiduity, and may then be called perchers. In a day or two more they become flyers, but are still unable to take their own food; therefore they play about near the place where the dams are hawking for flies; and, when a mouthful is collected, at a certain signal given, the dam and the nestling advance, rising towards each other, and meeting at an angle; the young one all the while uttering such a little quick note of gratitude and complacency, that a person must have paid very little regard to the wonders of Nature that has not often remarked this feat.
The dam betakes herself immediately to the business of a second brood as soon as she is disengaged from her first; which at once associates with the first broods of house-martins; and with them congregates, clustering on sunny roofs, towers, and trees. This hirundo brings out her second brood towards the middle and end of August.
All the summer long is the swallow a most instructive pattern of unwearied industry and affection; for from morning to night, while there is a family to be supported, she spends the whole day in skimming close to the ground, and executing the most sudden turns and quick evolutions. Avenues, and long walks, under hedges, and pasture-fields, and mown meadows where cattle graze, are her delight, especially if there are trees interspersed; because in such spots insects most abound. When a fly is taken a smart snap from her bill is heard, resembling the noise at the shutting of a watch-case: but the motion of the mandibles is too quick for the eye.
The swallow, probably the male bird, is the excubitor to house-martins, and other little birds, announcing the approach of birds of prey. For as soon as a hawk appears, with a shrill alarming note he calls all the swallows and martins about him; who pursue in a body, and buffet and strike their enemy till they have driven him from the village, darting down from above on his back, and rising in a perpendicular line in perfect security. This bird also will sound the alarm, and strike at cats when they climb on the roofs of houses, or otherwise approach the nests. Each species of hirundo drinks as it flies along, sipping the surface of the water; but the swallow alone, in general, washes on the wing, by dropping into a pool for many times together: in very hot weather house-martins and bank-martins dip and wash a little.
The swallow is a delicate songster, and in soft sunny weather sings both perching and flying: on trees in a kind of concert, and on chimney tops: is also a bold flyer, ranging to distant downs and commons even in windy weather, which the other species seem much to dislike; nay, even frequenting exposed seaport towns, and making little excursions over the salt water. Horsemen on wide downs are often closely attended by a little party of swallows for miles together, which plays before and behind them, sweeping around them, and collecting all the sculking insects that are roused by the trampling of the horses' feet: when the wind blows hard, without this expedient, they are often forced to settle to pick up their lurking prey.
This species feeds much on little Coleoptera, as well as on gnats and flies; and often settles on dug ground, or paths, for gravels to grind and digest its food. Before they depart, for some weeks, to a bird, they forsake houses and chimneys, and roost in trees; and usually withdraw about the beginning of October; though some few stragglers may appear on at times till the first week in November.
Some few pairs haunt the new and open streets of London next the fields, but do not enter, like the house-martin, the close and crowded parts of the city.
Both male and female are distinguished from their congeners by the length and forkedness of their tails. They are undoubtedly the most nimble of all the species: and when the male pursues the female in amorous chase they then go beyond their usual speed, and exert a rapidity almost too quick for the eye to follow.
After this circumstantial detail of the life and discerning [Greek text] of the swallow, I shall add, for your farther amusement, an anecdote or two not much in favour of her sagacity:—
A certain swallow built for two years together on the handles of a pair of garden-shears, that were stuck up against the boards in an out-house, and therefore must have her nest spoiled whenever that implement was wanted: and, what is stranger still, another bird of the same species built its nest on the wings and body of an owl, that happened by accident to hang dead and dry from the rafter of a barn. This owl, with the nest on its wings, and with eggs in the nest, was brought as a curiosity worthy the most elegant private museum in Great Britain. The owner, struck with the oddity of the sight, furnished the bringer with a large shell, or conch, desiring him to fix it just where the owl hung: the person did as he was ordered, and the following year a pair, probably the same pair, built their nest in the conch, and laid their eggs.
The owl and the conch make a strange grotesque appearance, and are not the least curious specimens in that wonderful collection of art and nature.
Thus is instinct in animals, taken the least out of its way, an undistinguishing, limited faculty; and blind to every circumstance that does not immediately respect self-preservation, or lead at once to the propagation or support of their species.
I am, with all respect, etc., etc.
SELBORNE, Feb. 14th, 1774.
Dear Sir,—I received your favour of the 8th, and am pleased to find that you read my little history of the swallow with your usual candour; nor was I the less pleased to find that you made objections where you saw reason.
As to the quotations, it is difficult to say precisely which species of hirundo Virgil might intend in the lines in question, since the ancients did not attend to specific differences like modern naturalists; yet somewhat may be gathered, enough to incline me to suppose that in the two passages quoted the poet had his eye on the swallow.
In the first place the epithet garrula suits the swallow well, who is a great songster, and not the martin, which is rather a mute bird; and when it sings is so inward as scarce to be heard. Besides, if tignum in that place signifies a rafter rather than a beam, as it seems to me to do, then I think it must be the swallow that is alluded to, and not the martin, since the former does frequently build within the roof against the rafters, while the latter always, as far as I have been able to observe, builds without the roof against eaves and cornices.
As to the simile, too much stress must not be laid on it, yet the epithet nigra speaks plainly in favour of the swallow, whose back and wings are very black, while the rump of the martin is milk-white, its back and wings blue, and all its under part white as snow. Nor can the clumsy motions (comparatively clumsy) of the martin well represent the sudden and artful evolutions and quick turns which Juturna gave to her brother's chariot, so as to elude the eager pursuit of the enraged AEneas. The verb sonat also seems to imply a bird that is somewhat loquacious.
We have had a very wet autumn and winter, so as to raise the springs to a pitch beyond anything since 1764, which was a remarkable year for floods and high waters. The land-springs which we call lavants, break out much on the downs of Sussex, Hampshire and Wiltshire. The country people say when the lavants rise corn will always be dear; meaning that when the earth is so glutted with water as to send forth springs on the downs and uplands, that the corn-vales must be drowned; and so it has proved for these ten or eleven years past. For land-springs have never obtained more since the memory of man than during that period; nor has there been known a greater scarcity of all sorts of grain, considering the great improvements of modern husbandry. Such a run of wet seasons a century or two ago would, I am persuaded, have occasioned a famine. Therefore pamphlets and newspaper letters, that talk of combinations, tend to inflame and mislead; since we must not expect plenty till Providence sends us more favourable seasons.
The wheat of last year, all round this district, and in the county of Rutland, and elsewhere, yields remarkably bad, and our wheat on the ground, by the continual late sudden vicissitudes from fierce frost to pouring rains, looks poorly, and the turnips rot very fast.
I am, etc.
SELBORNE, Feb. 26th, 1774.
Dear Sir,—The sand-martin, or bank-martin, is by much the least of any of the British hirundines, and as far as we have ever seen, the smallest known hirundo; though Brisson asserts that there is one much smaller, and that is the hirundo esculenta.
But it is much to be regretted that it is scarce possible for any observer to be so full and exact as he could wish in reciting the circumstances attending the life and conversation of this little bird, since it is fera natura, at least in this part of the kingdom, disclaiming all domestic attachments, and haunting wild heaths and commons where there are large lakes; while the other species, especially the swallow and house-martin, are remarkably gentle and domesticated, and never seem to think themselves safe but under the protection of man.
Here are in this parish, in the sand-pits and banks of the lakes of Wolmer forest, several colonies of these birds, and yet they are never seen in the village, nor do they at all frequent the cottages that are scattered about in that wild district. The only instance I ever remember where this species haunts any building, is at the town of Bishop's Waltham, in this county, where many sand-martins nestle and breed in the scaffold-holes of the back wall of William of Wykeham's stables; but then this wall stands in a very sequestered and retired enclosure, and faces upon a large and beautiful lake. And indeed this species seems so to delight in large waters, that no instance occurs of their abounding, but near vast pools or rivers; and in particular it has been remarked that they swarm in the banks of the Thames in some places below London-bridge.
It is curious to observe with what different degrees of architectonic skill Providence has endowed birds of the same genus, and so nearly correspondent in their general mode of life; for while the swallow and the house-martin discover the greatest address in raising and securely fixing crusts or shells of loam as cunabula for their young, the bank- martin terebrates a round and regular hole in the sand or earth, which is serpentine, horizontal, and about two feet deep. At the inner end of this burrow does this bird deposit, in a good degree of safety, her rude nest, consisting of fine grasses and feathers, usually goose-feathers, very inartificially laid together.
Perseverance will accomplish anything, though at first one would be disinclined to believe that this weak bird, with her soft and tender bill and claws, should ever be able to bore the stubborn sand-bank without entirely disabling herself; yet with these feeble instruments have I seen a pair of them make great despatch, and could remark how much they had scooped that day, by the fresh sand which ran down the bank, and was of a different colour from that which lay loose and bleached in the sun.
In what space of time these little artists are able to mine and finish these cavities I have not been able to discover, for reasons given above; but it would be a matter worthy of observation, where it falls in the way of any naturalist to make his remarks. This I have often taken notice of, that several holes of different depths are left unfinished at the end of summer. To imagine that these beginnings were intentionally made in order to be in the greater forwardness for next spring, is allowing perhaps too much foresight and rerum prudentia to a simple bird. May not the cause of these latebroe being left unfinished arise from their meeting in those places with strata too harsh, hard, and solid, for their purpose, which they relinquish, and go to a fresh spot that works more freely? Or may they not in other places fall in with a soil as much too loose and mouldering, liable to flounder, and threatening to overwhelm them and their labours?
One thing is remarkable—that, after some years, the old holes are forsaken and new ones bored; perhaps because the old habitations grow foul and fetid from long use, or because they may so abound with fleas as to become untenantable. This species of swallow, moreover, is strangely annoyed with fleas; and we have seen fleas, bed-fleas (pulex irritans), swarming at the mouths of these holes, like bees on the stools of their hives.
The following circumstance should by no means be omitted—that these birds do not make use of their caverns by way of hybernacula, as might be expected; since banks so perforated have been dug out with care in the winter, when nothing was found but empty nests.
The sand-martin arrives much about the same time with the swallow, and lays, as she does, from four to six white eggs. But as this species is cryptogame, carrying on the business of nidification, incubation, and the support of its young in the dark, it would not be so easy to ascertain the time of breeding, were it not for the coming forth of the broods, which appear much about the time, or rather somewhat earlier than those of the swallow. The nestlings are supported in common like those of their congeners, with gnats and other small insects, and sometimes they are fed with libelluloe (dragon-flies) almost as long as themselves. In the last week in June we have seen a row of these sitting on a rail near a great pool as perchers, and so young and helpless, as easily to be taken by hand; but whether the dams ever feed them on the wing, as swallows and house-martins do, we have never yet been able to determine, nor do we know whether they pursue and attack birds of prey.
When they happen to breed near hedges and enclosures, they are dispossessed of their breeding holes by the house-sparrow, which is on the same account a fell adversary to house-martins.
These hirundines are no songsters, but rather mute, making only a little harsh noise when a person approaches their nest. They seem not to be of a sociable turn, never with us congregating with their congeners in the autumn. Undoubtedly they breed a second time, like the house-martin and swallow; and withdraw about Michaelmas.
Though in some particular districts they may happen to abound, yet in the whole, in the south of England at least, is this much the rarest species. For there are few towns or large villages but what abound with house-martins; few churches, towers, or steeples, but what are haunted by some swifts; scarce a hamlet or single cottage-chimney that has not its swallow; while the bank-martins, scattered here and there, live a sequestered life among some abrupt sand-hills, and in the banks of some few rivers.
These birds have a peculiar manner of flying; flitting about with odd jerks, and vacillations, not unlike the motions of a butterfly. Doubtless the flight of all hirundines is influenced by, and adapted to, the peculiar sort of insects which furnish their food. Hence it would be worth inquiry to examine what particular genus of insects affords the principal food of each respective species of swallow.
Notwithstanding what has been advanced above, some few sand-martins, I see, haunt the skirts of London, frequenting the dirty pools in Saint George's Fields, and about Whitechapel. The question is where these build, since there are no banks or bold shores in that neighbourhood; perhaps they nestle in the scaffold holes of some old or new deserted building. They dip and wash as they fly sometimes, like the house-martin and swallow.
Sand-martins differ from their congeners in the diminutiveness of their size, and in their colour, which is what is usually called a mouse-colour. Near Valencia, in Spain, they are taken, says Willughby, and sold in the markets for the table; and are called by the country people, probably from their desultory jerking manner of flight, Papilion de Montagna.
SELBORNE, Sept. 28th, 1774.
Dear Sir,—As the swift or black-martin is the largest of the British hirundines, so it is undoubtedly the latest comer. For I remember but one instance of its appearing before the last week in April; and in some of our late frosty, harsh springs, it has not been seen till the beginning of May. This species usually arrives in pairs.
The swift, like the sand-martin, is very defective in architecture, making no crust, or shell, for its nest; but forming it of dry grasses and feathers, very rudely and inartificially put together. With all my attention to these birds, I have never been able once to discover one in the act of collecting or carrying in materials; so that I have suspected (since their nests are exactly the same) that they sometimes usurp upon the house-sparrows, and expel them, as sparrows do the house and sand- martin; well remembering that I have seen them squabbling together at the entrance of their holes; and the sparrows up in arms, and much disconcerted at these intruders. And yet I am assured, by a nice observer in such matters, that they do collect feathers for their nests in Andalusia, and that he has shot them with such materials in their mouths.
Swifts, like sand-martins, carry on the business of nidification quite in the dark, in crannies of castles and towers, and steeples, and upon the tops of the walls of churches under the roof; and therefore cannot be so narrowly watched as those species that build more openly; but, from what I could ever observe, they begin nesting about the middle of May; and I have remarked, from eggs taken, that they have sat hard by the 9th June. In general they haunt tall buildings, churches, and steeples, and breed only in such; yet in this village some pairs frequent the lowest and meanest cottages, and educate their young under those thatched roofs. We remember but one instance where they breed out of buildings, and that is in the sides of a deep chalk-pit near the town of Odiham, in this county, where we have seen many pairs entering the crevices, and skimming and squeaking round the precipices.
As I have regarded these amusive birds with no small attention, if I should advance something new and peculiar with respect to them, and different from all other birds, I might perhaps be credited; especially as my assertion is the result of many years' exact observation. The fact that I would advance is, that swifts tread, or propagate, on the wing; and I would wish any nice observer, that is startled at this supposition, to use his own eyes, and I think he will soon be convinced. In another class of animals, viz. the insect, nothing is so common as to see the different species of many genera in conjunction as they fly. The swift is almost continually on the wing; and as it never settles on the ground, on trees, or roofs, would seldom find opportunity for amorous rites, was it not enabled to indulge them in the air. If any person would watch these birds of a fine morning in May, as they are sailing round at a great height from the ground, he would see every now and then, one drop on the back of another, and both of them sink down together for many fathoms with a loud piercing shriek. This I take to be the juncture when the business of generation is carrying on.
As the swift eats, drinks, collects materials for its nest, and, as it seems, propagates on the wing, it appears to live more in the air than any other bird, and to perform all functions there save those of sleeping and incubation.
This hirundo differs widely from its congeners in laying invariably but two eggs at a time, which are milk-white, long, and peaked at the small end; whereas the other species lay at each brood from four to six. It is a most alert bird, rising very early, and retiring to roost very late; and is on the wing in the height of summer at least sixteen hours. In the longest days it does not withdraw to rest till a quarter before nine in the evening, being the latest of all day-birds. Just before they retire whole groups of them assemble high in the air, and squeak, and shoot about with wonderful rapidity. But this bird is never so much alive as in sultry thundery weather, when it expresses great alacrity, and calls forth all its powers. In hot mornings several, getting together in little parties, dash round the steeples and churches, squeaking as they go in a very clamorous manner; these, by nice observers, are supposed to be males serenading their sitting hens; and not without reason, since they seldom squeak till they come close to the walls or eaves, and since those within utter at the same time a little inward note of complacency.
When the hen has sat hard all day, she rushes forth just as it is almost dark, and stretches and relieves her weary limbs, and snatches a scanty meal for a few minutes, and then returns to her duty of incubation. Swifts, when wantonly and cruelly shot while they have young, discover a little lump of insects in their mouths, which they pouch and hold under their tongue. In general they feed in a much higher district than the other species—a proof that gnats and other insects do also abound to a considerable height in the air; they also range to vast distances, since locomotion is no labour to them who are endowed with such wonderful powers of wing. Their powers seem to be in proportion to their levers, and their wings are longer in proportion than those of almost any other bird. When they mute, or ease themselves in flight, they raise their wings, and make them meet over their backs.
At some certain times in the summer I had remarked that swifts were hawking very low for hours together over pools and streams, and could not help inquiring into the object of their pursuit that induced them to descend so much below their usual range. After some trouble, I found that they were taking phryganeae, ephemerae, and libellulae (cadew- flies, may-flies, and dragon-flies), that were just emerged out of their aurelia state. I then no longer wondered that they should be so willing to stoop for a prey that afforded them such plentiful and succulent nourishment.
They bring out their young about the middle or latter end of July: but as these never become perchers, nor, that ever I could discern, are fed on the wing by their dams, the coming forth of the young is not so notorious as in the other species.
On the 30th of last June I untiled the eaves of a house where many pairs build, and found in each nest only two squab, naked pulli; on the 8th July I repeated the same inquiry, and found that they had made very little progress towards a fledged state, but were still naked and helpless. From whence we may conclude that birds whose way of life keeps them perpetually on the wing would not be able to quit their nest till the end of the month. Swallows and martins, that have numerous families, are continually feeding them every two or three minutes, while swifts, that have but two young to maintain, are much at their leisure, and do not attend on their nest for hours together.
Sometimes they pursue and strike at hawks that come in their way, but not with that vehemence and fury that swallows express on the same occasion. They are out all day long in wet days, feeding about, and disregarding still rain: from whence two things may he gathered; first, that many insects abide high in the air, even in rain; and next, that the feathers of these birds must be well preened to resist so much wet. Windy, and particularly windy weather with heavy showers, they dislike, and on such days withdraw, and are scarce ever seen.
There is a circumstance respecting the colour of swifts which seems not to be unworthy of our attention. When they arrive in the spring, they are all over of a glossy, dark soot-colour, except their chins, which are white; but, by being all day long in the sun and air, they become quite weather-beaten and bleached before they depart, and yet they return glossy again in the spring. Now, if they pursue the sun into lower latitudes, as some suppose, in order to enjoy a perpetual summer, why do they not return bleached? Do they not rather perhaps retire to rest for a season, and at that juncture moult and change their feathers, since all other birds are known to moult soon after the season of breeding?
Swifts are very anomalous in many particulars, dissenting from all their congeners not only in the number of their young, but in breeding but once in a summer, whereas all the other British hirundines breed invariably twice. It is past all doubt that swifts can breed but once, since they withdraw in a short time after the flight of their young, and some time before their congeners bring out their second broods. We may here remark that, as swifts breed but once in a summer, and only two at a time, and the other hirundines twice, the latter, who lay from four to six eggs, increase at an average five times as fast as the former.
But in nothing are swifts more singular than in their early retreat. They retire, as to the main body of them, by the 10th August, and sometimes a few days sooner; and every straggler invariably withdraws by the 20th, while their congeners, all of them, stay till the beginning of October—many of them all through that month, and some occasionally to the beginning of November. This early retreat is mysterious and wonderful, since that time is often the sweetest season in the year. But what is more extraordinary, they begin to retire still earlier in the most southerly parts of Andalusia, where they can be in no ways influenced by any defect of heat, or, as one might suppose, failure of food. Are they regulated in their motions with us by a defect of food, or by a propensity to moulting, or by a disposition to rest after so rapid a life, or by what? This is one of those incidents in natural history that not only baffles our searches, but almost eludes our guesses!
These hirundines never perch on trees or roofs, and so never congregate with their congeners. They are fearless while haunting their nesting- places, and are not to be scared with a gun, and are often beaten down with poles and cudgels as they stoop to go under the eaves. Swifts are much infested with those pests to the genus called hippoboscoe hirundinis; and often wriggle and scratch themselves in their flight to get rid of that clinging annoyance.
Swifts are no songsters, and have only one harsh screaming note; yet there are ears to which it is not displeasing, from an agreeable association of ideas, since that note never occurs but in the most lovely summer weather.
They never can settle on the ground but through accident, and, when down, can hardly rise, on account of the shortness of their legs and the length of their wings; neither can they walk, but only crawl; but they have a strong grasp with their feet, by which they cling to walls. Their bodies being flat they can enter a very narrow crevice; and where they cannot pass on their bellies they will turn up edgewise.
The particular formation of the foot discriminates the swift from all the British hirundines; and, indeed from all other known birds, the hirundo melba, or great white-bellied swift of Gibraltar, excepted; for it is so disposed as to carry "omnes quatuor digitos anticos"—all its four toes forward; besides, the least toe, which should be the back toe, consists of one bone alone, and the other three only of two apiece,—a construction most rare and peculiar, but nicely adapted to the purposes in which their feet are employed. This and some peculiarities attending the nostrils and under mandible have induced a discerning naturalist to suppose that this species might constitute a genus per se.
In London a party of swifts frequents the Tower, playing and feeding over the river just below the bridge; others haunt some of the churches of the Borough, next the fields, but do not venture, like the house-martin, into the close crowded part of the town.
The Swedes have bestowed a very pertinent name on this swallow, calling it "ring swala," from the perpetual rings or circles that it takes round the scene of its nidification.
Swifts feed on coleoptera, or small beetles with hard cases over their wings, as well as on the softer insects, but it does not appear how they can procure gravel to grind their food, as swallows do, since they never settle on the ground. Young ones, over-run with hippoboscoe, are sometimes found under their nests, fallen to the ground, the number of vermin rendering their abode insupportable any longer. They frequent in this village several abject cottages; yet a succession still haunts the same unlikely roofs—a good proof this that the same birds return to the same spots. As they must stoop very low to get up under these humble eaves, cats lie in wait, and sometimes catch them on the wing.
On July 5th, 1775, I again untiled part of a roof over the nest of a swift. The dam sat in the nest, but so strongly was she affected by natural [Greek text] for her brood, which she supposed to be in danger, that, regardless of her own safety, she would not stir, but lay sullenly by them, permitting herself to be taken in hand. The squab young we brought down and placed on the grass-plot, where they tumbled about, and were as helpless as a new-born child. While we contemplated their naked bodies, their unwieldy disproportioned abdomina, and their heads, too heavy for their necks to support, we could not but wonder when we reflected that these shiftless beings in a little more than a fortnight would be able to dash through the air almost with the inconceivable swiftness of a meteor, and perhaps in their emigration must traverse vast continents and oceans as distant as the equator. So soon does Nature advance small birds to their [Greek text], or state of perfection, while the progressive growth of men and large quadrupeds is slow and tedious!
I am, etc.
SELBORNE, Sept. 13th, 1774.
Dear Sir,—By means of a straight cottage chimney I had an opportunity this summer of remarking, at my leisure, how swallows ascend and descend through the shaft; but my pleasure in contemplating the address with which this feat was performed to a considerable depth in the chimney was somewhat interrupted by apprehensions lest my eyes might undergo the same fate with those of Tobit.
Perhaps it may be some amusement to you to hear at what times the different species of hirundines arrived this spring in three very distant counties of this kingdom. With us the swallow was seen first on April 4th, the swift on April 24th, the bank-martin on April 12th, and the house-martin not till April 30th. At South Zele, Devonshire, swallows did not arrive till April 25th, swifts in plenty on May 1st, and house- martins not till the middle of May. At Blackburn, in Lancashire, swifts were seen April 28th, swallows April 29th, house-martins May 1st. Do these different dates, in such distant districts, prove anything for or against migration?
A farmer near Weyhill fallows his land with two teams of asses, one of which works till noon, and the other in the afternoon. When these animals have done their work, they are penned all night, like sheep, on the fallow. In the winter they are confined and foddered in a yard, and make plenty of dung.
Linnaeus says that hawks "paciscuntur inducia scum avibus, quamdiu cuculus cuculat;" but it appears to me that during that period many little birds are taken and destroyed by birds of prey, as may be seen by their feathers left in lanes and under hedges.
The missel-thrush is, while breeding, fierce and pugnacious, driving such birds as approach its nest with great fury to a distance. The Welsh call it "pen y llwyn," the head or master of the coppice. He suffers no magpie, jay, or blackbird, to enter the garden where he haunts, and is, for the time, a good guard to the new-sown legumens. In general he is very successful in the defence of his family; but once I observed in my garden that several magpies came determined to storm the nest of a missel- thrush: the dams defended their mansion with great vigour, and fought resolutely pro aris et focis; but numbers at last prevailed, they tore the nest to pieces, and swallowed the young alive.
In the season of nidification the wildest birds are comparatively tame. Thus the ring-dove breeds in my fields, though they are continually frequented; and the missel-thrush, though most shy and wild in the autumn and winter, builds in my garden close to a walk where people are passing all day long.
Wall-fruit abounds with me this year; but my grapes, that used to be forward and good, are at present backward beyond all precedent; and this is not the worst of the story; for the same ungenial weather, the same black cold solstice, has injured the more necessary fruits of the earth, and discoloured and blighted our wheat. The crop of hops promises to be very large.
Frequent returns of deafness incommode me sadly, and half disqualify me for a naturalist; for, when those fits are upon me, I lose all the pleasing notices and little intimations arising from rural sounds; and May is to me as silent and mute with respect to the notes of birds, etc., as August. My eyesight is, thank God, quick and good; but with respect to the other sense, I am, at times, disabled:
"And Wisdom at one entrance quite shut out."
SELBORNE, June 8th, 1775.
Dear Sir,—On September 21st, 1741, being then on a visit, and intent on field-diversions, I rose before daybreak: when I came into the enclosures, I found the stubbles and clover-grounds matted all over with a thick coat of cobweb, in the meshes of which a copious and heavy dew hung so plentifully that the whole face of the country seemed, as it were, covered with two or three setting-nets drawn one over another. When the dogs attempted to hunt, their eyes were so blinded and hoodwinked that they could not proceed, but were obliged to lie down and scrape the incumbrances from their faces with their fore-feet, so that, finding my sport interrupted, I returned home musing in my mind on the oddness of the occurrence.
As the morning advanced the sun became bright and warm, and the day turned out one of those most lovely ones which no season but the autumn produces; cloudless, calm, serene, and worthy of the South of France itself.
About nine an appearance very unusual began to demand our attention, a shower of cobwebs falling from very elevated regions, and continuing, without any interruption, till the close of the day. These webs were not single filmy threads, floating in the air in all directions, but perfect flakes or rags; some near an inch broad, and five or six long, which fell with a degree of velocity that showed they were considerably heavier than the atmosphere.
On every side as the observer turned his eyes might he behold a continual succession of fresh flakes falling into his sight, and twinkling like stars as they turned their sides towards the sun.
How far this wonderful shower extended would be difficult to say; but we know that it reached Bradley, Selborne, and Alresford, three places which lie in a sort of a triangle, the shortest of whose sides is about eight miles in extent.
At the second of those places there was a gentleman (for whose veracity and intelligent turn we have the greatest veneration) who observed it the moment he got abroad; but concluded that, as soon as he came upon the hill above his house, where he took his morning rides, he should be higher than this meteor which he imagined might have been blown, like thistledown, from the common above; but, to his great astonishment, when he rode to the most elevated part of the down, three hundred feet above his fields, he found the webs in appearance still as much above him as before; still descending into sight in a constant succession, and twinkling in the sun, so as to draw the attention of the most incurious.
Neither before nor after was any such fall observed; but on this day the flakes hung in the trees and hedges so thick that a diligent person sent out might have gathered baskets full.
The remark that I shall make on these cobweb-like appearances, called gossamer, is, that, strange and superstitious as the notions about them were formerly, nobody in these days doubts but that they are the real production of small spiders, which swarm in the fields in fine weather in autumn, and have a power of shooting out webs from their tails so as to render themselves buoyant, and lighter than air. But why these apterous insects should that day take such a wonderful aerial excursion, and why their webs should at once become so gross and material as to be considerably more weighty than air, and to descend with precipitation, is a matter beyond my skill. If I might be allowed to hazard a supposition, I should imagine that those filmy threads, when first shot, might be entangled in the rising dew, and so drawn up, spiders and all, by a brisk evaporation, into the regions where clouds are formed: and if the spiders have a power of coiling and thickening their webs in the air, as Dr. Lister says they have [see his Letters to Mr. Ray], then, when they were become heavier than the air, they must fall.
Every day in fine weather, in autumn chiefly, do I see those spiders shooting out their webs and mounting aloft: they will go off from your finger if you will take them into your hand. Last summer one alighted on my book as I was reading in the parlour; and, running to the top of the page, and shooting out a web, took its departure from thence. But what I most wondered at was, that it went off with considerable velocity in a place where no air was stirring; and I am sure that I did not assist it with my breath. So that these little crawlers seem to have, while mounting, some locomotive power without the use of wings, and to move in the air faster than the air itself.
SELBORNE, Aug. 15th, 1775.
Dear Sir,—There is a wonderful spirit of sociality in the brute creation, independent of sexual attachment: the congregating of gregarious birds in the winter is a remarkable instance.
Many horses, though quiet with company, will not stay one minute in a field by themselves: the strongest fences cannot restrain them. My neighbour's horse will not only not stay by himself abroad, but he will not bear to be left alone in a strange stable without discovering the utmost impatience, and endeavouring to break the rack and manger with his fore feet. He has been known to leap out at a stable-window, through which dung was thrown, after company; and yet in other respects is remarkably quiet. Oxen and cows will not fatten by themselves; but will neglect the finest pasture that is not recommended by society. It would be needless to instance sheep, which constantly flock together.
But this propensity seems not to be confined to animals of the same species; for we know a doe, still alive, that was brought up from a little fawn with a dairy of cows; with them it goes a-field, and with them it returns to the yard. The dogs of the house take no notice of this deer, being used to her; but, if strange dogs come by, a chase ensues; while the master smiles to see his favourite securely leading her pursuers over hedge, or gate, or stile, till she returns to the cows, who, with fierce lowings and menacing horns, drive the assailants quite out of the pasture.
Even great disparity of kind and size does not always prevent social advances and mutual fellowship. For a very intelligent and observant person has assured me that, in the former part of his life, keeping but one horse, he happened also on a time to have but one solitary hen, These two incongruous animals spent much of their time together in a lonely orchard, where they saw no creature but each other. By degrees an apparent regard began to take place between these two sequestered individuals. The fowl would approach the quadruped with notes of complacency, rubbing herself gently against his legs; while the horse would look down with satisfaction, and move with the greatest caution and circumspection, lest he should trample on his diminutive companion. Thus, by mutual good offices, each seemed to console the vacant hours of the other: so that Milton, when he puts the following sentiment in the mouth of Adam, seems to be somewhat mistaken:
"Much less can bird with beast, or fish with fowl, So well converse, nor with the ox the ape."
I am, etc.
SELBORNE, Oct. 2nd, 1775.
Dear Sir,—We have two gangs or hordes of gypsies which infest the south and west of England, and come round in their circuit two or three times in the year. One of these tribes calls itself by the noble name of Stanley, of which I have nothing particular to say; but the other is distinguished by an appellative somewhat remarkable. As far as their harsh gibberish can be understood, they seem to say that the name of their clan is Curleople; now the termination of this word is apparently Grecian, and as Mezeray and the gravest historians all agree that these vagrants did certainly migrate from Egypt and the East, two or three centuries ago, and so spread by degrees over Europe, may not this family- name, a little corrupted, be the very name they brought with them from the Levant? It would be matter of some curiosity, could one meet with an intelligent person among them, to inquire whether, in their jargon, they still retain any Greek words; the Greek radicals will appear in hand, foot, head, water, earth, etc. It is possible that amidst their cant and corrupted dialect many mutilated remains of their native language might still be discovered.
With regard to those peculiar people, the gypsies, one thing is very remarkable, and especially as they came from warmer climates; and that is, that while other beggars lodge in barns, stables, and cow-houses, these sturdy savages seem to pride themselves in braving the severities of winter, and in living sub dio the whole year round. Last September was as wet a month as ever was known; and yet during those deluges did a young gipsy girl lie in the midst of one of our hop-gardens, on the cold ground, with nothing over her but a piece of a blanket extended on a few hazel-rods bent hoop-fashion, and stuck into the earth at each end, in circumstances too trying for a cow in the same condition; yet within this garden there was a large hop-kiln, into the chambers of which she might have retired, had she thought shelter an object worthy her attention.
Europe itself, it seems, cannot set bounds to the rovings of these vagabonds; for Mr. Bell, in his return from Peking, met a gang of those people on the confines of Tartary, who were endeavouring to penetrate those deserts, and try their fortune in China.
Gypsies are called in French, Bohemians; in Italian and modern Greek, Zingari.
I am, etc.
SELBORNE, Nov. 1st, 1775.
"Hic . . . taedae pingues, hic plurimus ignis Semper, et assidua postes fuligine nigri."
Dear Sir,—I shall make no apology for troubling you with the detail of a very simple piece of domestic economy, being satisfied that you think nothing beneath your attention that tends to utility; the matter alluded to is the use of rushes instead of candles, which I am well aware prevails in many districts besides this; but as I know there are countries also where it does not obtain, and as I have considered the subject with some degree of exactness, I shall proceed in my humble story, and leave you to judge of the expediency.
The proper species of rush for this purpose seems to be the juncus effusus, or common soft rush, which is to be found in most moist pastures, by the sides of streams, and under hedges. These rushes are in best condition in the height of summer; but may be gathered, so as to serve the purpose well, quite on to autumn. It would be needless to add that the largest and longest are best. Decayed labourers, women, and children, make it their business to procure and prepare them. As soon as they are cut, they must be flung into water, and kept there, for otherwise they will dry and shrink, and the peel will not run. At first a person would find it no easy matter to divest a rush of its peel or rind, so as to leave one regular, narrow, even rib from top to bottom that may support the pith; but this, like other feats, soon becomes familiar, even to children; and we have seen an old woman, stone blind, performing this business with great despatch, and seldom failing to strip them with the nicest regularity. When these junci are thus far prepared, they must lie out on the grass to be bleached, and take the dew for some nights, and afterwards be dried in the sun.
Some address is required in dipping these rushes in the scalding fat or grease; but this knack also is to be attained by practice. The careful wife of an industrious Hampshire labourer obtains all her fat for nothing; for she saves the scummings of her bacon-pot for this use; and, if the grease abounds with salt, she causes the salt to precipitate to the bottom, by setting the scummings in a warm oven. Where hogs are not much in use, and especially by the seaside, the coarser animal-oils will come very cheap. A pound of common grease may be procured for fourpence, and about six pounds of grease will dip a pound of rushes, and one pound of rushes may be bought for one shilling; so that a pound of rushes medicated and ready for use, will cost three shillings. If men that keep bees will mix a little wax with the grease, it will give it a consistency, and render it more cleanly, and make the rushes burn longer; mutton-suet would have the same effect.
A good rush, which measured in length two feet four inches and a half, being minuted, burnt only three minutes short of an hour; and a rush of still greater length has been known to burn one hour and a quarter.
These rushes give a good clear light. Watch-lights (coated with tallow), it is true, shed a dismal one, "darkness visible;" but then the wick of those have two ribs of the rind, or peel, to support the pith, while the wick of the dipped rush has but one. The two ribs are intended to impede the progress of the flame and make the candle last.
In a pound of dry rushes, avoirdupois, which I caused to be weighed and numbered, we found upwards of one thousand six hundred individuals. Now suppose each of these burns, one with another, only half an hour, then a poor man will purchase eight hundred hours of light, a time exceeding thirty-three entire days, for three shillings. According to this account each rush, before dipping costs 1/33 of a farthing, and 1/11 afterwards. Thus a poor family will enjoy five and a half hours of comfortable light for farthing. An experienced old housekeeper assures me that one pound and a half of rushes completely supplies his family the year round, since working people burn no candles in the long days, because they rise and go to bed by daylight.
Little farmers use rushes much in the short days, both morning and evening, in the dairy and kitchen; but the very poor, who are always the worst economists, and therefore must continue very poor, buy a halfpenny candle every evening, which in their blowing open rooms does not burn much more than two hours. Thus have they only two hours' light for their money instead of eleven.
While on the subject of rural economy, it may not be improper to mention a pretty implement of housewifery that we have seen nowhere else; that is, little neat besoms which our foresters make from the stalks of the polytricum commune, or great golden maidenhair, which they call silk- wood, and find plenty in the bogs. When this moss is well combed and dressed, and divested of its outer skin, it becomes of a beautiful bright- chestnut colour; and, being soft and pliant, is very proper for the dusting of beds, curtains, carpets, hangings, etc. If these besoms were known to the brushmakers in town, it is probable they might come much in use for the purpose above mentioned.
I am, etc.
SELBORNE, Dec. 12th, 1775.
Dear Sir,—We had in this village more than twenty years ago an idiot boy, whom I well remember, who, from a child, showed a strong propensity to bees; they were his food, his amusement, his sole object. And as people of this caste have seldom more than one point in view, so this lad exerted all his few faculties on this one pursuit. In the winter he dozed away his time, within his father's house, by the fireside, in a kind of torpid state, seldom departing from the chimney-corner; but in the summer he was all alert, and in quest of his game in the fields, and on sunny banks. Honey-bees, humble-bees, and wasps, were his prey wherever he found them; he had no apprehensions from their stings, but would seize them nudis manibus, and at once disarm them of their weapons, and suck their bodies for the sake of their honey-bags. Sometimes he would fill his bosom between his shirt and his skin with a number of these captives, and sometimes would confine them in bottles. He was a very merops apiaster, or bee-bird, and very injurious to men that kept bees; for he would slide into their bee-gardens, and, sitting down before the stools would rap with his finger on the hives, and so take the bees as they came out. He has been known to overturn hives for the sake of honey, of which he was passionately fond. Where metheglin was making he would linger round the tubs and vessels, begging a draught of what he called bee-wine. As he ran about he used to make a humming noise with his lips, resembling the buzzing of bees. This lad was lean and sallow, and of a cadaverous complexion; and, except in his favourite pursuit, in which he was wonderfully adroit, discovered no manner of understanding. Had his capacity been better, and directed to the same object, he had perhaps abated much of our wonder at the feats of a more modern exhibitor of bees; and we may justly say of him now,—
" . . . Thou, Had thy presiding star propitious shone, Shouldst Wildman be . . . "
When a tall youth he was removed from hence to a distant village, where he died, as I understand, before he arrived at manhood.
I am, etc.
SELBORNE, Jan. 8th, 1776.
Dear Sir,—It is the hardest thing in the world to shake off superstitious prejudices: they are sucked in, as it were, with our mother's milk; and growing up with us at a time when they take the fastest hold and make the most lasting impressions, become so interwoven into our very constitutions, that the strongest good sense is required to disengage ourselves from them. No wonder, therefore, that the lower people retain them their whole lives through, since their minds are not invigorated by a liberal education, and therefore not enabled to make any efforts adequate to the occasion.
Such a preamble seems to be necessary before we enter on the superstitions of this district, lest we should be suspected of exaggeration in a recital of practices too gross for this enlightened age.
But the people of Tring, in Hertfordshire, would do well to remember that no longer ago than the year 1751, and within twenty miles of the capital, they seized on two superannuated wretches, crazed with age, and overwhelmed with infirmities, on a suspicion of witchcraft; and, by trying experiments, drowned them in a horse-pond.
In a farm-yard near the middle of this village stands at this day, a row of pollard-ashes, which by the seams and long cicatrices down their sides, manifestly show that, in former times, they have been cleft asunder. These trees when young and flexible, were severed and held open by wedges, while ruptured children, stripped naked, were pushed through the apertures, under a persuasion that, by such a process, the poor babes would be cured of their infirmity. As soon as the operation was over, the tree, in the suffering part, was plastered with loam, and carefully swathed up. If the parts coalesced and soldered together, as usually fell out, where the feat was performed with any adroitness at all, the party was cured; but, where the cleft continued to gape, the operation it was supposed, would prove ineffectual. Having occasion to enlarge my garden not long since, I cut down two or three such trees, one of which did not grow together.
We have several persons now living in the village who, in their childhood, were supposed to be healed by this superstitious ceremony, derived down perhaps from our Saxon ancestors, who practised it before their conversion to Christianity.
At the fourth corner of the Plestor, or area, near the church, there stood, about twenty years ago, a very old grotesque hollow pollard-ash, which for ages had been looked on with no small veneration as a shrew- ash. Now a shrew-ash is an ash whose twigs or branches, when gently applied to the limbs of cattle, will immediately relieve the pains which a beast suffers from the running of a shrew-mouse over the part affected; for it is supposed that a shrew-mouse is of so baneful and deleterious a nature, that wherever it creeps over a beast, be it horse, cow, or sheep, the suffering animal is afflicted with cruel anguish, and threatened with the loss of the use of the limb. Against this accident, to which they were continually liable, our provident forefathers always kept a shrew- ash at hand, which when once medicated, would maintain its virtue for ever. A shrew-ash was made thus:—Into the body of the tree a deep hole was bored with an auger, and a poor devoted shrew-mouse was thrust in alive, and plugged in, no doubt, with several quaint incantations long since forgotten. As the ceremonies necessary for such a consecration are no longer understood, all succession is at an end, and no such tree is known to subsist in the manor, or hundred.
As to that on the Plestor
"The late Vicar stubb'd and burnt it,"
when he was way-warden, regardless of the remonstrances of the bystanders, who interceded in vain for its preservation, urging its power and efficacy, and alleging that it had been
"Religione patrum multos servata per annos."
I am, etc.
SELBORNE, Feb. 7th, 1776.
Dear Sir,—In heavy fogs, on elevated situations especially, trees are perfect alembics; and no one that has not attended to such matters can imagine how much water one tree will distil in a night's time, by condensing the vapour, which trickles down the twigs and boughs, so as to make the ground below quite in a float. In Newton Lane, in October, 1775, on a misty day, a particular oak in leaf dropped so fast that the cart-way stood in puddles and the ruts ran with water, though the ground in general was dusty.
In some of our smaller islands in the West Indies, if I mistake not, there are no springs or rivers; but the people are supplied with that necessary element, water, merely by the dripping of some large teak trees, which, standing in the bosom of a mountain, keep their heads constantly enveloped with fogs and clouds, from which they dispense their kindly never-ceasing moisture; and so render those districts habitable by condensation alone.
Trees in leaf have such a vast proportion more of surface than those that are naked, that, in theory, their condensations should greatly exceed those that are stripped of their leaves; but, as the former imbibe also a great quantity of moisture, it is difficult to say which drip most: but this I know, that deciduous trees that are entwined with much ivy seem to distil the greatest quantity. Ivy-leaves are smooth, and thick, and cold, and therefore condense very fast; and besides, evergreens imbibe very little. These facts may furnish the intelligent with hints concerning what sorts of trees they should plant round small ponds that they would wish to be perennial; and show them how advantageous some trees are in preference to others.
Trees perspire profusely, condense largely, and check evaporation so much, that woods are always moist; no wonder, therefore, that they contribute much to pools and streams.
That trees are great promoters of lakes and rivers appears from a well- known fact in North America; for, since the woods and forests have been grubbed and cleared, all bodies of water are much diminished; so that some streams that were very considerable a century ago, will not now drive a common mill. Besides, most woodlands, forests, and chases, with us abound with pools and morasses; no doubt for the reason given above.
To a thinking mind few phenomena are more strange than the state of little ponds on the summits of chalk hills, many of which are never dry in the most trying droughts of summer. On chalk-hills I say, because in many rocky and gravelly soils springs usually break out pretty high on the sides of elevated grounds and mountains: but no person acquainted with chalk districts will allow that they ever saw springs in such a soil but in valleys and bottoms, since the waters of so pervious a stratum as chalk all lie on one dead level, as well-diggers have assured me again and again.
Now we have many such little round ponds in this district; and one in particular on our sheep-down, three hundred feet above my house; which, though never above three feet deep in the middle, and not more than thirty feet in diameter, and containing perhaps not more than two or three hundred hogsheads of water, yet never is known to fail, though it affords drink for three hundred or four hundred sheep, and for at least twenty head of large cattle beside. This pond, it is true, is overhung with two moderate beeches, that, doubtless, at times afford it much supply: but then we have others as small, that, without the aid of trees, and in spite of evaporation from sun and wind, and perpetual consumption by cattle, yet constantly maintain a moderate share of water, without overflowing in the wettest seasons, as they would do if supplied by springs. By my journal of May, 1775, it appears that "the small and even considerable ponds in the vales are now dried up, while the small ponds on the very tops of hills are but little affected." Can this difference be accounted for from evaporation alone, which certainly is more prevalent in bottoms? or rather have not those elevated pools some unnoticed recruits, which in the night time counterbalance the waste of the day; without which the cattle alone must soon exhaust them? And here it will be necessary to enter more minutely into the cause. Dr. Hales, in his Vegetable Statics, advances, from experiment, that "the moister the earth is the more dew falls on it in a night: and more than a double quantity of dew falls on a surface of water than there does on an equal surface of moist earth." Hence we see that water, by its coolness, is enabled to assimilate to itself a large quantity of moisture nightly by condensation; and that the air, when loaded with fogs and vapours, and even with copious dews, can alone advance a considerable and never-failing resource. Persons that are much abroad, and travel early and late, such as shepherds, fishermen, etc., can tell what prodigious fogs prevail in the night on elevated downs, even in the hottest parts of summer; and how much the surfaces of things are drenched by those swimming vapours, though, to the senses, all the while, little moisture seems to fall.
I am, etc.
SELBORNE, April 3rd, 1776.
Dear Sir,—Monsieur Herissant, a French anatomist, seems persuaded that he has discovered the reason why cuckoos do not hatch their own eggs; the impediment, he supposes, arises from the internal structure of their parts, which incapacitates them for incubation. According to this gentleman, the crop, or craw, of a cuckoo does not lie before the sternum at the bottom of the neck, as in the gallinae, columbae, etc., but immediately behind it, on and over the bowels, so as to make a large protuberance in the belly.
Induced by this assertion, we procured a cuckoo; and, cutting open the breast-bone, and exposing the intestines to sight, found the crop lying as mentioned above. This stomach was large and round, and stuffed hard, like a pincushion, with food, which, upon nice examination, we found to consist of various insects; such as small scarabs, spiders, and dragon- flies; the last of which we have seen cuckoos catching on the wing as they were just emerging out of the aurelia state. Among this farrago also were to be seen maggots, and many seeds, which belonged either to gooseberries, currants, cranberries, or some such fruit; so that these birds apparently subsist on insects and fruits; nor was there the least appearance of bones, feathers, or fur, to support the idle notion of their being birds of prey.
The sternum in this bird seemed to us to be remarkably short, between which and the anus lay the crop, or craw, and immediately behind that the bowels against the back-bone.
It must be allowed, as this anatomist observes, that the crop placed just upon the bowels must, especially when full, be in a very uneasy situation during the business of incubation; yet the test will be to examine whether birds that are actually known to sit for certain are not formed in a similar manner. This inquiry I proposed to myself to make with a fern-fowl, or goat-sucker, as soon as opportunity offered: because, if their formation proves the same, the reason for incapacity in the cuckoo will be allowed to have been taken up somewhat hastily.
Not long after a fern-owl was procured, which, from its habit and shape, we suspected might resemble the cuckoo in its internal construction. Nor were our suspicions ill-grounded; for, upon the dissection, the crop, or craw, also lay behind the sternum, immediately on the viscera, between them and the skin of the belly. It was bulky, and stuffed hard with large phalaenae, moths of several sorts, and their eggs, which no doubt had been forced out of those insects by the action of swallowing.
Now as it appears that this bird, which is so well known to practise incubation, is formed in a similar manner with cuckoos, Monsieur Herissant's conjecture, that cuckoos are incapable of incubation from the disposition of their intestines, seems to fall to the ground; and we are still at a loss for the cause of that strange and singular peculiarity in the instance of the cuculus canorus.
We found the case to be the same with the ring-tail hawk, in respect to formation; and, as far as I can recollect, with the swift; and probably it is so with many more sorts of birds that are not granivorous.
I am, etc.
SELBORNE, April 29th, 1776.
Dear Sir,—On August 4th, 1775, we surprised a large viper, which seemed very heavy and bloated, as it lay in the grass basking in the sun. When we came to cut it up, we found that the abdomen was crowded with young, fifteen in number; the shortest of which measured full seven inches, and were about the size of full-grown earth-worms. This little fry issued into the world with the true viper-spirit about them, showing great alertness as soon as disengaged from the belly of the dam: they twisted and wriggled about, and set themselves up, and gaped very wide when touched with a stick, showing manifest tokens of menace and defiance, though as yet they had no manner of fangs that we could find, even with the help of our glasses.
To a thinking mind nothing is more wonderful than that early instinct which impresses young animals with a notion of the situation of their natural weapons, and of using them properly in their own defence, even before those weapons subsist or are formed. Thus a young cock will spar at his adversary before his spurs are grown: and a calf or a lamb will push with their heads before their horns are sprouted. In the same manner did these young adders attempt to bite before their fangs were in being. The dam however was furnished with very formidable ones, which we lifted up (for they fold down when not used), and cut them off with the point of our scissors.