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MIGRATION OF BIRDS
SELBORNE, 8th Dec. 1769.
DEAR SIR-I was much gratified by your communicative letter on your return from Scotland, where you spent some considerable time, and gave yourself good room to examine the natural curiosities of that extensive kingdom, both those of the islands, as well as those of the highlands. The usual bane of such expeditions is hurry, because men seldom allot themselves half the time they should do ; but, fixing on a day for their return, post from place to place, rather as if they were on a journey that required dispatch, than as philosophers investigating the works of nature. You must have made, no doubt, many discoveries, and laid up a good fund of materials for a future edition of the British Zoology; and will have no reason to repent that you have bestowed so much pains on a part of Great Britain that perhaps was never so well examined before.
It has always been matter of wonder to me that fieldfares, which are so congenerous to thrushes and blackbirds, should never chose to breed in England ; but that they should not think even the highlands cold and northerly, and sequestrated enough, is a circumstance still more strange and wonderful.
The ring ousel, you find, stays in Scotland the whole year round; so that we have reasons to conclude that those migrators that visit us for a short space every autumn do not come from thence.
And here, I think, will be the proper place to mention that those birds were most punctual again in their migration this autumn, appearing, as before, about the 30th of September ; but their flocks were larger than common, and their stay protracted beyond the usual time. If they came to spend the whole winter with us, as some of their congeners do, and then left us, as they do, in spring, I should not be so much struck with the occurrence, since it would be similar to that of the other birds of passage ;
but when I see them for a fortnight at Michaelmas, and again for about a week in the middle of April, I am seized with wonder, and long to be informed whence these travellers come,
and whither they go, since they seem to use our hills merely as an inn or baiting place.
Your account of the greater brambling or snow-fleck, is very amusing ; and strange it is that such a short-winged bird should delight in such perilous voyages over the northern ocean ! Some country people in the winter time have every now and then told me that they have seen two or three white larks on our downs; but, on considering the matter, I begin to suspect that these are some stragglers of the birds we are talking of, which sometimes perhaps may rove so far to the southward.
It pleases me to find that white hares are so frequent on the Scottish mountains, and especially as you inform me that it is a distinct species ; for the quadrupeds of Britain are so fe that every new species is a great acquisition.
The eagle-owl, could it be proved to belong to us, is so majestic a bird, that it would grace our fauna much. I never was informed before where wild-geese are known to breed.
You admit, I find, that I have proved your fen salicaria to be the lesser reed-sparrow of Ray; and I think you may be secure that I am right, for I took very particular pains to clear up that matter, and had some fair specimens ; but as they were not well preserved, they are decayed already. You will, no doubt, insert it in its proper place in your next edition. Your additional plates will much improve your work.
De Buffon, I know has described the water shrew-mouse ; but still I am pleased to find you have discovered it in Lincolnshire, for the reason I have given in the article of the white hare.
As a neighbour was lately ploughing in a dry, chalky field, far removed from any water, he turned out a water-rat, that was curiously lain up in an hybernaculum artificially formed of grass and leaves. At one end of the burrow lay above a gallon of potatoes regularly stowed, on which it was to have supported itself for the winter. But the difficulty with me is how this amphibius mus came to fix its winter station at such a distance from the water. Was it determined in its choice of that place by the mere accident of finding the potatoes which were planted there ; or is it the constant practice of the aquatic rat to forsake the neighbourhood of the water in the colder months ?
Though I delight very little in analogous reasoning, knowing how fallacious it is with respect to natural history ; yet, in the following instance, I cannot help being inclined to think it may conduce towards the explanation of a difficulty that I have mentioned before, with respect to the invariable early retreat of the Hirundo apus, or swift, so many weeks before its congeners ; and that not only with us, but also in Andalusia, where they also begin to retire about the beginning of August.
The great large bat (which by the bye is at present a nondescript in England, and what I have never been able yet to procure) retires or migrates very early in the summer; it also ranges very high for its food, feeding in a different region in the air ; and this is the reason I never could procure one. Now this is exactly the case with the swifts ; for they take their food in a more exalted region than the other species, and are very seldom seen hawking for flies near the ground, or over the surface of the water. From hence I would conclude that these hirundines and the larger bats are supported by some sorts of high-flying gnats, scarabs, or phalana, that are of short continuance ; and that the short stay of these strangers is regulated by the defect of their food.
By my journal it appears that curlews clamoured on to October the thirty-first ; since which I have not seen or heard any. Swallows were observed on to November the third.
(From Natural History of Selborne.)
SELBORNE, 30th March, 1768. DEAR SIR— Some intelligent country people have a notion that we have, in these parts, a species of the genus Mustelinum, besides the weasel, stoat, ferret, and polecat ; a little reddish beast, not much bigger than a field-mouse, but much longer, which they call a cane. This piece of intelligence can be little depended on; but further inquiry may be made.
A gentleman in this neighbourhood had two milk-white rooks in one nest. A booby of a carter, finding them before they were able to fly, threw them down and destroyed them, to the regret
of the owner, who would have been glad to have preserved such a curiosity in his rookery. I saw the birds myself nailed against the end of a barn, and was surprised to find that their bills, legs, feet, and claws were milk-white.
A shepherd saw, as he thought, some white larks on a down above my house this winter: were not these the Emberiza nivalis —the snow-flake of the British Zoology? No doubt they were.
A few years ago I saw a cock bullfinch in a cage, which had been caught in the fields after it was come to its full colours. In about a year it began to look dingy; and blackening every succeeding year, it became coal-black at the end of four. Its chief food was hempseed. Such influence has food on the colour of animals! The pied and mottled colours of domesticated animals are supposed to be owing to high, various, and unusual food.
I had remarked, for years, that the root of the cuckoo-pint (arum) was frequently scratched out of the dry banks of hedges, and eaten in severe snowy weather. After observing, with some exactness, myself, and getting others to do the same, we found it was the thrush kind that searched it out. The root of the arum is remarkably warm and pungent.
Our flocks of female chaffinches have not yet forsaken us. The blackbirds and thrushes are very much thinned down by that fierce weather in January.
In the middle of February I discovered, in my tall hedges, a little bird that raised my curiosity: it was of that yellow-green colour that belongs to the salicaria kind, and, I think, was softbilled. It was no parus; and was too long and too big for the golden-crowned wren, appearing most like the largest willowwren.
It hung sometimes with its back downwards, but never continuing one moment in the same place. I shot at it, but it was so desultory that I missed my aim.
I wonder that the stone-curlew, Charadrius ædicnemus, should be mentioned by the writers as a rare bird : it abounds in all the champaign parts of Hampshire and Sussex, and breeds, I think, all the summer, having young ones, I know, very late in the autumn. Already they begin clamouring in the evening. They cannot, I think, with any propriety be called, as they are by Mr. Ray, circa aquas versantes; for with us, by day at least, they haunt only the most dry, open, upland fields and sheep-walks, far removed from water : what they may do in the night I cannot
say. Worms are their usual food, but they also eat toads and frogs.
I can show you some specimens of my new mice. Linnæus perhaps would call the species Mus minimus.
(From the Same.)
ON THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS
SELBORNE, 7th August 1778. DEAR SIR-A good ornithologist should be able to distinguish birds by their air as well by their colours and shape ; on the ground as well as on the wing ; and in the bush as well as in the hand. For though it must not be said that every species of birds has a manner peculiar to itself, yet there is somewhat in most genera at least, that at first sight discriminates them, and enables a judicious observer to pronounce upon them with some certainty. Put a bird in motion
et vera incessu patuit . Thus kites and buzzards sail round in circles with wings expanded and motionless ; and it is from their gliding manner that the former are still called in the north of England gleads, from the Saxon verb glidan, to glide. The kestrel, or windhover, has a peculiar mode of hanging in the air in one place, his wings all the while being briskly agitated. Hen-harriers fly low over heaths or fields of corn, and beat the ground regularly like a pointer or setting-dog. Owls move in a buoyant manner, as if lighter than the air ; they seem to want ballast. There is a peculiarity belonging to ravens that must draw the attention even of the most incurious— they spend all their leisure time in striking and cuffing each other on the wing in a kind of playful skirmish; and, when they move from one place to another, frequently turn on their backs with a loud croak and seem to be falling to the ground. When this odd gesture betides them, they are scratching themselves with one foot, and thus lose the centre of gravity. Rooks sometimes dive and tumble in a frolicsome manner ; crows and daws swagger in their walk ; wood-peckers fly volatu undoso, opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising or falling in curves.
All of this genus