The Natural History of Selborne, Vol. 1
by Gilbert White
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The titlark and yellow-hammer breed late, the latter very late; and therefore it is no wonder that they protract their song: for I lay it down as a maxim in ornithology, that as long as there is any incubation going on there is music. As to the redbreast and wren, it is well known to the most incurious observer that they whistle the year round, hard frost excepted—especially the latter.

It was not in my power to procure you a black-cap, or a less reed-sparrow, or sedge-bird, alive. As the first is undoubtedly, and the last, as far as I can yet see, a summer bird of passage, they would require more nice and curious management in a cage than I should be able to give them: they are both distinguished songsters. The note of the former has such a wild sweetness that it always brings to my mind those lines in a song in "As You Like It":

"And tune his merry note Unto the wild bird's throat."—SHAKESPEARE.

The latter has a surprising variety of notes resembling the song of several other birds; but then it has also a hurrying manner, not at all to its advantage: it is notwithstanding a delicate polyglot.

It is new to me that titlarks in cages sing in the night; perhaps only caged birds do so. I once knew a tame redbreast in a cage that always sang as long as candles were in the room; but in their wild state no one supposes they sing in the night.

I should be almost ready to doubt the fact that there are to be seen much fewer birds in July than in any former month, notwithstanding so many young are hatched daily. Sure I am that it is far otherwise with respect to the swallow tribe, which increases prodigiously as the summer advances: and I saw at the time mentioned many hundreds of young wagtails on the banks of the Cherwell, which almost covered the meadows. If the matter appears as you say in the other species, may it not be owing to the dams being engaged in incubation, while the young are concealed by the leaves.

Many times have I had the curiosity to open the stomachs of woodcocks and snipes: but nothing ever occurred that helped to explain to me what their subsistence might be: all that I could ever find was a soft mucus, among which lay many pellucid small gravels.

I am, etc.


SELBORNE, Feb. 19th, 1770.

Dear Sir,—Your observation that "the cuckoo does not deposit its egg indiscriminately in the nest of the first bird that comes in its way, but probably looks out a nurse in some degree congenerous with whom to intrust its young," is perfectly new to me, and struck me so forcibly that I naturally fell into a train of thought that led me to consider whether the fact was so, and what reason there was for it. When I came to recollect and inquire, I could not find that any cuckoo had ever been seen in these parts, except in the nest of the wagtail, the hedge-sparrow, the titlark, the white-throat, and the redbreast, all soft-billed insectivorous birds. The excellent Mr. Willughby mentions the nest of the Palumbus (ring-dove), and of the Fringilla (chaffinch), birds that subsist on acorns and grains, and such hard food: but then he does not mention them as of his own knowledge, but says afterwards that he saw himself a wagtail feeding a cuckoo. It appears hardly possible that a soft-billed bird should subsist on the same food with the hard-billed: for the former have thin membranaceous stomachs suited to their soft food, while the latter, the granivorous tribe, have strong muscular gizzards, which, like mills, grind, by the help of small gravels and pebbles, what is swallowed. This proceeding of the cuckoo, of dropping its eggs as it were by chance, is such a monstrous outrage on maternal affection, one of the first great dictates of nature, and such a violence on instinct, that, had it only been related of a bird in the Brazils, or Peru, it would never have merited our belief. But yet, should it further appear that this simple bird, when divested of that natural [Greek text] that seems to raise the kind in general above themselves, and inspire them with extraordinary degrees of cunning and address, may be still endued with a more enlarged faculty of discerning what species are suitable and congenerous nursing-mothers for its disregarded eggs and young, and may deposit them only under their care, this would be adding wonder to wonder, and instancing, in a fresh manner, that the methods of Providence are not subjected to any mode or rule, but astonish us in new lights, and in various and changeable appearances.

What was said by a very ancient and sublime writer concerning the defect of natural affection in the ostrich may be well applied to the bird we are talking of:

"She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers:

"Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath He imparted to her understanding."

Query.—Does each female cuckoo lay but one egg in a season, or does she drop several in different nests according as opportunity offers?

I am, etc.


SELBORNE, April 12th, 1770.

Dear Sir,—I heard many birds of several species sing last year after Midsummer, enough to prove that the summer solstice is not the period that puts a stop to the music of the woods. The yellow-hammer no doubt persists with more steadiness than any other: but the woodlark, the wren, the redbreast, the swallow, the whitethroat, the goldfinch, the common linnet, are all undoubted instances of the truth of what I advanced.

If this severe season does not interrupt the regularity of the summer migrations, the black-cap will be here in two or three days. I wish it was in my power to procure you one of those songsters; but I am no bird-catcher, and so little used to birds in a cage, that I fear if I had one it would soon die for want of skill in feeding.

Was your reed-sparrow, which you kept in a cage, the thick-billed reed-sparrow of the Zoology, p. 320; or was it the less reed-sparrow of Ray, the sedge-bird of Mr. Pennant's last publication, p. 16?

As to the matter of long-billed birds growing fatter in moderate frosts, I have no doubt within myself what should be the reason. The thriving at those times appears to me to arise altogether from the gentle check which the cold throws upon insensible perspiration. The case is just the same with blackbirds, etc.; and farmers and warreners observe, the first, that their hogs fat more kindly at such times, and the latter that their rabbits are never in such good case as in a gentle frost. But when frosts are severe, and of long continuance, the case is soon altered, for then a want of food soon overbalances the repletion occasioned by a checked perspiration. I have observed, moreover, that some human constitutions are more inclined to plumpness in winter than in summer.

When birds come to suffer by severe frost, I find that the first that fail and die are the redwing-fieldfares, and then the song-thrushes.

You wonder, with good reason, that the hedge-sparrows, etc., can be induced at all to sit on the egg of the cuckoo without being scandalised at the vast disproportionate size of the supposititious egg; but the brute creation, I suppose, have very little idea of size, colour, or number. For the common hen, I know, when the fury of incubation is on her, will sit on a single shapeless stone instead of a nest full of eggs that have been withdrawn: and, moreover, a hen-turkey, in the same circumstances, would sit on in the empty nest till she perished with hunger.

I think the matter might easily be determined whether a cuckoo lays one or two eggs, or more, in a season, by opening a female during the laying-time. If more than one was come down out of the ovary and advanced to a good size, doubtless then she would that spring lay more than one.

I will endeavour to get a hen, and to examine.

Your supposition that there may be some natural obstruction in singing birds while they are mute, and that when this is removed the song recommences, is new and bold: I wish you could discover some good grounds for this suspicion.

I was glad you were pleased with my specimen of the caprimulgus, or fern-owl; you were, I find, acquainted with the bird before.

When we meet I shall be glad to have some conversation with you concerning the proposal you make of my drawing up an account of the animals in this neighbourhood. Your partiality towards my small abilities persuades you, I fear, that I am able to do more than is in my power: for it is no small undertaking for a man unsupported and alone to begin a natural history from his own autopsia! Though there is endless room for observation in the field of nature, which is boundless, yet investigation (where a man endeavours to be sure of his facts) can make but slow progress; and all that one could collect in many years would go into a very narrow compass.

Some extracts from your ingenious "Investigations of the Difference between the Present Temperature of the Air in Italy," etc., have fallen in my way, and gave me great satisfaction: they have removed the objections that always arose in my mind whenever I came to the passages which you quote. Surely the judicious Virgil, when writing a didactic poem for the region of Italy, could never think of describing freezing rivers, unless such severity of weather pretty frequently occurred!

P.S.—Swallows appear amidst snows and frost.


SELBORNE, May 21st, 1770.

Dear Sir,—The severity and turbulence of last month so interrupted the regular process of summer migration, that some of the birds do but just begin to show themselves, and others are apparently thinner than usual; as the white-throat, the black-cap, the red-start, the fly-catcher. I well remember that after the very severe spring in the year 1739-40, summer birds of passage were very scarce. They come probably hither with a south-east wind, or when it blows between those points: but in that unfavourable year the winds blowed the whole spring and summer through from the opposite quarters. And yet amidst all these disadvantages two swallows, as I mentioned in my last, appeared this year as early as the 11th April amidst frost and snow; but they withdrew again for a time.

I am not pleased to find that some people seem so little satisfied with Scopoli's new publication; there is room to expect great things from the hands of that man, who is a good naturalist: and one would think that a history of the birds of so distant and southern a region as Carniola would be new and interesting. I could wish to see that work, and hope to get it sent down. Dr. Scopoli is physician to the wretches that work in the quicksilver mines of that district.

When you talked of keeping a reed-sparrow, and giving it seeds, I could not help wondering; because the reed-sparrow which I mentioned to you (Passer arundinaceus minor Raii) is a soft-billed bird; and most probably migrates hence before winter; whereas the bird you kept (Passer torquatus Raii) abides all the year, and is a thick-billed bird. I question whether the latter be much of a songster; but in this matter I want to be better informed. The former has a variety of hurrying notes, and sings all night. Some part of the song of the former, I suspect, is attributed to the latter. We have plenty of the soft-billed sort; which Mr. Pennant had entirely left out of his "British Zoology," till I reminded him of his omission. See "British Zoology" last published, p. 16.

I have somewhat to advance on the different manners in which different birds fly and walk; but as this is a subject that I have not enough considered, and is of such a nature as not to be contained in a small space, I shall say nothing further about it at present.

No doubt the reason why the sex of birds in their first plumage is so difficult to be distinguished is, as you say, "because they are not to pair and discharge their parental functions till the ensuing spring." As colours seem to be the chief external sexual distinction in many birds, these colours do not take place till sexual attachments begin to obtain. And the case is the same in quadrupeds; among whom, in their younger days, the sexes differ but little: but, as they advance to maturity, horns and shaggy manes, beards, and brawny necks, etc., etc., strongly discriminate the male from the female. We may instance still farther in our own species, where a beard and stronger features are usually characteristic of the male sex: but this sexual diversity does not take place in earlier life; for a beautiful youth shall be so like a beautiful girl that the difference shall not be discernible;

"Quem si puellarum insereres choro, Mire sagaces falleret hospites Discrimen obscurum, solutis Crinibus, ambiguoque vultu."

HOR. ODES, II. od. 5-21, p. 131, orig. edit.


RINGMER near LEWES, Oct. 8th, 1770.

Dear Sir,—I am glad to hear that Kuckalm is to furnish you with the birds of Jamaica; a sight of the hirundines of that hot and distant island would be a great entertainment to me.

The Anni of Scopoli are now in my possession; and I have read the Annus Primus with satisfaction; for though some parts of this work are exceptionable, and he may advance some mistaken observations, yet the ornithology of so distant a country as Carniola is very curious. Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.

The reason perhaps why he mentions nothing of Ray's Ornithology may be the extreme poverty and distance of his country into which the works of our great naturalist may have never yet found their way. You have doubts, I know, whether this Ornithology is genuine, and really the work of Scopoli; as to myself I think I discover strong tokens of authenticity; the style corresponds with that of his Entomology; and his characters of his Ordines and Genera are many of them new, expressive, and masterly. He has ventured to alter some of the Linnaean genera with sufficient show of reason.

It might perhaps be mere accident that you saw so many swifts and no swallows at Staines; because, in my long observation of those birds, I never could discover the least degree of rivalry or hostility between the species.

Ray remarks that birds of the gallinoe order, as cocks and hens, partridges, and pheasants, etc., are pulveratrices, such as dust themselves, using that method of cleansing their feathers, and ridding themselves of their vermin. As far as I can observe, many birds that dust themselves never wash; and I once thought that those birds that wash themselves would never dust; but here I find myself mistaken: for common house-sparrows are great pulveratrices, being frequently seen grovelling and wallowing in dusty roads; and yet they are great washers. Does not the skylark dust?

Query.—Might not Mahomet and his followers take one method of purification from these pulveratrices? because I find from travellers of credit, that if a strict Mussulman is journeying in a sandy desert where no water is to be found, at stated hours he strips off his clothes, and most scrupulously rubs his body over with sand or dust.

A countryman told me he had found a young fern-owl in the nest of a small bird on the ground; and that it was fed by the little bird. I went to see this extraordinary phenomenon, and found that it was a young cuckoo hatched in the nest of a titlark; it was become vastly too big for its nest, appearing

". . . . . in tenui re Majores pennas nido extendisse . . "

and was very fierce and pugnacious, pursuing my finger as I teased it, for many feet from the nest, and sparring and buffeting with its wings like a game-cock. The dupe of a dam appeared at a distance, hovering about with meat in its mouth, and expressing the greatest solicitude.

In July I saw several cuckoos skimming over a large pond; and found, after some observation, that they were feeding on the Libellulae or dragon-flies; some of which they caught as they settled on the weeds, and some as they were on the wing. Notwithstanding what Linnaeus says, I cannot be induced to believe that they are birds of prey.

This district affords some birds that are hardly ever heard of at Selborne. In the first place considerable flocks of cross-beaks (Loxiae curvirostrae) have appeared this summer in the pine-groves belonging to this house; the water-ouzel is said to haunt the mouth of the Lewes river, near Newhaven; and the Cornish chough builds, I know, all along the chalky cliffs of the Sussex shore.

I was greatly pleased to see little parties of ring-ouzels (my newly discovered migrators) scattered, at intervals, all along the Sussex downs, from Chichester to Lewes. Let them come from whence they will, it looks very suspicious that they are cantoned along the coast in order to pass the channel when severe weather advances. They visit us again in April, as it should seem, in their return; and are not to be found in the dead of winter. It is remarkable that they are very tame, and seem to have no manner of apprehensions of danger from a person with a gun. There are bustards on the wide downs near Brighthelmstone. No doubt you are acquainted with the Sussex downs; the prospects and rides round Lewes are most lovely!

As I rode along near the coast I kept a very sharp look-out in the lanes and woods, hoping I might, at this time of the year, have discovered some of the summer short-winged birds of passage crowding towards the coast in order for their departure: but it was very extraordinary that I never saw a red-start, white-throat, black-cap, uncrested wren, fly-catcher, etc. And I remember to have made the same remark in former years, as I usually come to this place annually about this time. The birds most common along the coast, at present, are the stone-chatters, whinchats, buntings, linnets, some few wheatears, titlarks, etc. Swallows and house-martins abound yet, induced to prolong their stay by this soft, still, dry season.

A land tortoise, which has been kept for thirty years in a little walled court belonging to the house where I now am visiting, retires under ground about the middle of November, and comes forth again about the middle of April. When it first appears in the spring it discovers very little inclination towards food; but in the height of summer grows voracious; and then as the summer declines its appetite declines; so that for the last six weeks in autumn it hardly eats at all. Milky plants, such as lettuces, dandelions, sowthistles, are its favourite dish. In a neighbouring village one was kept till by tradition it was supposed to be a hundred years old. An instance of vast longevity in such a poor reptile!


SELBORNE, Dec. 20th, 1770.

Dear Sir,—The birds that I took for aberdavines were reed-sparrows (Passeres torquati).

There are doubtless many home internal migrations within this kingdom that want to be better understood: witness those vast flocks of hen-chaffinches that appear with us in the winter without hardly any cocks among them. Now was there a due proportion of each sex, it should seem very improbable that any one district should produce such numbers of these little birds; and much more when only one-half of the species appears; therefore we may conclude that the Fringilloe coelebes, for some good purposes, have a peculiar migration of their own in which the sexes part. Nor should it seem so wonderful that the intercourse of sexes in this species of bird should be interrupted in winter; since in many animals, and particularly in bucks and does, the sexes herd separately, except at the season when commerce is necessary for the continuance of the breed. For this matter of the chaffinches see "Fauna Suecica," p. 58, and "Systema Naturae," p. 318. I see every winter vast flights of hen-chaffinches, but none of cocks.

Your method of accounting for the periodical motions of the British singing birds, or birds of flight, is a very probable one; since the matter of food is a great regulator of the actions and proceedings of the brute creation; there is but one that can be set in competition with it, and that is love. But I cannot quite acquiesce with you in one circumstance when you advance that, "when they have thus feasted, they again separate into small parties of five or six, and get the best fare they can within a certain district, having no inducement to go in quest of fresh turned earth." Now if you mean that the business of congregating is quite at an end from the conclusion of wheat sowing to the season of barley and oats, it is not the case with us; for larks and chaffinches, and particularly linnets, flock and congregate as much in the very dead of winter as when the husbandman is busy with his ploughs and harrows.

Sure there can be no doubt but that woodcocks and fieldfares leave us in the spring, in order to cross the seas, and to retire to some districts more suitable to the purpose of breeding. That the former pair before they retire, and that the hens are forward with egg, I myself, when I was a sportsman, have often experienced. It cannot indeed be denied but that now and then we hear of a woodcock's nest, or young birds, discovered in some part or other of this island; but then they are all always mentioned as rarities, and somewhat out of the common course of things: but as to redwings and fieldfares, no sportsman or naturalist has ever yet, that I could hear, pretended to have found the nest or young of those species in any part of these kingdoms. And I the more admire at this instance as extraordinary, since, to all appearance, the same food in summer as well as in winter might support them here which maintains their congeners, the black-birds and thrushes, did they choose to stay the summer through. From hence it appears that it is not food alone which determines some species of birds with regard to their stay or departure. Fieldfares or redwings disappear sooner or later according as the warm weather comes on earlier or later. For I well remember, after that dreadful winter 1739-40, that cold north-east winds continued to blow on through April and May, and that these kind of birds (what few remained of them) did not depart as usual, but were seen lingering about till the beginning of June.

The best authority that we can have for the nidification of the birds above-mentioned in any district, is the testimony of faunists that have written professedly the natural history of particular countries. Now as to the fieldfare, Linnaeus, in his "Fauna Suecica," says of it, that "maximis in arboribus nidificat;" and of the redwing he says, in the same place, that "nidificat in mediis arbusculis, sive sepibus; ova sex coeruleo-viridia maculis nigris variis." Hence we may be assured that fieldfares and redwings build in Sweden. Scopoli says, in his "Annus Primus," of the woodcock, that "nupta ad nos venit circa oequinoctium vernale;" meaning in Tyrol, of which he is a native. And afterwards he adds "nidificat in paludibus alpinis: ova ponit 3-5." It does not appear from Kramer that woodcocks breed at all in Austria; but he says, "Avis hoec septentrionalium provinciarum oestivo tempore incola est; ubi plerumque nidificat. Appropinquante hyeme australiores provincias petit; hinc circa plenilunium mensis Octobris plerumque Austriam transmigrat. Tunc rursus circa plenilunium potissimum mensis Martii per Austriam matrimonio juncta ad septentrionales provincias redit." For the whole passage (which I have abridged) see "Elenchus," etc., p. 351. This seems to be a full proof of the migration of woodcocks; though little is proved concerning the place of breeding.

P.S.—There fell in the county of Rutland, in three weeks of this present very wet weather, seven inches and a half of rain, which is more than has fallen in any three weeks for these thirty years past in that part of the world. A mean quantity in that county for one year is twenty inches and a half.


FYFIELD, near ANDOVER, Feb. 12th, 1772.

Dear Sir,—You are, I know, no great friend to migration; and the well-attested accounts from various parts of the kingdom seem to justify you in your suspicions, that at least many of the swallow kind do not leave us in the winter, but lay themselves up like insects and bats in a torpid state, and slumber away the more uncomfortable months till the return of the sun and fine weather awakens them.

But then we must not, I think, deny migration in general; because migration certainly does subsist in some places, as my brother in Andalusia has fully informed me. Of the motions of these birds he has ocular demonstration, for many weeks together, both spring and fall; during which periods myriads of the swallow kind traverse the straits from north to south, and from south to north, according to the season. And these vast migrations consist not only of hirundines but of bee-birds, hoopoes, Oro pendolos, or golden thrushes, etc., etc., and also of many of our soft-billed summer birds of passage; and moreover of birds which never leave us, such as all the various sorts of hawks and kites. Old Belon, two hundred years ago, gives a curious account of the incredible armies of hawks and kites which he saw in the spring-time traversing the Thracian Bosphorus from Asia to Europe. Besides the above mentioned, he remarks that the procession is swelled by whole troops of eagles and vultures.

Now it is no wonder that birds residing in Africa should retreat before the sun as it advances, and retire to milder regions, and especially birds of prey, whose blood being heated with hot animal food, are more impatient of a sultry climate; but then I cannot help wondering why kites and hawks, and such hardy birds as are known to defy all the severity of England, and even of Sweden and all north Europe, should want to migrate from the south of Europe, and be dissatisfied with the winters of Andalusia.

It does not appear to me that much stress may be laid on the difficulty and hazard that birds must run in their migrations, by reason of vast oceans, cross winds, etc.; because, if we reflect, a bird may travel from England to the Equator without launching out and exposing itself to boundless seas, and that by crossing the water at Dover, and again at Gibraltar. And I with the more confidence advance this obvious remark, because my brother has always found that some of his birds, and particularly the swallow kind, are very sparing of their pains in crossing the Mediterranean; for when arrived at Gibraltar they do not

. . . "Rang'd in figure wedge their way, . . . . And set forth Their airy caravan high over seas Flying, and over lands with mutual wing Easing their flight:" . . . . —MILTON.

but scout and hurry along in little detached parties of six or seven in a company; and sweeping low, just over the surface of the land and water, direct their course to the opposite continent at the narrowest passage they can find. They usually slope across the bay to the south-west, and so pass over opposite to Tangier, which, it seems, is the narrowest space.

In former letters we have considered whether it was probable that woodcocks in moonshiny nights cross the German ocean from Scandinavia. As a proof that birds of less speed may pass that sea, considerable as it is, I shall relate the following incident, which, though mentioned to have happened so many years ago, was strictly matter of fact:—As some people were shooting in the parish of Trotton, in the county of Sussex, they killed a duck in that dreadful winter, 1708-9, with a silver collar about its neck, on which were engraven the arms of the king of Denmark. This anecdote the rector of Trotton at that time has often told to a near relation of mine; and to the best of my remembrance, the collar was in the possession of the rector.

At present I do not know anybody near the seaside that will take the trouble to remark at what time of the moon woodcocks first come; if I lived near the sea myself I would soon tell you more of the matter. One thing I used to observe when I was a sportsman, that there were times in which woodcocks were so sluggish and sleepy that they would drop again when flushed just before the spaniels, nay, just at the muzzle of a gun that had been fired at them; whether this strange laziness was the effect of a recent fatiguing journey I shall not presume to say.

Nightingales not only never reach Northumberland and Scotland, but also, as I have been always told, Devonshire and Cornwall. In those two last counties we cannot attribute the failure of them to the want of warmth; the defect in the west is rather a presumptive argument that these birds come over to us from the continent at the narrowest passage, and do not stroll so far westward.

Let me hear from your own observation whether skylarks do not dust. I think they do; and if they do, whether they wash also.

The Alauda pratensis of Ray was the poor dupe that was educating the booby of a cuckoo mentioned in my letter of October last.

Your letter came too late for me to procure a ring-ouzel for Mr. Tunstal during their autumnal visit; but I will endeavour to get him one when they call on us again in April. I am glad that you and that gentleman saw my Andalusian birds; I hope they answered your expectation. Royston, or grey crows, are winter birds that come much about the same time with the woodcock; they, like the fieldfare and redwing, have no apparent reason for migration; for as they fare in the winter like their congeners, so might they in all appearance in the summer. Was not Tenant, when a boy, mistaken? did he not find a missel-thrush's nest, and take it for the nest of a fieldfare?

The stock-dove, or wood-pigeon, OEnas Raii, is the last winter bird of passage which appears with us; it is not seen till towards the end of November: about twenty years ago they abounded in the district of Selborne; and strings of them were seen morning and evening that reached a mile or more; but since the beechen woods have been greatly thinned they are much decreased in number. The ring-dove, Palumbus Raii, stays with us the whole year, and breeds several times through the summer.

Before I received your letter of October last I had just remarked in my journal that the trees were unusually green. This uncommon verdure lasted on late into November; and may be accounted for from a late spring, a cool and moist summer; but more particularly from vast armies of chafers, or tree-beetles, which, in many places, reduced whole woods to a leafless naked state. These trees shot again at Midsummer, and then retained their foliage till very late in the year.

My musical friend, at whose house I am now visiting, has tried all the owls that are his near neighbours with a pitch-pipe set at concert pitch, and finds they all hoot in B flat. He will examine the nightingales next spring.

I am, etc., etc.


SELBORNE, Aug. 1st., 177l.

Dear Sir,—From what follows, it will appear that neither owls nor cuckoos keep to one note. A friend remarks that many (most) of his owls hoot in B flat; but that one went almost half a note below A. The pipe he tried their notes by was a common half-crown pitch-pipe, such as masters use for tuning of harpsichords; it was the common London pitch.

A neighbour of mine, who is said to have a nice ear, remarks that the owls about this village hoot in three different keys, in G flat, or F sharp, in B flat and A flat. He heard two hooting to each other, the one in A flat, and the other in B flat. Query: Do these different notes proceed from different species, or only from various individuals? The same person finds upon trial that the note of the cuckoo (of which we have but one species) varies in different individuals; for, about Selborne wood, he found they were mostly in D: he heard two sing together, the one in D, the other in D sharp, who made a disagreeable concert: he afterwards heard one in D sharp, and about Wolmer Forest some in C. As to nightingales, he says that their notes are so short, and their transitions so rapid, that he cannot well ascertain their key. Perhaps in a cage, and in a room, their notes may be more distinguishable. This person has tried to settle the notes of a swift, and of several other small birds, but cannot bring them to any criterion.

As I have often remarked that redwings are some of the first birds that suffer with us in severe weather, it is no wonder at all that they retreat from Scandinavian winters: and much more the ordo of gralloe, who, all to a bird, forsake the northern parts of Europe at the approach of winter. "Grallae tanquam conjuratae, unanimiter in fugam se cojiciunt; ne earum unicam quidem inter nos habitantem invenire possimus; ut enim aestate in australibus degere nequeunt ob defectum lumbricorum, terramque siccam; ita nec in frigidis ob eandem causam," says Ekmarck the Swede, in his ingenious little treatise called "Migrationes Avium," which by all means you ought to read while your thoughts run on the subject of migration. See "Amoenitates Academicae," vol. iv., p. 565.

Birds may be so circumstanced as to be obliged to migrate in one country, and not in another: but the grallae (which procure their food from marshes and boggy grounds), must in winter forsake the more northerly parts of Europe, or perish for want of food.

I am glad you are making inquiries from Linnaeus concerning the woodcock; it is expected of him that he should be able to account for the motions and manner of life of the animals of his own "Fauna."

Faunists, as you observe, are too apt to acquiesce in bare descriptions, and a few synonyms: the reason is plain; because all that may be done at home in a man's study, but the investigation of the life and conversation of animals, is a concern of much more trouble and difficulty, and is not to be attained but by the active and inquisitive, and by those that reside much in the country.

Foreign systematics are, I observe, much too vague in their specific differences, which are almost universally constituted by one or two particular marks, the rest of the description running in general terms. But our countryman, the excellent Mr. Ray, is the only describer that conveys some precise idea in every term or word, maintaining his superiority over his followers and imitators in spite of the advantage of fresh discoveries and modern information.

At this distance of years it is not in my power to recollect at what periods woodcocks used to be sluggish or alert when I was a sportsman: but, upon my mentioning this circumstance to a friend, he thinks he has observed them to be remarkably listless against snowy foul weather; if this should be the case, then the inaptitude for flying arises only from an eagerness for food; as sheep are observed to be very intent on grazing against stormy wet evenings.

I am, etc., etc.


SELBORNE, Feb. 8th, 1772.

Dear Sir,—When I ride about in the winter, and see such prodigious flocks of various kinds of birds, I cannot help admiring at these congregations, and wishing that it was in my power to account for those appearances almost peculiar to the season. The two great motives which regulate the proceedings of the brute creation are love and hunger; the former incites animals to perpetuate their kind; the latter induces them to preserve individuals: whether either of these should seem to be the ruling passion in the matter of congregating is to be considered. As to love, that is out of the question at a time of the year when that soft passion is not indulged: besides, during the amorous season, such a jealousy prevails between the male birds that they can hardly bear to be together in the same hedge or field. Most of the singing and elation of spirits of that time seem to me to be the effect of rivalry and emulation: and it is to this spirit of jealousy that I chiefly attribute the equal dispersion of birds in the spring over the face of the country.

Now as to the business of food: as these animals are actuated by instinct to hunt for necessary food, they should not, one would suppose, crowd together in pursuit of sustenance at a time when it is most likely to fail; yet such associations do take place in hard weather chiefly, and thicken as the severity increases. As some kind of self-interest and self-defence is no doubt the motive for the proceeding, may it not arise from the helplessness of their state in such rigorous seasons; as men crowd together, when under great calamities, though they know not why. Perhaps approximation may dispel some degree of cold, and a crowd may make each individual appear safer from the ravages of birds of prey and other dangers.

If I admire when I see how much congenerous birds love to congregate, I am the more struck when I see incongruous ones in such strict amity. If we do not much wonder to see a flock of rooks usually attended by a train of daws, yet it is strange that the former should so frequently have a flight of starlings for their satellites. Is it because rooks have a more discerning scent than their attendants, and can lead them to spots more productive of food? Anatomists say that rooks, by reason of two large nerves which run down between the eyes into the upper mandible, have a more delicate feeling in their beaks than other round-billed birds, and can grope for their meat when out of sight. Perhaps, then, their associates attend them on the motive of interest, as greyhounds wait on the motions of their finders, and as lions are said to do on the yelpings of jackals. Lapwings and starlings sometimes associate.


March 9th, 1772.

Dear Sir,—As a gentleman and myself were walking on the 4th of last November, round the sea-banks at Newhaven, near the mouth of the Lewes river, in pursuit of natural knowledge, we were surprised to see three house-swallows gliding very swiftly by us. That morning was rather chilly, with the wind at north-west; but the tenor of the weather for some time before had been delicate, and the noons remarkably warm. From this incident, and from repeated accounts which I meet with, I am more and more induced to believe that many of the swallow kind do not depart from this island, but lay themselves up in holes and caverns, and do, insect-like and bat-like, come forth at mild times, and then retire again to their latebroe. Nor make I the least doubt but that, if I lived at Newhaven, Seaford, Brighthelmstone, or any of those towns near the chalk cliffs of the Sussex coast, by proper observations, I should see swallows stirring at periods of the winter, when the noons were soft and inviting, and the sun warm and invigorating. And I am the more of this opinion from what I have remarked during some of our late springs, that though some swallows did make their appearance about the usual time, viz., the 13th or 14th April, yet meeting with a harsh reception, and blustering cold north-east winds, they immediately withdrew, absconding for several days, till the weather gave them better encouragement.


April 12th, 1772.

Dear Sir,—While I was in Sussex last autumn, my residence was at the village near Lewes, from whence I had formerly the pleasure of writing to you. On the 1st November I remarked that the old tortoise, formerly mentioned, began first to dig the ground in order to the forming its hybernaculum, which it had fixed on just beside a great tuft of hepaticas. It scrapes out the ground with its fore-feet, and throws it up over its back with its hind; but the motion of its legs is ridiculously slow, little exceeding the hour-hand of a clock, and suitable to the composure of an animal said to be a whole month in performing one feat of copulation. Nothing can be more assiduous than this creature night and day in scooping the earth, and forcing its great body into the cavity; but, as the noons of that season proved unusually warm and sunny, it was continually interrupted, and called forth by the heat in the middle of the day; and though I continued there till the 13th November, yet the work remained unfinished. Harsher weather, and frosty mornings, would have quickened its operations. No part of its behaviour ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain; for though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire, shuffling away on the first sprinklings, and running its head up in a corner. If attended to, it becomes an excellent weather-glass, for as sure as it walks elate, and as it were on tiptoe, feeding with great earnestness in a morning, so sure will it rain before night. It is totally a diurnal animal, and never pretends to stir after it becomes dark. The tortoise, like other reptiles, has an arbitrary stomach as well as lungs; and can refrain from eating as well as breathing for a great part of the year. When first awakened it eats nothing, nor again in the autumn before it retires; through the height of the summer it feeds voraciously, devouring all the food that comes in its way. I was much taken with its sagacity in discerning those that do it kind offices; for, as soon as the good old lady comes in sight who has waited on it for more than thirty years, it hobbles towards its benefactress with awkward alacrity, but remains inattentive to strangers. Thus, not only "the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib," but the most abject reptile and torpid of beings distinguishes the hand that feeds it, and is touched with the feelings of gratitude!

I am, etc., etc.

P.S.—In about three days after I left Sussex, the tortoise retired into the ground under the hepatica.


SELBORNE, March 26th, 1773.

Dear Sir,—The more I reflect on the [Greek text] of animals, the more I am astonished at its effects. Nor is the violence of this affection more wonderful than the shortness of its duration. Thus every hen is in her turn the virago of the yard, in proportion to the helplessness of her brood, and will fly in the face of a dog or a sow in defence of those chickens, which in a few weeks she will drive before her with relentless cruelty.

This affection sublimes the passions, quickens the invention, and sharpens the sagacity of the brute creation. Thus a hen, just become a mother, is no longer that placid bird she used to be, but with feathers standing on end, wings hovering, and clocking note, she runs about like one possessed. Dams will throw themselves in the way of the greatest danger in order to avert it from their progeny. Thus a partridge will tumble along before a sportsman in order to draw away the dogs from her helpless covey. In the time of nidification the most feeble birds will assault the most rapacious. All the hirundines of a village are up in arms at the sight of a hawk, whom they will persecute till he leaves that district. A very exact observer has often remarked that a pair of ravens nesting in the rock of Gibraltar, would suffer no vulture or eagle to rest near their station, but would drive them from the hill with an amazing fury; even the blue thrush at the season of breeding would dart out from the clefts of the rocks to chase away the kestril, or the sparrow-hawk. If you stand near the nest of a bird that has young, she will not be induced to betray them by an inadvertent fondness, but will wait about at a distance with meat in her mouth for an hour together.

Should I farther corroborate what I have advanced above by some anecdotes which I probably may have mentioned before in conversation, yet you will, I trust, pardon the repetition for the sake of the illustration.

The fly-catcher of the "Zoology" (the Stoparola of Ray), builds every year in the vines that grow on the walls of my house. A pair of these little birds had one year inadvertently placed their nest on a naked bough, perhaps in a shady time, not being aware of the inconvenience that followed. But a hot sunny season coming on before the brood was half fledged, the reflection of the wall became insupportable, and must inevitably have destroyed the tender young, had not affection suggested an expedient, and prompted the parent birds to hover over the nest all the hotter hours, while with wings expanded, and mouths gaping for breath, they screened off the heat from their suffering offspring.

A farther instance I once saw of notable sagacity in a willow-wren, which had built in a bank in my fields. This bird a friend and myself had observed as she sat in her nest; but were particularly careful not to disturb her, though we saw she eyed us with some degree of jealousy. Some days after, as we passed that way, we were desirous of remarking how this brood went on, but no nest could be found, till I happened to take a large bundle of long green moss, as it were, carelessly thrown over the nest in order to dodge the eye of any impertinent intruder.

A still more remarkable mixture of sagacity and instinct occurred to me one day as my people were pulling off the lining of a hot-bed, in order to add some fresh dung. From out of the side of this bed leaped an animal with great agility, that made a most grotesque figure; nor was it without great difficulty that it could be taken, when it proved to be a large white-bellied field-mouse with three or four young clinging to her teats by their mouths and feet. It was amazing that the desultory and rapid motions of this dam should not oblige her litter to quit their hold, especially when it appeared that they were so young as to be both naked and blind!

To these instances of tender attachment, many more of which might be daily discovered by those that are studious of nature, may be opposed that rage of affection, that monstrous perversion of the [Greek text], which induces some females of the brute creation to devour their young because their owners have handled them too freely, or removed them from place to place! Swine, and sometimes the more gentle race of dogs and cats, are guilty of this horrid and preposterous murder. When I hear now and then of an abandoned mother that destroys her offspring, I am not so much amazed, since reason perverted, and the bad passions let loose, are capable of any enormity; but why the parental feelings of brutes, that usually flow in one most uniform tenor should sometimes be so extravagantly diverted, I leave to abler philosophers than myself to determine.

I am, etc.


Printed by Cassell & Company, Limited, La Belle Sauvage, London, E.C.

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