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your eye on my last letter, you will find that many species continued to warble after the beginning of July.
The titlark and yellow-bammer 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 red-breast 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
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.
TO THE SAME.
SELBORNE, Feb. 19, 1770. DEAR SIB,—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 entrust 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 were 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 whitethroat and the red-breast, 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
* Providence, or rather the great Creator, who does everything for the best, has so ordained it that the cuckoo only deposits its eggs in those nests in which the young will be fed with the food most congenial with their nature, in fact in those of birds strictly insectivorous. It is a curious fact, and one I believe not hitherto noticed by naturalists, that the cuckoo deposits its egg in the nest of the titlark, robin, wagtail, &c., by means of its foot. If the bird sat on the nest while the egg was laid, the weight of its body would crush the nest, and cause it to be forsaken, and thus one of the ends of Providence would be defeated. I have found the eggs of a cuckoo in the nest of a white-throat, built in so small a hole in a garden wall that it was absolutely impossible for the cuckoo to have got into it.-Ed.
should subsist on the same food with the hard-billed; for the former hare 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 farther appear that this simple bird, when divested of that natural otopyn 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.” of
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
* If the cuckoo made a nest as other birds do, and fed and brought up its young in the usual way, would not the harsh note of the male bird lead to the easy discovery of the nest, and thus the breed might be extinguished ?—ED.
† Job xxxix. 16, 17.
I It is now known from the examination of the ovarium, that the cuckoo lays several eggs.-Ed.