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shape, size, and manner of nesting, I make no doubt but that the species is nondescript. They are much smaller, and more slender, than the Mus domesticus medius of Ray; and have more of the squirrel or dormouse colour; their belly is white, a straight line along their sides divides the shades of their back and belly. They never enter into houses; are carried into ricks and barns with the sheaves; abound in harvest; and build their nests amidst the straws of the corn above the ground, and sometimes in thistles. They breed as many as eight at a litter, in a little round nest composed of the blades of grass or wheat.
One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat, perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket-ball ; with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged. It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the table without being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind. As this nest was perfectly full, how could the dam come at her litter respectively so as to administer a teat to each ? Perhaps she opens different places for that purpose, adjusting them again when the business is over ; but she could not possibly be contained herself in the ball with her young, which moreover would be daily increasing in bulk. This wonderful procreant cradle, an elegant instance of the efforts of instinct, was found in a wheat-field suspended in the head of a thistle.
A gentleman, curious in birds, wrote me word that his servant had shot one last January, in that severe weather, which he believed would puzzle me. I called to see it this summer, not knowing what to expect, but the moment I took it in hand, I pronounced it the male Garrulus bohemicus, or German silk-tail, from the five peculiar crimson tags or points which it carries at the ends of five of the short remiges. It cannot, I suppose, with any propriety, be called an English bird ; and yet I see, by Ray's Philosophical Letters, that great flocks of them, feeding on haws, appeared in this kingdom in the winter of 1685.
The mention of haws puts me in mind that there is a total failure of that wild fruit, so conducive to the support of many of the winged nation. For the same severe weather, late in the spring, which cut off all the produce of the more tender and curious trees, destroyed also that of the more hardy and common.
Some birds, haunting with the missel-thrushes, and feeding on the berries of the yew tree, which answered to the description of the Merula torquata, or ring-ouzel, were lately seen in this neighbourhood. I employed some people to procure me a specimen, but without success. (See Letter VIII.)
Query.—Might not Canary-birds be naturalised to this climate, provided their eggs were put, in the spring, into the nests of some of their congeners, as goldfinches, greenfinches, etc. ? Before winter perhaps they might be hardened, and able to shift for themselves.
About ten years ago I used to spend some weeks yearly at Sunbury, which is one of those pleasant villages lying on the Thames, near Hampton Court. In the autumn, I could not help being much amused with those myriads of the swallow kind which assemble in those parts. But what struck me most was, that, from the time they began to congregate, forsaking the chimneys and houses, they roosted every night in the osier-beds of the aits of that river. Now this resorting towards that element, at that season of the year, seems to give some countenance to the northern opinion (strange as it is) of their retiring under water. A
Swedish naturalist is so much persuaded of that fact, that he talks, in his calendar of Flora, as familiarly of the swallow's going under water in the beginning of September, as he would of his poultry going to roost a little before sunset.
An observing gentleman in London writes me word that he saw a house-martin, on the twenty-third of last October, flying in and out of its nest in the Borough. And I myself, on the twenty-ninth of last October (as I was travelling through Oxford), saw four or five swallows hovering round and settling on the roof of the county hospital.
Now is it likely that these poor little birds (which perhaps had not been hatched but a few weeks) should, at that late season of the year, and from so midland a county, attempt a voyage to Goree or Senegal, almost as far as the equator ? *
I acquiesce entirely in your opinion—that, though most of the swallow kind may migrate, yet that some do stay behind and hide with us during the winter.
As to the short-winged soft-billed birds, which come trooping in such numbers in the spring, I am at a loss even what to suspect about them. I watched them narrowly this year, and saw them abound till about Michaelmas, when they appeared no longer. Subsist they cannot openly among us, and yet elude the eyes of the inquisitive : and, as to their hiding, no man pretends to have found any of them in a torpid state in the winter. But with regard to their migration, what difficulties attend that supposition ! that such feeble bad fliers (who the summer long never flit but from hedge to hedge) should be able to traverse vast seas and continents in order to enjoy milder seasons amidst the regions of Africa !
* See Adanson's Voyage to Senegal.
SELBORNE, Jan. 22nd, 1768. As in one of your former letters you expressed the more satisfaction from my correspondence on account of my living in the most southerly counży ; so now I may return the compliment, and expect to have my curiosity gratified by your living much more to the North.
For many years past I have observed that towards Christmas vast flocks of chaffinches have appeared in the fields; many more, I used to think, than could be hatched in any one neighbourhood. But, when I came to observe them more narrowly, I was amazed to find that they seemed to me to be almost all hens. I communicated my suspicions to some intelligent neighbours, who, after taking pains about the matter, declared that they also thought them mostly fernales—at least fifty to one. This extraordinary occurrence brought to my mind the remark of Linnæus, that “before winter all their hen chaffinches migrate through Holland into Italy.” Now I want to know, from some curious person in the north, whether there are any large flocks of these finches with them in the winter, and of which sex they mostly consist ? For, from such intelligence, one might be able to judge whether our female flocks migrate from the other end of the island, or whether they come over to us from the continent.
We have, in the winter, vast flocks of the common linnets; more, I think, than can be bred in any one district. These, I observe, when the spring advances, assemble on some tree in the sunshine, and join all in a gentle sort of chirping, as if they were about to break up their winter quarters and betake themselves to their proper summer homes. It is well known, at least, that the swallows and the fieldfares do congregate with a gentle twittering before they make their respective departure.
You may depend on it that the bunting, Emberiza miliaria, does not leave this county in the winter. In January 1767 I saw several dozen of them, in the midst of a severe frost, among the bushes on the downs near Andover: in our woodland enclosed district it is a rare bird.
Wagtails, both white and yellow, are with us all the winter. Quails crowd to our southern coast, and are often killed in numbers by people that go on purpose.
Mr. Stillingfleet, in his Tracts, says that “if the wheatear (ænanthe) does not quit England, it certainly shifts places ; for about harvest they are not to be found, where there was before great plenty of them.” This well accounts for the vast quantities that are caught about that time on the south downs near Lewes, where they are esteemed a delicacy. There have been shepherds, I have been credibly informed, that have made many pounds in a season by catching them in traps. And though such multitudes are taken, I never saw (and I am well acquainted with those parts) above two or three at a time, for they are never gregarious. They may perhaps migrate in general ; and, for that purpose, draw towards the coast of Sussex in autumn: but that they do not all withdraw I am sure ; because I see a few stragglers in many counties, at all times of the year, especially about warrens and stone
I have no acquaintance, at present, among the gentlemen of the navy ; but have written to a friend, who was a seachaplain in the late war, desiring him to look into his minutes, with respect to birds that settled on their rigging