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TO THE HONOURABLE DAINES BARRINGTON.
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, which 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 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 milkwhite, 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 Æneas. 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 levants, break out much on the downs of Sussex, Hampshire, and Wiltshire. The country people say when the levants 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, 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 in 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.
*“As when the black swallow flies through the great palace of some wealthy lord, sweeping with its wings through the lofty halls, picking up tiny scraps of food for its chirping nestlings, at one time twittering in the empty porches, and at another round the watery ponds."
“Nigra velut magnas domini cum divitis ædes
Pervolat, et pennis alta atria lustrat hirundo,
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.
SELBORNE, Feb. 14, 1774.
TO THE HONOURABLE DAINES BARRINGTON.
The sand-martin, or bank-martin (Hirundo riparia, Linnæus), 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
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 inclosure, and faces upon a large and beautiful lake. 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 swal
*“ Each creature hath a wisdom of its own ;
The pigeons feed their tender offspring, crying,