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NATURAL HISTORY OF SELBORNE.
TO THE HONOURABLE DAINES BARRINGTON.
The house-swallow,* or chimney-swallow, is undoubtedly the first comer of all the British hirundines; and appears in general on or about the 13th of April, as I have remarked from many years' observation. Not but now and then a straggler is seen much earlier : and, in particular, when I was a boy I observed a swallow for a whole day together on a sunny warm Shrove Tuesday; which day could not fall out later than the middle of March, and often happened early in February.
It is worth remarking that these birds are seen first about lakes and mill-ponds; and it is also very particular, that if these early visitors happen to find frost and snow, as was the case in the two dreadful springs of 1770 and 1771, they immediately withdraw for a time. A circumstance this much more in favour of hiding than migration ; since it is much
* Chimney-Swallow, Hirundo rustica, Linnæus.
more probable that a bird should retire to its hybernaculum just at hand, than return for a week or two only to warmer latitudes.
The swallow, though called the chimney-swallow, by no means builds altogether in chimneys, but often
House-swallows. within barns and out-houses, against the rafters; and so she did in Virgil's time :—“Garrula quàm tignis nidos suspendat hirundo.” “The twittering swallow hangs its nest from the beams."
In Sweden she builds in barns, and is called Ladu swala, the barn-swallow. Besides, in the warmer parts of Europe there are no chimneys to houses, except they are English built : in these countries she constructs her nest in porches, and gateways, and galleries, and open halls.
Here and there a bird may affect some odd, peculiar place; as we have known a swallow build down a shaft of an old well, through which chalk had been formerly drawn up for the purpose of manure : but in general with us this hirundo breeds in chimneys; and loves to haunt those stacks where there is a constant fire, no doubt for the sake of warmth. Not that it can subsist in the immediate shaft where there is a fire ; but prefers one adjoining to that of the kitchen, and disregards the perpetual smoke of that funnel, as I have often observed with some degree of wonder.
Five or six or more feet down the chimney does this little bird begin to form her nest, about the middle of May, which consists, like that of the housemartin, of a crust or shell composed of dirt or mud, mixed with short pieces of straw to render it tough and permanent: with this difference, that whereas the shell of the martin is nearly hemispheric, that of the swallow is open at the top, and like half a deep dish: this nest is lined with fine grasses, and feathers which are often collected as they float in the air.
Wonderful is the address which this adroit bird
shows all day long in ascending and descending with security through so narrow a pass. When hovering over the mouth of the funnel, the vibration of her wings acting on the confined air occasions a rumbling like thunder. It is not improbable that the dam submits to this inconvenient situation so low in the shaft, in order to secure her broods from rapacious birds, and particularly from owls, which frequently fall down chimneys, perhaps in attempting to get at these nestlings.
The swallow lays from four to six white eggs, dotted with red specks; and brings out her first brood about the last week in June, or the first week in July. The progressive method by which the young are introduced into life is very amusing: first, they emerge from the shaft with difficulty enough, and often fall down into the rooms below ; for a day or so they are fed on the chimney-top, and then are conducted to the dead leafless bough of some tree, where sitting in a row they are attended with great assiduity, and may then be called perchers. In a day or two more they become flyers, but are still unable to take their own food ; therefore they play about near the place where the dams are hawking for fies; and when a mouthful is collected, at a cer. tain signal given the dam and the nestling advance, rising towards each other, and meeting at an angle; the young one all the while uttering such a little quick note of gratitude and complacency, that a person must have paid very little regard to the wonders of nature that has not often remarked this feat.
The dam betakes herself immediately to the business of a second brood as soon as she is disengaged from her first; which at once associates with the first broods of house-martins; and with them congregates, clustering on sunny roofs, towers, and trees. This hirundo brings out her second brood towards the middle and end of August.
All the summer long the swallow is a most instructive pattern of unwearied industry and affection; for from morning to night, while there is a family to be supported, she spends the whole day in skimming close to the ground, and exerting the most sudden turns and quick evolutions. Avenues, and long walks under hedges, and pasture-fields, and mown meadows where cattle graze, are her delight, especially if there are trees interspersed ; because in such spots insects most abound. When a fly is taken, a smart snap from her bill is heard, resembling the noise at the shutting of a watch-case; but the motion of the mandibles is too quick for the eye.
The swallow, probably the male bird, is the excubitor to house-martins, and other little birds, announcing the approach of birds of prey. For as soon as a hawk appears, with a shrill alarming note he calls all the swallows and martins about him ; who pursue in a body, and buffet and strike their enemy till they have driven him from the village,