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Birds and Man

To most of our wild birds man must appear as a being eccentric and contradictory in his actions. By turns he is hostile, indifferent, friendly towards them, so that they never quite know what to expect. Take the case of a blackbird who has gradually acquired trustful habits, and builds its nest in the garden or shrubbery in sight of the friends that have fed it in frosty weather; so little does it fear that it allows them to come a dozen times a day, put the branches aside and look upon it, and even stroke its back as it sits on its eggs. By and by a neighbour's egg-hunting boy creeps in, discovers the nest, and pulls it down. The bird finds itself betrayed by its confidence; had it suspected the boy's evil intentions it would have made an outcry at his approach, as at the appearance of a cat, and the nest would perhaps have been saved. The result of such an accident would probably be the unsettling of an acquired habit, the return to the usual suspicious attitude.

Birds are able sometimes to discriminate between protectors and persecutors, but seldom very well I should imagine; they do not view the face only, but the whole form, and our frequent change of dress must make it difficult for them to distinguish the individuals they know and trust from strangers. Even a dog is occasionally at fault when his master, last seen in black and grey suit, reappears in straw hat and flannels.

Nevertheless, if birds once come to know those who habitually protect them and form a trustful habit, this will not be abandoned on account of a little rough treatment on occasions. A lady at Worthing told me of her blackbirds breeding in her garden that they refused to be kept from the strawberries when she netted the ripening fruit. One or more of the birds would always manage to get under the net; and when she would capture the robber and carry him, screaming, struggling and pecking at her fingers, to the end of the garden and release him, he would immediately follow her back to the bed and set himself to get at the fruit again.

In a bird's relations with other mammals there is no room for doubt or confusion; each consistently acts after its kind; once hostile, always hostile; and if once seen to be harmless, then to be trusted for ever. The fox must always be feared and detested; his disposition, like his sharp nose and red coat, is unchangeable; so, too, with the cat, stoat, weasel, etc. On the other hand, in the presence of herbivorous mammals, birds show no sign of suspicion; they know that all these various creatures are absolutely harmless, from the big formidable-looking bull and roaring stag, to the mild-eyed, timorous hare and rabbit. It is common to see wagtails and other species attending cattle in the pastures, and keeping close to their noses, on the look-out for the small insects driven from hiding in the grass. Daws and starlings search the backs of cattle and sheep for ticks and other parasites, and it is plain that their visits are welcome. Here a joint interest unites bird and beast; it is the nearest approach to symbiosis among the higher vertebrates of this country, but is far less advanced than the partnership which exists between the rhinoceros bird and the rhinoceros or buffalo, and between the spur-winged plover and crocodile in Africa.

One day I was walking by a meadow, adjoining the Bishop's palace at Wells, where several cows were grazing, and noticed a little beyond them a number of rooks and starlings scattered about. Presently a flock of about forty of the cathedral jackdaws flew over me and slanted down to join the other birds, when all at once two daws dropped out of the flock on to the back of the cow standing nearest to me. Immediately five more daws followed, and the crowd of seven birds began eagerly pecking at the animal's hide. But there was not room enough for them to move freely; they pushed and struggled for a footing, throwing their wings out to keep their balance, looking like a number of hungry vultures fighting for places on a carcase; and soon two of the seven were thrown off and flew away. The remaining five, although much straitened for room, continued for some time scrambling over the cow's back, busy with their beaks and apparently very much excited over the treasure they had discovered. It was amusing to see how the cow took their visit; sinking her body as if about to lie down and broadening her back, and dropping her head until her nose touched the ground, she stood perfectly motionless, her tail stuck out behind like a pump-handle. At length the daws finished their feeding and quarrelling and flew away; but for some minutes the cow remained immovable in the same attitude, as if the rare and delightful sensation of so many beaks prodding and so many sharp claws scratching her hide had not yet worn off.

Deer, too, like cows, are very grateful to the daw for its services. In Savernake Forest I once witnessed a very pretty little scene. I noticed a hind lying down by herself in a grassy hollow, and as I passed her at a distance of about fifty yards it struck me as singular that she kept her head so low down that I could only see the top of it on a level with her back. Walking round to get a better sight, I saw a jackdaw standing on the turf before her, very busily pecking at her face. With my glass I was able to watch his movements very closely; he pecked round her eyes, then her nostrils, her throat, and in fact every part of her face; and just as a man when being shaved turns his face this way and that under the gentle guiding touch of the barber's fingers, and lifts up his chin to allow the razor to pass beneath it, so did the hind raise and lower and turn her face about to enable the bird to examine and reach every part with his bill. Finally the daw left the face, and, moving round, jumped on to the deer's shoulders and began a minute search in that part; having finished this he jumped on to the head and pecked at the forehead and round the bases of the ears. The pecking done, he remained for some seconds sitting perfectly still, looking very pretty with the graceful red head for a stand, the hind's long ears thrust out on either side of him. From his living perch he sprang into the air and flew away, going close to the surface; then slowly the deer raised her head and gazed after her black friend—gratefully, and regretting his departure, I could not but think.

Some birds when breeding exhibit great anxiety at the approach of any animal to the nest; but even when most excited they behave very differently towards herbivorous mammals and those which they know to be at all times the enemies of their kind. The nest of a ground-breeding species may be endangered by the proximity of a goat, sheep, deer, or any grazing animal, but the birds do not winnow the air above it, scream, make threatening dashes at its head, and try to lead it away as they would do in the case of a dog or fox. When small birds dash at and violently attack large animals and man in defence of their nest, even though the nest may not have been touched, the action appears to be purely instinctive and involuntary, almost unconscious, in fact. Acts of this kind are more often seen in humming-birds than in birds of other families; and humming-birds do not appear to discriminate between rapacious and herbivorous mammals. When they see a large animal moving about they fly close to and examine it for a few moments, then dart away; if it comes too near the nest they will attack it, or threaten an attack. When examining their nests I have had humming-birds dash into my face. The action is similar to that of a stingless, solitary carpenter bee, common in La Plata: a round burly insect with a shining steel-blue body: when the tree or bush in which this bee has its nest is approached by a man it darts about in an eccentric manner, humming loudly, and at intervals remains suspended motionless for ten or fifteen seconds at a height of seven or eight yards above his head; suddenly it dashes quick as lightning into his face, inflicting a sharp blow. The bee falls, as if stunned, a space of a couple of feet, then rises again to repeat the action.

There is certainly a wide difference between so simple an instinctive action as this, which cannot be regarded as intelligent or conscious, and the actions of most birds in the presence of danger to their eggs or young. In species that breed on the ground in open situations the dangers to which bird and nest are exposed are of different kinds, and, leaving out the case of that anomalous creature, man, we see that as a rule the bird's judgment is not at fault. In one case it is necessary that he should guard himself while trying to save his nest; in another case the danger is to the nest only, and he then shows that he has no fear for himself. The most striking instance I have met with, bearing on this last point, relates to the action of a spur-winged lapwing observed on the Pampas. The bird's loud excited cries attracted my attention; a sheep was lying down with its nose directly over the nest, containing three eggs, and the plover was trying to make it get up and go away. It was a hot day and the sheep refused to stir; possibly the fanning of the bird's wings was grateful to her. After beating the sheep's face for some time it began pecking sharply at the nose; then the sheep raised her head, but soon grew tired of holding it up, and no sooner was it lowered than the blows and peckings began again. Again the head was raised, and lowered again with the same result, and this continued for about twelve or fourteen minutes, until the annoyance became intolerable; then the sheep raised her head and refused to lower it any more, and in that very uncomfortable position, with her nose high in the air, she appeared determined to stay. In vain the lapwing waited, and at last began to make little jumps at the face. The nose was out of reach, but by and by, in one of its jumps, it caught the sheep's ear in its beak and remained hanging with drooping wings and dangling legs. The sheep shook her head several times and at last shook the bird off; but no sooner was it down than it jumped up and caught the ear again; then at last the sheep, fairly beaten, struggled up to her feet, throwing the bird off, and lazily walked away, shaking her head repeatedly.

How great the confidence of the plover must have been to allow it to act in such a manner!

This perfect confidence which birds have in the mammals they have been taught by experience and tradition to regard as harmless must be familiar to any one who has observed partridges associating with rabbits. The manners of the rabbit, one would imagine, must be exceedingly "upsetting" to birds of so timorous a disposition. He has a way, after a quiet interval, of leaping into activity with startling suddenness, darting violently away as if scared out of his senses; but his eccentric movements do not in the least alarm his feathered companions. One evening early in the month of March I witnessed an amusing scene near Ockley, in Surrey. I was walking towards the village about half an hour after sunset, when, hearing the loud call of a partridge, I turned my eyes in the direction of the sound and saw five birds on a slight eminence nearly in the centre of a small green field, surrounded by a low thorn hedge. They had come to that spot to roost; the calling bird was standing erect, and for some time he continued to call at intervals after the others had settled down at a distance of one or two yards apart. All at once, while I stood watching the birds there was a rustling sound in the hedge, and out of it burst two buck rabbits engaged in a frantic running fight. For some time they kept near the hedge, but fighting rabbits seldom continue long on one spot; they are incessantly on the move, although their movements are chiefly round and round now one way—flight and pursuit—then, like lightning, the foremost rabbit doubles back and there is a collision, bitings, and rolling over and over together, and in an instant they are up again, wide apart, racing like mad. Gradually they went farther and farther from the hedge; and at length chance took them to the very spot on which the partridges had settled, and there for three or four minutes the duel went on. But the birds refused to be turned out of their quarters. The bird that had called still remained standing, expectant, with raised head, as if watching for the appearance of some loiterer, while the others all kept their places. Their quietude in the midst of that whirlwind of battle was wonderful to see. Their only movement was when one of the birds was in a direct line with a flying rabbit, when, if it stayed still, in another moment it would be struck and perhaps killed by the shock; then it would leap a few inches aside and immediately settle down again. In this way every one of the birds had been forced to move several times before the battle passed on towards the opposite side of the field and left the covey in peace.

Social animals, Herbert Spencer truly says, "take pleasure in the consciousness of one another's company;" but he appears to limit the feeling to those of the same herd, or flock, or species. Speaking of the mental processes of the cow, he tells us just how that large mammal is impressed by the sight of birds that come near it and pass across its field of vision; they are regarded in a vague way as mere shadows, or shadowy objects, flitting or blown about hither and thither over the grass or through the air. He didn't know a cow's mind. My conviction is that all animals distinctly see in those of other species, living, sentient, intelligent beings like themselves; and that, when birds and mammals meet together, they take pleasure in the consciousness of one another's presence, in spite of the enormous difference in size, voice, habits, etc. I believe that this sympathy exists and is just as strong between a cow and its small volatile companion, the wagtail, as between a bird and mammal that more nearly resemble each other in size; for instance, the partridge, or pheasant, and rabbit.

The only bird with us that appears to have some such feeling of pleasure in the company of man is the robin. It is not universal, not even very common, and Macgillivray, in speaking of the confidence in men of that bird during severe weather, very truly says, "In ordinary times he is not perfectly disposed to trust in man." Any person can prove this for himself by going into a garden or shrubbery and approaching a robin. We see, too, that the bird shows intense anxiety when its nest is approached by a man; this point, however, need not be made much of, since all visitors, even its best friends, are unwelcome to the breeding bird. Still, there is no doubt that the robin is less distrustful of man than other species, but not surely because this bird is regarded by most persons with kindly feelings. The curious point is that the young birds find something in man to attract them. This is usually seen at the end of summer, when the old birds have gone into hiding, and it is then surprising to find how many of the young robins left in possession of the ground appear to take pleasure in the company of human beings. Often before a person has been many minutes in a garden strolling about, he will discover that the quiet little spotted bird is with him, hopping and flying from twig to twig and occasionally alighting on the ground, keeping company with him, sometimes sitting quite still a yard from his hand. The gardener is usually attended by a friendly robin, and when he turns up the soil the bird will come down close to his feet to pick up the small grubs and worms. Is it not probable that the tameness of the tame young robin so frequently met with is, like that of the robin who keeps company with the gardener or woodman, an acquired habit; that the young bird has made the discovery that when a person is moving about among the plants, picking fruit perhaps, lurking insects are disturbed at the roots and small spiders and caterpillars shaken from the leaves? We are to the robin what the cow is to the wagtail and the sheep to the starling—a food finder.

Among the birds of the homestead the swallow is another somewhat exceptional species in his way of regarding man. He is too much a creature of the air to take any pleasure in the company of heavy animals, bound to earth; the distance is too great for sympathy to exist. When we consider how closely he is bound and how much he is to us, it is hard to believe that he is wholly unconscious of our benefits, that when he returns in spring, overflowing with gladness, to twitter his delightful airy music round the house, he is not singing to us, glad to see us again after a long absence, to be once more our welcome guest as in past years. But so it is. When there were no houses in the land he built his nest in some rocky cavern, where a she-wolf had her lair, and his life and music were just as joyous as they are now, and the wolf suckling her cubs on the stony floor beneath was nothing to him. But if by chance she climbed a little way up or put her nose too near his nest, his lively twittering quickly changed to shrill cries of alarm and anger. And we are no more than the vanished wolf to the swallow, and so long as we refrain from peeping into his nest and handling his eggs or young, he does not know us, and is hardly conscious of our existence. All the social feelings and sympathy of the swallow are for creatures as a๋rial and swift-winged as itself—its playmates in the wide fields of air.

Swallows hawking after flies in a village street, where people are walking about, is a familiar sight, Swifts are just as confident. A short time ago, while standing in the churchyard at Farnham, in Surrey, watching a bunch of ten or twelve swifts racing through the air, I noticed that on each return to the church they followed the same line, doubling round the tower on the same side, then sweeping down close to the surface, and mounting again. Going to the spot I put myself directly in their way—on their race-course as it were, at that point where it touched the earth; but they did not on that account vary their route; each time they came back they streamed screaming past my head so near as almost to brush my face with their wings. But I was never more struck by the unconcern at the presence of man shown by these birds—swallows, martins, and swifts—as on one occasion at Frensham, when the birds were very numerous. This was in the month of May, about five weeks after I had witnessed the fight between two rabbits, and the wonderful composure exhibited by a covey of partridges through it all. It was on a close hot morning, after a night of rain, when, walking down to Frensham Great Pond, I saw the birds hawking about near the water. The may-flies were just out, and in some mysterious way the news had been swiftly carried all over the surrounding country. So great was the number of birds that the entire population of swallows, house- and sand-martins, and swifts, must have been gathered at that spot from the villages, farms, and sand-banks for several miles around. At the side of the pond I was approaching there is a green strip about a hundred and twenty or a hundred and thirty yards in length and forty or fifty yards wide, and over this ground from end to end the birds were smoothly and swiftly gliding backwards and forwards. The whole place seemed alive with them. Hurrying to the spot I met with a little adventure which it may not be inapt to relate. Walking on through some scattered furze-bushes, gazing intently ahead at the swallows, I almost knocked my foot against a hen pheasant covering her young chicks on the bare ground beside a dwarf bush. Catching sight of her just in time I started back; then, with my feet about a yard from the bird, I stood and regarded her for some time. Not the slightest movement did she make; she was like a bird carved out of some beautifully variegated and highly-polished stone, but her bright round eyes had a wonderfully alert and wild expression. With all her stillness the poor bird must have been in an agony of terror and suspense, and I wondered how long she would endure the tension. She stood it for about fifty seconds, then burst screaming away with such violence that her seven or eight chicks were flung in all directions to a distance of two or three feet like little balls of fluff; and going twenty yards away she dropped to the ground and began beating her wings, calling loudly.

I then walked on, and in three or four minutes was on the green ground in the thick of the swallows. They were in hundreds, flying at various heights, but mostly low, so that I looked down on them, and they certainly formed a curious and beautiful spectacle. So thick were they, and so straight and rapid their flight, that they formed in appearance a current, or rather many currents, flowing side by side in opposite directions; and when viewed with nearly closed eyes the birds were like black lines on the green surface. They were silent except for the occasional weak note of the sand-martin; and through it all they were perfectly regardless of me, whether I stood still or walked about among them; only when I happened to be directly in the way of a bird coming towards me he would swerve aside just far enough to avoid touching me.

In the evening of that very day the behaviour of a number of gold-crests, disturbed at my presence, surprised and puzzled me not a little; their action had a peculiar interest just then, as the encounter with the pheasant, and the sight of the multitude of swallows and their indifference towards me were still very fresh in memory. The incident has only an indirect bearing on the subject discussed here, but I think it is worth relating.

About two miles from Frensham ponds there is a plantation of fir-trees with a good deal of gorse growing scattered about among the trees; in walking through this wood on previous occasions I had noticed that gold-crests were abundant in it. Soon after sunset on the evening in question I went through this wood, and after going about eighty to a hundred yards became conscious of a commotion of a novel kind in the branches above my head—conscious too that it had been going on for some time, and that absorbed in thought I had not remarked it. A considerable number of gold-crests were flitting through the branches and passing from tree to tree, keeping over and near me, all together uttering their most vehement cries of alarm. I stopped and listened to the little chorus of shrill squeaking sounds, and watched the birds as well as I could in the obscurity of the branches, flitting about in the greatest agitation. It was perfectly clear that I was the cause of the excitement, as the birds increased in number as long as I stood at that spot, until there could not have been less than forty or fifty, and when I again walked on they followed. One expects to be mobbed and screamed at by gulls, terns, lapwings, and some other species, when approaching their nesting-places, but a hostile demonstration of this kind from such minute creatures as gold-crests, usually indifferent to man, struck me as very unusual and somewhat ridiculous. What, I asked myself, could be the reason of their sudden alarm, when my previous visits to the wood had not excited them in the least? I could only suppose that I had, without knowing it, brushed against a nest, and the alarm note of the parent birds had excited the others and caused them to gather near me, and that in the obscure light they had mistaken me for some rapacious animal. The right explanation (I think it the right one) was found by chance three months later.

In August I was in Ireland, staying at a country house among the Wicklow hills. There were several swallows' nests in the stable, one or two so low that they could be reached by the hand, and the birds went in and out regardless of the presence of any person. In a few days the young were out, sitting in rows on the roof of the house or on a low fence near it, where their parents fed them for a short time. After these young birds were able to take care of themselves they still kept about the house, and were joined by more swallows and martins from the neighbourhood. One bright sunny morning, when not fewer than two or three score of these birds were flying about the house, gaily twittering, I went into the garden to get some fruit. All at once a swallow uttered his loud shrill alarm cry overhead and at the same time darted down at me, almost grazing my hat, then mounting up he continued making swoops, screaming all the time. Immediately all the other swallows and martins came to the spot, joining in the cry, and continued flying about over my head, but not darting at me like the first bird. For some moments I was very much astonished at the attack; then I looked round for the cat—it must be the cat, I thought. This animal had a habit of hiding among the gooseberry bushes, and, when I stooped to pick the fruit, springing very suddenly upon my back. But pussy was nowhere near, and as the swallow continued to make dashes at me, I thought that there must be something to alarm it on my head, and at once pulled off my hat and began to examine it. In a moment the alarm cries ceased and the whole gathering of swallows dispersed in all directions. There was no doubt that my hat had caused the excitement; it was of tweed, of an obscure grey colour, striped or barred with dark brown. Throwing it down on the ground among the bushes it struck me that its colour and markings were like those of a grey striped cat. Any one seeing it lying there would, at the first moment, have mistaken it for a cat lying curled up asleep among the bushes. Then I remembered that I had been wearing the same delusive, dangerous-looking round tweed fishing-hat on the occasion of being mobbed by the gold-crests at Frensham. Of course the illusion could only have been produced in a bird looking down upon the top of the hat from above.

W. H. Hudson