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Daws in the West Country

Daws are more abundant in the west and south-west of England generally than in any other part of the kingdom; and they abound most in Somerset, or so it has seemed to me. It is true that the largest congregations of daws in the entire country are to be seen at Savernake in Wiltshire, where the ancient hollow beeches and oaks in the central parts of the forest supply them with all the nesting holes they require. There is no such wood of old decaying trees in Somerset to attract them to one spot in such numbers, but the country generally is singularly favourable to them. It is mainly a pastoral country with large areas of rich, low grass land, and ranges of high hills, where there are many rocky precipices such as the daw loves. For very good reasons he prefers the inland to the sea-cliff as a breeding site. It is, to begin with, in the midst of his feeding ground, whereas the sea-wall is a boundary to a feeding ground beyond which the bird cannot go. Better still, the inland bird has an immense advantage over the other in travelling to and from his nest in bad weather. When the wind blows strong from the sea the seaside bird must perpetually fight against it and win his home by sheer muscular exertion. The other bird, able to go foraging to this side or that, according to the way the wind blows, can always have the wind as a help instead of a hindrance.

Somerset also possesses a long coast-line and some miles of sea-cliffs, but the colonies of jackdaws found here are small compared with those of the Mendip range. The inland-cliff breeding daws that inhabit the valley of the Somerset Axe alone probably greatly outnumber all the daws in Middlesex, or Surrey, or Essex.

Finally, besides the cliffs and woods, there are the old towns and villages—small towns and villages with churches that are almost like cathedrals. No county in England is richer in noble churches, and no kind of building seems more attractive to the "ecclesiastical daw" than the great Perpendicular tower of the Glastonbury type, which is so common here.

Of the old towns which the bird loves and inhabits in numbers, Wells comes first. If Wells had no birds it would still be a city one could not but delight in. There are not more than half a dozen towns in all the country where (if I were compelled to live in towns) life would not seem something of a burden; and of these, two are in Somerset—Bath and Wells. Of the former something will be said further on: Wells has the first place in my affections, and is the one town in England the sight of which in April and early May, from a neighbouring hill, has caused me to sigh with pleasure. Its cathedral is assuredly the loveliest work of man in this land, supremely beautiful, even without the multitude of daws that make it their house, and may be seen every day in scores, looking like black doves perched on the stony heads and hands and shoulders of that great company of angels and saints, apostles, kings, queens, and bishops, that decorate the wonderful west front. For in this building—not viewed as in a photograph or picture, nor through the eye of the mere architect or archaeologist, who sees the gem but not the setting—nature and man appear to have worked together more harmoniously than in others.

But it is hard to imagine a birdless Wells. The hills, beautiful with trees and grass and flowers, come down to it; cattle graze on their slopes; the peewit has its nest in their stony places, and the kestrel with quick-beating wings hangs motionless overhead. Nature is round it, breathing upon and touching it caressingly on every side; flowing through it like the waters that gave it its name in olden days, that still gush with noise and foam from the everlasting rock, to send their crystal currents along the streets. And with nature, in and around the rustic village-like city, live the birds. The green woodpecker laughs aloud from the group of old cedars and pines, hard by the cathedral close—you will not hear that woodland sound in any other city in the kingdom; and the rooks caw all day from the rookery in the old elms that grow at the side of the palace moat. But the cathedral daws, on account of their numbers, are the most important of the feathered inhabitants of Wells. These city birds are familiarly called "Bishop's Jacks," to distinguish them from the "Ebor Jacks," the daws that in large numbers have their home and breeding-place in the neighbouring cliffs, called the Ebor Rocks.

The Ebor daws are but the first of a succession of colonies extending along the side of the Cheddar valley. A curious belief exists among the people of Wells and the district, that the Ebor Jacks make better pets than the Bishop's Jacks. If you want a young bird you have to pay more for one from the rocks than from the cathedral. I was assured that the cliff bird makes a livelier, more intelligent and amusing pet than the other. A similar notion exists, or existed, at Hastings, where there was a saying among the fisher folks and other natives that "a Grainger daa is worth a ha'penny more than a castle daa." The Grainger rock, once a favourite breeding-place of the daws at that point, has long since fallen into the sea, and the saying has perhaps died out.

At Wells most of the cathedral birds—a hundred couples at least—breed in the cavities behind the stone statues, standing, each in its niche, in rows, tier above tier, on the west front. In April, when the daws are busiest at their nest-building, I have amused myself early every morning watching them flying to the front in a constant procession, every bird bringing his stick. This work is all done in the early morning, and about half-past eight o'clock a man comes with a barrow to gather up the fallen sticks—there is always a big barrowful, heaped high, of them; and if not thus removed the accumulated material would in a few days form a rampart or zareba, which would prevent access to the cathedral on that side.

It has often been observed that the daw, albeit so clever a bird, shows a curious deficiency of judg ment when building, in his persistent efforts to carry in sticks too big for the cavity. Here, for instance, each morning in turning over the litter of fallen material I picked up sticks measuring from four or five to seven feet in length. These very long sticks were so slender and dry that the bird was able to lift and to fly with them; therefore, to his corvine mind, they were suitable for his purpose. It comes to this: the daw knows a stick when he sees one, but the only way of testing its usefulness to him is to pick it up in his beak, then to try to fly with it. If the stick is six feet long and the cavity will only admit one of not more than eighteen inches, he discovers his mistake only on getting home. The question arises: Does he continue all his life long repeating this egregious blunder? One can hardly believe that an old, experienced bird can go on from day to day and year to year wasting his energies in gathering and carrying building materials that will have to be thrown away in the end—that he is, in fact, mentally on a level with the great mass of meaner beings who forget nothing and learn nothing. It is not to be doubted that the daw was once a builder in trees, like all his relations, with the exception of the cliff-breeding chough. He is even capable of reverting to the original habit, as I know from an instance which has quite recently come to my knowledge. In this case a small colony of daws have been noticed for several years past breeding in stick nests placed among the clustering foliage of a group of Scotch firs. This colony may have sprung from a bird hatched and reared in the nest of a carrion crow or magpie. Still, the habit of breeding in holes must be very ancient, and considering that the jackdaw is one of the most intelligent of our birds, one cannot but be astonished at the rude, primitive, blundering way in which the nest-building work is generally performed. The most we can see by carefully watching a number of birds at work is that there appears to be some difference with regard to intelligence between bird and bird. Some individuals blunder less than others; it is possible that these have learned something from experience; but if that be so, their better way is theirs only, and their young will not inherit it.

One morning at Wells as I stood on the cathedral green watching the birds at their work, I witnessed a rare and curious scene—one amazing to an ornithologist. A bird dropped a stick—an incident that occurred a dozen times or oftener any minute at that busy time; but in this instance the bird had no sooner let the stick fall than he rushed down after it to attempt its recovery, just as one may see a sparrow drop a feather or straw, and then dart down after it and often recover it before it touches the ground. The heavy stick fell straight and fast on to the pile of sticks already lying on the pavement, and instantly the daw was down and had it in his beak, and thereupon laboriously flew up to his nesting-place, which was forty to fifty feet high. At the moment that he rushed down after the falling stick two other daws that happened to be standing on ledges above dropped down after him, and copied his action by each picking up a stick and flying with it to their nests. Other daws followed suit, and in a few minutes there was a stream of descending and ascending daws at that spot, every ascending bird with a stick in his beak. It was curious to see that although sticks were lying in hundreds on the pavement along the entire breadth of the west front, the daws continued coming down only at that spot where the first bird had picked up the stick he had dropped. By and by, to my regret, the birds suddenly took alarm at something and rose up, and from that moment not one descended.

Presently the man came round with his rake and broom and barrow to tidy up the place. Before beginning his work he solemnly made the following remark: "Is it not curious, sir, considering the distance the birds go to get their sticks, and the work of carrying them, that they never, by any chance, think to come down and pick up what they have dropped!" I replied that I had heard the same thing said before, and that it was in all the books; and then I told him of the scene I had just witnessed. He was very much surprised, and said that such a thing had never been witnessed before at that place. It had a disturbing effect on him, and he appeared to me to resent this departure from their old ancient conservative ways on the part of the cathedral birds.

For many mornings after I continued to watch the daws until the nest-building was finished, without witnessing any fresh outbreak of intelligence in the colony: they had once more shaken down into the old inconvenient traditional groove, to the manifest relief of the man with the broom and barrow.

Bath, like Wells, is a city that has a considerable amount of nature in its composition, and is set down in a country of hills, woods, rocks and streams, and is therefore, like the other, a city loved by daws and by many other wild birds. It is a town built of white stone in the hollow of an oblong basin, with the river Avon flowing through it; and though perhaps too large for perfect beauty, it is exceedingly pleasant. Its "stone walls do not a prison make," since they do not shut you out from rural sights and sounds: walking in almost any street, even in the lowest part, in the busiest, noisiest centre of the town, you have but to lift your eyes to see a green hill not far away; and viewed from the top of one of these hills that encircle it, Bath, in certain favourable states of the atmosphere, wears a beautiful look. One afternoon, a couple of miles out, I was on the top of Barrow Hill in a sudden, violent storm of rain and wind; when the rain ceased, the sun burst out behind me, and the town, rain-wet and sun-flushed, shone white as a city built of whitest marble against the green hills and black cloud on the farther side. Then on the slaty blackness appeared a complete and most brilliant rainbow, on one side streaming athwart the green hill and resting on the centre of the town, so that the high, old, richly-decorated Abbey Church was seen through a band of green and violet mist. That storm and that rainbow, seen by chance, gave a peculiar grace and glory to Bath, and the bright, unfading picture it left in memory has perhaps become too much associated in my mind with the thought of Bath, and has given me an exaggerated idea of its charm.

When staying in Bath in the winter of 1898-9 I saw a good deal of bird life even in the heart of the town. At the back of the house I lodged in, in New King Street, within four minutes' walk of the Pump Room, there was a strip of ground called a garden, but with no plants except a few dead stalks and stumps and two small leafless trees. Clothes-lines were hung there, and the ground was littered with old bricks and rubbish, and at the far end of the strip there was a fowl-house with fowls in it, a small shed, and a wood-pile. Yet to this unpromising-looking spot came a considerable variety of birds. Starlings, sparrows, and chaffinches were the most numerous, while the blackbird, thrush, robin, hedge-sparrow and wren were each represented by a pair. The wrens lived in the wood-pile, and were the only members of the little feathered community that did not join the others at table when crumbs and scraps were thrown out.

It was surprising to find all or most of these birds evidently wintering on that small plot of ground in the middle of the town, solely for the sake of the warmth and shelter it afforded them, and the chance crumbs that came in their way. It is true that I fed them regularly, but they were all there before I came. Yet it was not an absolutely safe place for them, being much infested by cats, especially by a big black one who was always on the prowl, and who had a peculiarly murderous gleam in his luminous yellow orbs when he crouched down to watch or attempted to stalk them. One could not but imagine that the very sight of such eyes in that black, devilish face would have been enough to freeze their blood with sudden terror, and make them powerless to fly from him. But it was not so: he could neither fascinate nor take them by surprise. No sooner would he begin to practise his wiles than all the population would be up in arms—the loud, sharp summons of the blackbird sounding first; then the starlings would chatter angrily, the thrush scream, the chaffinches begin to pink-pink with all their might, and the others would join in, even the small hideling wrens coming out of their fortress of faggots to take part in the demonstration. Then puss would give it up and go away, or coil himself up and go to sleep on the sloping roof of the tiny shed or in some other sheltered spot; peace and quiet would once more settle on the little republic, and the birds would be content to dwell with their enemy in their midst in full sight of them, so long as he slept or did not watch them too narrowly.

Finding that blue tits were among the visitors at the back, I hung up some lumps of suet and a cocoa-nut to the twigs of the bushes. The suet was immediately attacked, but judging from the suspicious way in which they regarded the round brown object swinging in the wind, the Bath tits had never before been treated to a cocoa-nut. But though suspicious, it was plain that the singular object greatly excited their curiosity. On the second day they made the discovery that it was a new and delightful dish invented for the benefit of the blue tits, and from that time they were at it at all hours, coming and going from morning till night. There were six of them, and occasionally they were all there at once, each one anxious to secure a place, and never able when he got one to keep it longer than three or four seconds at a time. Looking upon them from an upper window, as they perched against and flitted round and round the suspended cocoa-nut, they looked like a gathering of very large pale-blue flies flitting round and feeding on medlar.

No doubt the sparrow is the most abundant species in Bath—I have got into a habit of not noticing that bird, and it is as if I did not see him; but after him the starling is undoubtedly the most numerous. He is, we know, increasing everywhere, but in no other town in England have I found him in such numbers. He is seen in flocks of a dozen to half a hundred, busily searching for grubs on every lawn and green place in and round the town, and if you go up to some elevated spot so as to look down upon Bath, you will see flocks of starlings arriving and departing at all points. As you walk the streets their metallic clink-clink-clink sounds from all quarters—small noises which to most men are lost among the louder noises of a populous town. It is as if every house had a peal of minute bells hidden beneath the tiles or slates of the roof, or among the chimney-pots, that they were constantly being rung, and that every bell was cracked.

The ordinary or unobservant person sees and hears far more of the jackdaw than of any other bird in Bath. Daws are seen and heard all over the town, but are most common about the Abbey, where they soar and gambol and quarrel all day long, and when they think that nobody is looking, drop down to the streets to snatch up and carry off any eatable-looking object that catches their eye.

It was here at this central spot, while I stood one day idly watching the birds disporting themselves about the Abbey and listened to their clamour, that certain words of Ruskin came into my mind, and I began to think of them not merely with admiration, as when I first read them long ago, but critically.

Ruskin, one of our greatest prose writers, is usually at his best in the transposition of pictures into words, his descriptions of what he has seen, in nature and art, being the most perfect examples of "word painting" in the language. Here his writing is that of one whose vision is not merely, as in the majority of men, the most important and intellectual of the senses, but so infinitely more important than all the others, and developed and trained to so extraordinary a degree, as to make him appear like a person of a single sense. We may say that this predominant sense has caused, or fed upon, the decay of the others. This is to me a defect in the author I most admire; for though he makes me see, and delight in seeing, that which was previously hidden, and all things gain in beauty and splendour, I yet miss something from the picture, just as I should miss light and colour from a description of nature, however beautifully written, by a man whose sense of sight was nothing or next to nothing to him, but whose other senses were all developed to the highest state of perfection.

No doubt Ruskin is, before everything, an artist: in other words, he looks at nature and all visible things with a purpose, which I am happily without: and the reflex effect of his purpose is to make nature to him what it can never appear to me—a painted canvas. But this subject, which I have touched on in a single sentence, demands a volume.

Ruskin wrote of the cathedral daws, "That drift of eddying black points, now closing, now scattering, now settling suddenly into invisible places among the bosses and flowers, the crowd of restless birds that fill the whole square with that strange clangour of theirs, so harsh and yet so soothing." For it seemed to me that he had seen the birds but had not properly heard them; or else that to his mind the sound they made was of such small consequence in the effect of the whole scene—so insignificant an element compared with the sight of them—that it was really not worth attending to and describing accurately.

Possibly, in this particular case, when in speaking of the daws he finished his description by throwing in a few words about their voices, he was thinking less of the impression on his own mind, presumably always vague about natural sounds, than of what the poet Cowper had said in the best passage in his best work about "sounds harsh and inharmonious in themselves," which are yet able to produce a soothing effect on us on account of the peaceful scenes amid which they are heard.

Cowper's notion of the daw's voice, by the way, was just as false as that expressed by Ruskin, as we may find in his paraphrase of Vincent Bourne's lines to that bird:—


There is a bird that by his coat,
And by the hoarseness of his note
Might be supposed a crow.


Now the daw is capable at times of emitting both hoarse and harsh notes, and the same may perhaps be said of a majority of birds; but his usual note—the cry or caw varied and inflected a hundred ways, which we hear every day and all day long where daws abound—is neither harsh like the crow's, nor hoarse like the rook's. It is, in fact, as unlike the harsh, grating caw of the former species as the clarion call of the cock is unlike the grunting of swine. It may not be described as bell-like nor metallic, but it is loud and clear, with an engaging wildness in it, and, like metallic sounds, far-reaching; and of so good a quality that very little more would make it ring musically.

Sometimes when I go into this ancient abbey church, or into some cathedral, and seating myself, and looking over a forest of bonnets, see a pale young curate with a black moustache, arrayed in white vestments, standing before the reading-desk, and hear him gabbling some part of the Service in a continuous buzz and rumble that roams like a gigantic blue-bottle through the vast dim interior, then I, not following him—for I do not know where he is, and cannot find out however much I should like to—am apt to remember the daws out of doors, and to think that it would be well if that young man would but climb up into the highest tower, or on to the roof, and dwell there for the space of a year listening to them; and that he would fill his mouth with polished pebbles, and medals, and coins and seals and seal-rings, and small porcelain cats and dogs, and little silver pigs, and other objects from the chatelaines of his lady admirers, and strive to imitate that clear, penetrating sound of the bird's voice, until he had mastered the rare and beautiful arts of voice production and distinct understandable speech.

To go back to Cowper—the poet who has been much in men's thoughts of late, and who appears to us as perhaps the most modern-minded of those who ceased to live a century ago. Undoubtedly he was as bad a naturalist as any singer before or after him, and as any true poet has a perfect right to be. As bad, let us say, as Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Tennyson. He does not, it is true, confound the sparrow and hedge-sparrow like Wordsworth, nor confound the white owl with the brown owl like Tennyson, nor puzzle the ornithologist with a "sea-blue bird of March." But we must not forget that he addressed some verses to a nightingale heard on New Year's Day. It is clear that he did not know the crows well, for in a letter of May 10, 1780, to his friend Newton, he writes: "A crow, rook, or raven, has built a nest in one of the young elm-trees, at the side of Mrs Aspray's orchard." But when he wrote those words—


Sounds inharmonious in themselves, and harsh,
Yet heard in scenes where peace for ever reigns,
And only there, please highly for their sake—


words which I have suggested misled Ruskin, and have certainly misled others—he, Cowper, knew better. His real feeling, and better and wiser thought, is expressed in one of his incomparable letters (Hayley, vol. ii. p. 230)—

"My green-house is never so pleasant as when we are just on the point of surrendering it.... I sit with all the windows and the door wide open, and am regaled with the scent of every flower in a garden as full of flowers as I have known how to make it. We keep no bees, but if I lived in a hive I could hardly have more of their music. All the bees in the neighbourhood resort to a bed of mignonette opposite to the window, and pay me for the honey they get out of it by a hum, which, though rather monotonous, is as agreeable to my ears as the whistling of my linnets. All the sounds that nature utters are delightful, at least in this country. I should not perhaps find the roaring of lions in Africa, or of bears in Russia, very pleasing; but I know no beast in England whose voice I do not account as musical, save and except always the braying of an ass. The notes of all our birds and fowls please me, without one exception. I should not indeed think of keeping a goose in a cage that I might hang him up in the parlour for the sake of his melody, but a goose upon a common, or in a farmyard, is no bad performer; and as to insects, if the black beetle, and beetles indeed of all hues, will keep out of my way, I have no objection to any of the rest; on the contrary, in whatever key they sing, from the gnat's fine treble to the bass of the bumble-bee, I admire all. Seriously, however, it strikes me as a very observable instance of providential kindness to men, that such an exact accord has been contrived between his ear and the sounds with which, at least in a rural situation, it is almost every moment visited."

Who has not felt the truth of this saying, that all natural sounds heard in their proper surroundings are pleasing; that even those which we call harsh do not distress, jarring or grating on our nerves, like artificial noises! The braying of the donkey was to Cowper the one exception in animal life; but he never heard it in its proper conditions. I have often listened to it, and have been deeply impressed, in a wild, silent country, in a place where herds of semi-wild asses roamed over the plains; and the sound at a distance had a wild expression that accorded with the scene, and owing to its much greater power effected the mind more than the trumpeting of wild swans, and shrill neighing of wild horses, and other far-reaching cries of wild animals.

About the sounds emitted by geese in a state of nature, and the effect produced on the mind, I shall have something to say in a chapter on that bird.

W. H. Hudson