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Early Spring in Savernake Forest

When the spring-feeling is in the blood, infecting us with vague longings for we know not what; when we are restless and seem to be waiting for some obstruction to be removed—blown away by winds, or washed away by rains—some change that will open the way to liberty and happiness,—the feeling not unfrequently takes a more or less definite form: we want to go away somewhere, to be at a distance from our fellow-beings, and nearer, if not to the sun, at all events to wild nature. At such times I think of all the places where I should like to be, and one is Savernake; and thither in two following seasons I have gone to ramble day after day, forgetting the world and myself in its endless woods.

It is not that spring is early there; on the contrary, it is actually later by many days than in the surrounding country. It is flowerless at a time when, outside the forest, on southern banks and by the hedge-side, in coppices and all sheltered spots, the firstlings of the year are seen—purple and white and yellow. The woods, which are composed almost entirely of beech and oak, are leafless. The aspect on a dull cold day is somewhat cheerless. On the other hand, there is that largeness and wildness which accord with the spring mood; and there are signs of the coming change even in the greyest weather. Standing in some wide green drive or other open space, you see all about you acres on acres, miles on miles, of majestic beeches, and their upper branches and network of terminal twigs, that look at a distance like heavy banked-up clouds, are dusky red and purple with the renewed life that is surging in them. There are jubilant cries of wild creatures that have felt the seasonal change far more keenly than we are able to feel it. Above everything, we find here that solitariness and absence of human interest now so rare in England. For albeit social creatures in the main, we are yet all of us at times hermits in heart, if not exactly wild men of the woods; and that solitude which we create by shutting ourselves from the world in a room or a house, is but a poor substitute—nay, a sham: it is to immure ourselves in a cage, a prison, which hardly serves to keep out the all-pervading atmosphere of miserable conventions, and cannot refresh and invigorate us. There are seasons and moods when even the New Forest does not seem sufficiently remote from life: in its most secluded places one is always liable to encounter a human being, an old resident, going about in the exercise of his commoner's rights; or else his ponies or cows or swine. These last, if they be not of some improved breed, may have a novel or quaint aspect, as of wild creatures, but the appearance is deceptive; as you pass they lift their long snouts from grubbing among the dead leaves to salute you with a too familiar grunt—an assurance that William Rufus is dead, and all is well; that they are domestic, and will spend their last days in a stye, and end their life respectably at the hands of the butcher.

At Savernake there is nothing so humanised as the pig, even of the old type; you may roam for long hours and see no man and no domestic animal. You have heard that this domain is the property of some person, but it seems like a fiction. The forest is nature's and yours. There you are at liberty to ramble all day unchallenged by any one; to walk, and run to warm yourself; to disturb a herd of red deer, or of fallow deer, which are more numerous; to watch them standing still to gaze back at you, then all with one impulse move rapidly away, showing their painted tails, keeping a kind of discipline, row behind row, moving over the turf with that airy tripping or mincing gait that strikes you as quaint and somewhat bird-like. Or you may coil yourself up, adder-like, beside a thick hawthorn bush, or at the roots of a giant oak or beech, and enjoy the vernal warmth, while outside of your shelter the wind blows bleak and loud.

To lie or sit thus for an hour at a time listening to the wind is an experience worth going far to seek. It is very restorative. That is a mysterious voice which the forest has: it speaks to us, and somehow the life it expresses seems nearer, more intimate, than that of the sea. Doubtless because we are ourselves terrestrial and woodland in our origin; also because the sound is infinitely more varied as well as more human in character. There are sighings and moanings, and wails and shrieks, and wind-blown murmurings, like the distant confused talking of a vast multitude. A high wind in an extensive wood always produces this effect of numbers. The sea-like sounds and rhythmic volleyings, when the gale is at its loudest, die away, and in the succeeding lull there are only low, mysterious agitated whisperings; but they are multitudinous; the suggestion is ever of a vast concourse—crowds and congregations, tumultuous or orderly, but all swayed by one absorbing impulse, solemn or passionate. But not always moved simultaneously. Through the near whisperings a deeper, louder sound comes from a distance. It rumbles like thunder, falling and rising as it rolls onwards; it is antiphonal, but changes as it travels nearer. Then there is no longer demand and response; the smitten trees are all bent one way, and their innumerable voices are as one voice, expressing we know not what, but always something not wholly strange to us—lament, entreaty, denunciation.

Listening, thinking of nothing, simply living in the sound of the wind, that strange feeling which is unrelated to anything that concerns us, of the life and intelligence inherent in nature, grows upon the mind. I have sometimes thought that never does the world seem more alive and watchful of us than on a still, moonlight night in a solitary wood, when the dusky green foliage is silvered by the beams, and all visible objects and the white lights and black shadows in the intervening spaces seem instinct with spirit. But it is not so. If the conditions be favourable, if we go to our solitude as the crystal-gazer to his crystal, with a mind prepared, this faculty is capable of awaking and taking complete possession of us by day as well as by night.

As the trees are mostly beeches—miles upon miles of great trees, many of them hollow-trunked from age and decay—the fallen leaves are an important element in the forest scenery. They lie half a yard to a yard deep in all the deep hollows and dells and old water-worn channels, and where the ground is sheltered they cover acres of ground—millions and myriads of dead, fallen beech leaves. These, too, always seem to be alive. It is a leaf that refuses to die wholly. When separated from the tree it has, if not immortality, at all events a second, longer life. Oak and ash and chestnut leaves fade from month to month and blacken, and finally rot and mingle with the earth, while the beech leaf keeps its sharp clean edges unbroken, its hard texture and fiery colour, its buoyancy and rustling incisive sound. Swept by the autumn winds into sheltered hollows and beaten down by rains, the leaves lie mingled in one dead, sodden mass for days and weeks at a time, and appear ready to mix with the soil; but frost and sun suck up the moisture and the dead come to life again. They glow like fire, and tremble at every breath. It was strange and beautiful to see them lying all around me, glowing copper and red and gold when the sun was strong on them, not dead, but sleeping like a bright-coloured serpent in the genial warmth; to see, when the wind found them, how they trembled, and moved as if awakening; and as the breath increased rose up in twos and threes and half-dozens here and there, chasing one another a little way, hissing and rustling; then all at once, struck by a violent gust, they would be up in thousands, eddying round and round in a dance, and, whirling aloft, scatter and float among the lofty branches to which they were once attached.

On a calm day, when there was no motion in the sunlit yellow leaves below and the reddish-purple cloud of twigs above, the sounds of bird-life were the chief attraction of the forest. Of these the cooing of the wood-pigeon gave me the most pleasure. Here some reader may remark that this pigeon's song is a more agreeable sound than its plain cooing note. This, indeed, is perhaps thought little of. In most biographies of the bird it is not even mentioned that he possesses such a note. Nevertheless I prefer it to the song. The song itself—the set melody composed of half a dozen inflected notes, repeated three or four times with little or no variation—is occasionally heard in the late winter and early spring, but at this time of the year it is often too husky or croaky to be agreeable. The songster has not yet thrown off his seasonal cold; the sound might sometimes proceed from a crow suffering from a catarrh. It improves as the season advances. The song is sometimes spelt in books:

Coo-coˇ-roo, coˇ-coo-roo.

A lady friend assures me the right words of this song are:

Take two cows, David.

She cannot, if she tries, make the bird say anything different, for these are the words she was taught to hear in the song, as a child, in Leicestershire. Of course they are uttered with a great deal of emotion in the tone, David being tearfully, almost sobbingly, begged and implored to take two cows; the emphasis is very strong on the two—it is apparently a matter of the utmost consequence that David should not take one, nor three, nor any other number of cows, but just two.

In East Anglia I have been informed that what the bird really and truly says is—

My toe bleeds, Betty.

Many as are the species capable of articulate speech, as we may see by referring to any ornithological work, there is no bird in our woods whose notes more readily lend themselves to this childish fancy than the wood-pigeon, on account of the depth and singularly human quality of its voice. The song is a passionate complaint. One can fancy the human-like feathered creature in her green bower, pleading, upbraiding, lamenting; and, listening, we will find it easy enough to put it all into plain language:

O swear not you love me, for you cannot be true,
O perjured wood-pigeon! Go from me—woo
Some other! Heart-broken I rue
That softness, ah me! when you cooed your false coo.
Soar to your new love—the creature in blue!
Who, who would have thought it of you!
And perhaps you consider her beau—
Oo—tiful! O you are too too cru—
Bid them come shoo—oot me, do, do!
Would I had given my heart to a hoo—
Oo-ting wood-owl, cuckoo, woodcock, hoopoo!

One morning, at a village in Berkshire, I was walking along the road, about twenty-five yards from a cottage, when I heard, as I imagined, the familiar song of the wood-pigeon; but it sounded too close, for the nearest trees were fifty yards distant. Glancing up at the open window of an upper room in the cottage, I made the discovery that my supposed pigeon was a four-year-old child who had recently been chastised by his mother and sent upstairs to do penance. There he sat by the open window, his face in his hands, crying, not as if his heart would break, but seeming to take a mournful pleasure in the rhythmical sound of his own sobs and moans; they had settled into a rising and falling boo-hoo, with regularly recurring long and short notes, agreeable to the ear, and very creditable to the little crier's musical capacity. The incident shows how much the pigeon's plaint resembles some human sounds.

The plain cooing note is so common in this order of birds that it may be regarded as the original and universal pigeon language, out of which the set songs have been developed, with, in most instances, but little change in the quality of the sound. In the multitude of species there are voices clear, resonant, thick, or husky, or guttural, hollow or booming, grating and grunting; but, however much they vary, you can generally detect the pigeon or family sound, which is more or less human-like. In some species the set song has almost superseded the plain single note, which has diminished to a mere murmur; in others, on the contrary, there is no song at all, unless the single unvarying coo can be called a song. In most species in the typical genus Columba the plain coo is quite distinct from the set song, but has at the same time developed into a kind of second song, the note being pleasantly modulated and repeated many times. We find this in the rock-dove: the curious guttural sounds composing its set song, which accompany the love antics of the male, are not musical, while the clear inflected cooing note is agreeable to most ears. It is a pleasing morning sound of the dove-cote; but the note, to be properly appreciated, must be heard in some dimly lighted ocean-cavern in which the bird breeds in its wild state. The long-drawn, oft-repeated musical coo mingles with and is heard above the murmuring and lapping of the water beneath; the hollow chamber retains and prolongs the sound, and makes it more sonorous, and at the same time gives it something of mystery.

Of all the cooing notes of the different species I am acquainted with, that of the stock-dove, a pigeon with no set song, is undoubtedly the most attractive: next in order is that of the wood-pigeon on account of its depth and human-like character. And it is far from monotonous. In this wood in March I have often kept near a pigeon for half an hour at a time hearing it uttering its cooing note, repeated half a dozen or more times, at intervals of three or four minutes; and again and again the note has changed in length and power and modulation. In the profound stillness, on a windless day, of the vast beechen woods, these sonorous notes had a singularly beautiful effect.

After spending a short time in the forest, one might easily get the idea that it is a sanctuary for all the persecuted creatures of the crow family. It is not quite that; the ravens have been destroyed here as in most places; but the other birds of that tribe are so numerous that even the most bloodthirsty keeper might be appalled at the task of destroying them. The clearance would doubtless have been effected if this noble forest had passed, as so nearly happened, out of the hands of the family that have so long possessed it: that calamity was happily averted. Not only are the rooks there in legions, having their rookeries in the park, but, throughout the forest, daws, carrion crows, jays, and magpies are abundant. The jackdaws outnumber all the other species (rooks included) put together; they literally swarm, and their ringing, yelping cries may be heard at all hours of the day in any part of the forest. In March, when they are nesting, their numbers are concentrated in those parts of the wood where the trees, beech and oak, are very old and have hollow trunks. In some places you will find many acres of wood where every tree is hollow and apparently inhabited. Yet there are doubtless some hollow trees into which the daw is not permitted to intrude. The wood-owl is common here, and is presumably well able to hold his castle against all aggressors. If one could but climb into the airy tower, and, sitting invisible, watch the siege and defence and the many strange incidents of the war between these feathered foes! The daw, bold yet cautious, venturing a little way into the dim interior, with shrill threats of ejectment, ruffling his grey pate and peeping down with his small, malicious, serpent-like grey eyes; the owl puffing out his tiger-coloured plumage, and lifting to the light his pale, shield-like face and luminous eyes,—would indeed be a rare spectacle; and then, what hissings, snappings, and beak-clatterings, and shrill, cat-like, and yelping cries! But, although these singular contests go on so near us, a few yards above the surface, Savernake might be in the misty mid-region of Weir, or on the slopes of Mount Yanik, for all the chance we have of witnessing them.

An experience I had one day when I was new to the forest and used occasionally to lose myself, gave me some idea of the numbers of jackdaws breeding in Savernake. During my walk I came to a spot where all round me and as far as could be seen the trees were in an advanced state of decay: not only were they hollow and rotten within, but the immense horizontal branches and portions of the trunks were covered with a thick crop of fern, which, mixed with dead grass and moss, gave the dying giants of the forest a strange, ragged and desolate appearance. Many a time looking at one of these trees I have been reminded of Holman Hunt's forlorn Scapegoat. Here the daws had their most populous settlement. As I advanced, the dead twigs and leaves crackling beneath my feet, they rose up everywhere, singly and in twos and threes and half-dozens, darting hurriedly away and disappearing among the trees before me. The alarm-note they emit at such times is like their usual yelping call subdued to a short, querulous chirp; and this note now sounded before me and on either hand, at a distance of about one hundred yards, uttered continually by so many birds that their voices mingled into a curious sharp murmur. Tired of walking, I sat down on a root in the shelter of a large oak, and remained there perfectly motionless for about an hour. But the birds never lost their suspicion; all the time the distant subdued tempest of sharp notes went on, occasionally dying down until it nearly ceased, then suddenly rising and spreading again until I was ringed round with the sound. At length the loud, sharp invitation or order to fly was given and taken up by many birds; then, through the opening among the trees before me, I saw them rise in a dense flock and circle about at a distance: other flocks rose on the right and left hands and joined the first; and finally the whole mass come slowly overhead as if to explore; but when the foremost birds were directly over me the flock divided into two columns, which deployed to the right and left, and at a distance poured again into the trees. There could not have been fewer than two thousand birds in the flock that came over me, and they were probably all building in that part of the forest.

The daw, whether tame or distrustful of man, is always interesting. Here I was even more interested in the jays, and it was indeed chiefly for the pleasure of seeing them, when they are best to look at, that I visited this forest. I had also formed the idea that there was no place in England where the jay could be seen to better advantage, as they are, or until recently were, exceedingly abundant at Savernake, and were not in constant fear of the keeper and his everlasting gun. Here one could witness their early spring assemblies, when the jay, beautiful at all times, is seen at his very best.

It is necessary to say here that this habit of the jay does not appear to be too well known to our ornithologists. When I stated in a small work on British Birds a few years ago that jays had the custom of congregating in spring, a distinguished naturalist, who reviewed the book in one of the papers, rebuked me for so absurd a statement, and informed me that the jay is a solitary bird except at the end of summer and in the early autumn, when they are sometimes seen in families. If I had not made it a rule never to reply to a critic, I could have informed this one that I knew exactly where his knowledge of the habits of the jay was derived-that it dated back to a book published ninety-nine years ago. It was a very good book, and all it contains, some errors included, have been incorporated in most of the important ornithological works which have appeared during the nineteenth century. But though my critic thus "wrote it all by rote," according to the books, "he did not write it right." The ancient error has not, however, been repeated by all writers on the subject. Seebohm, in his History of British Birds, wrote: "Sometimes, especially in Spring, fortune may favour you, and you will see a regular gathering of these noisy birds.... It is only at this time that the jay displays a social disposition; and the birds may often be heard to utter a great variety of notes, some of the modulations approaching almost to a song."

The truth of the statement I have made that most of our writers on birds have strictly followed Montague in his account of the jay's habits, unmistakably shows itself in all they say about the bird's language. Montagu wrote in his famous Dictionary of Birds (1802):—

"Its common notes are various, but harsh; will sometimes in spring utter a sort of song in a soft and pleasing manner, but so low as not to be heard at any distance; and at intervals introduce the bleatings of a Lamb, mewing of a Cat, the note of a Kite or Buzzard, hooting of an Owl, and even the neighing of a Horse.

"These imitations are so exact, even in a natural wild state, that we have frequently been deceived."

This description somewhat amplified, and the wording varied to suit the writer's style, has been copied into most books on British birds—the lamb and the cat, and the kite and the horse, faithfully appearing in most cases. Yet it is certain that if all the writers had listened to the jay's vocal performances for themselves, they would have given a different account. It is not that Montagu was wrong: he went to nature for his facts and put down what he heard, or thought he heard, but the particular sounds which he describes they would not have heard.

My experience is, that the same notes and phrases are not ordinarily heard in any two localities; that the bird is able to emit a great variety of sounds—some highly musical; that he is also a great mimic in a wild irregular way, mixing borrowed notes with his own, and flinging them out anyhow, so that there is no order nor harmony, and they do not form a song.

But he also has a real song, which may be heard in any assembly of jays and from some male birds after the congregating season is over and breeding is in progress. This singing of the jay is somewhat of a puzzle, as it is not the same song in any two places, and gives one the idea that there is no inherited and no traditional song in this species, but that each bird that has a song has invented it for himself. It varies from "a sort of low song," as Montagu said,—a soft chatter and warble which one can just hear at a distance of thirty or forty yards,—to a song composed of several musical notes harmoniously arranged, which may be heard distinctly a quarter of a mile away. This set and far-reaching song is rare, but some birds have a single very powerful and musical note, or short phrase, which they repeat at regular intervals by way of song. If by following up the sound one can get near enough to the tree where the meeting is being held to see what is going on, it is most interesting to watch the vocalist, who is like a leader, and who, perched quietly, continues to repeat that one powerful, unchanging, measured sound in the midst of a continuous concert of more or less musical sounds from the other birds.

What I should very much like to know is, whether these powerful and peculiar notes, phrases, and songs of the jay, which are clearly not imitations of other species, are repeated year after year by the birds in the same localities, or are dropped for ever or forgotten at the end of each season. It is hard for me to find this out, because I do not as a rule revisit the same places in spring, and on going to a new or a different spot I find that the birds utter different sounds. Again, the places where jays assemble in numbers are very few and far between. It is true, as an observant gamekeeper once said to me, that if there are as many as half a dozen to a dozen jays in any wood they will contrive to hold a meeting; but when the birds are few and much persecuted, it is difficult to see and hear them at such times, and when seen and heard, no adequate idea is formed of the beauty of their displays, and the power and variety of their language, as witnessed in localities where they are numerous, and fear of the keeper's gun has not damped their mad, jubilant spirits.

In genial weather the jays' assembly may be held at any hour, but is most frequently seen during the early part of the day: on a fine warm morning in March and April one can always count on witnessing an assembly, or at all events of hearing the birds, in any wood where they are fairly common and not very shy. They are so vociferous and so conspicuous to the eye during these social intervals, and at the same time so carried away by excitement, that it is not only easy to find and see them, but possible at times to observe them very closely.

The loud rasping alarm- and angry-cry of the jay is a sound familiar to every one; the cry used by the bird to call his fellows together is somewhat different. It resembles the cry or call of the carrion crow, in localities where that bird is not persecuted, when, in the love season, he takes his stand on the top of the nesting-tree and calls with a prolonged, harsh, grating, and exceedingly powerful note, many times repeated. The jay's call has the same grating or grinding character, but is louder, sharper, more prolonged, and in a quiet atmosphere may be heard distinctly a mile away. The wood is in an uproar when the birds assemble and scream in concert while madly pursuing one another over the tall trees.

At such times the peculiar flight of the jay is best seen and is very beautiful. In almost all birds that have short, round wings, as we may see in our little wren, and in game birds, and the sparrow-hawk, and several others, the wing-beats are exceedingly rapid. This is the case with the magpie; the quickness of the wing-beats causes the black and white on the quills to mingle and appear a misty grey; but at short intervals the bird glides and the wings appear black and white again. The jay, although his wings are so short and round, when not in a hurry progresses by means of comparatively slow, measured wing-beats, and looks as if swimming rather than flying.

It is when the gathered birds all finally settle on a tree that they are most to be admired. They will sometimes remain on the spot for half an hour or longer, displaying their graces and emitting the extraordinary medley of noises mixed with musical sounds. But they do not often sit still at such times; if there are many birds, and the excitement is great, some of them are perpetually moving, jumping and flitting from branch to branch, and springing into the air to wheel round or pass over the tree, all apparently intent on showing off their various colours—vinaceous brown, sky blue, velvet black, and glistening white—to the best advantage.

Again and again, when watching these gatherings at Savernake and at other places where jays abound, I have been reminded of the description given by Alfred Russel Wallace of the bird of paradise assemblies in the Malayan region. Our jay in some ways resembles his glorious Eastern relation; and although his lustre is so much less, he is at his very best not altogether unworthy of being called the British Bird of Paradise.

W. H. Hudson