THE sparrow, like the poor, we have always with us, and on windy days even the large-sized rook is blown about the murkiness which does duty for sky over London; and on such occasions its coarse, corvine dronings seem not unmusical, nor without something of a tonic effect on our jarred nerves. And here the ordinary Londoner has got to the end of his ornithological list--that is to say, his winter list. He knows nothing about those wind-worn waifs, the "occasional visitors" to the metropolis--the pilgrims to distant Meccas and Medinas that have fallen, overcome by weariness, at the wayside; or have encountered storms in the great aerial sea, and lost compass and reckoning, and have been lured by false lights to perish miserably at the hands of their cruel enemies. It may be true that gulls are seen on the Serpentine, that woodcocks are flushed in Lincoln's Inn Fields, but the citizen who goes to his office in the morning and returns after the lamps have been lighted, does not see them, and they are nothing in his life. Those who concern themselves to chronicle such incidents might just as well, for all that it matters to him, mistake their species, like that bird-loving but unornitho-logical correspondent of the Times who wrote that he had seen a flock of golden orioles in Kensington Gardens. It turned out that what he had seen were wheatears, or they might draw a little on their imaginations, and tell of sunward-sailing cranes encamped on the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, flamingoes in the Round Pond, great snowy owls in Westminster Abbey, and an ibis--scarlet, glossy, or sacred, according to fancy--perched on Peabody's statue, at the Royal Exchange.
But his winter does not last for ever. When the bitter months are past, with March that mocks us with its crown of daffodils; when the sun shines, and the rain is soon over; and elms and limes in park and avenue, and unsightly smoke- blackened brushwood in the squares, are dressed once more in tenderest heart-refreshing green, even in London we know that the birds have returned from beyond the sea. Why should they come to us here, when it would seem so much more to their advantage, and more natural for them to keep aloof from our dimmed atmosphere, and the rude sounds of traffic, and the sight of many people going to and fro? Are there no silent green retreats left where the conditions are better suited to their shy and delicate natures? Yet no sooner is the spring come again than the birds are with us. Not always apparent to the eye, but everywhere their irrepressible gladness betrays their proximity; and all London is ringed round with a mist of melody, which presses on us, ambitious of winning its way even to the central heart of our citadel, creeping in, mist-like, along gardens and tree-planted roads, clinging to the greenery of parks and squares, and floating above the dull noises of the town as clouds fleecy and ethereal float above the earth.
Among our spring visitors there is one which is neither aerial in habits, nor a melodist, yet is eminently attractive on account of its graceful form, pretty plumage, and amusing manners; nor must it be omitted as a point in its favour that it is not afraid to make itself very much at home with us in London.* This is the little moor-hen, a bird possessing some strange customs, for which those who are curious about such matters may consult its numerous biographies. Every spring a few individuals of this species make their appearance in Hyde Park, and settle there for the season, in full sight of the fashionable world; for their breeding-place happens to be that minute transcript of nature midway between the Dell and Rotten Row, where a small bed of rushes and aquatic grasses flourishes in the stagnant pool forming the end of the Serpentine. Where they pass the winter--in what Mentone or Madeira of the ralline race--is not known. There is a pretty story, which circulated throughout Europe a little over fifty years ago, of a Polish gentleman, capturing a stork that built its nest on his roof every summer, and putting an iron collar on its neck with the inscription, "Haec Ciconia ex Polonia." The following summer it reappeared with something which shone very brightly on its neck, and when the stork was taken again this was found to be a collar of gold, with which the iron collar had been replaced, and on it were graven the words, "India cum donis remittit ciconian Polonis." No person has yet put an iron collar on the moor-hen to receive gifts in return, or followed its feeble fluttering flight to discover the limits of its migration which is probably no further away than the Kentish marshes and other wet sheltered spots in the south of England; that it leaves the country when it quits the park is not to be believed. Still, it goes with the wave, and with the wave returns; and, like the migratory birds that observe times and seasons, it comes back to its own home--that circumscribed spot of earth and water which forms its little world, and is more to it than all other reedy and willow-shaded pools and streams in England. It is said to be shy in disposition, yet all may see it here, within a few feet of the Row, with so many people continually passing, and so many pausing to watch the pretty birds as they trip about their little plot of green turf, deftly picking minute insects from the grass and not disdaining crumbs thrown by the children. A dainty thing to look at is that smooth, olive-brown little moor-hen, going about with such freedom and ease in its small dominion, lifting its green legs deliberately, turning its yellow beak and shield this way and that, and displaying the snow-white undertail at every step, as it moves with that quaint, graceful, jetting gait peculiar to the gallinules.
*Note that when this was written in 1893, the moor-hen was never known to winter in London; his habits have changed in this respect during the last two decades: he is now a permanent resident.
Such a fact as this--and numberless facts just as significant all pointing to the same conclusion, might be adduced--shows at once how utterly erroneous is that often-quoted dictum of Darwin's that birds possess an instinctive or inherited fear of man. These moor-hens fear him not at all; simply because in Hyde Park they are not shot at, and robbed of their eggs or young, nor in any way molested by him. They fear no living thing, except the irrepressible small dog that occasionally bursts into the enclosure, and hunts them with furious barkings to their reedy little refuge. And as with these moor-hens, so it is with all wild birds; they fear and fly from, and suspiciously watch from a safe distance, whatever molests them, and wherever man suspends his hostility towards them they quickly outgrow the suspicion which experience has taught them, or which is traditional among them; for the young and inexperienced imitate the action of the adults they associate with, and learn the suspicious habit from them.
It is also interesting and curious to note that a bird which inhabits two countries, in summer and winter, regulates his habits in accordance with the degree of friendliness or hostility exhibited towards him by the human inhabitants of the respective areas. The bird has in fact two traditions with regard to man's attitude towards him--one for each country. Thus, the field-fare is an exceedingly shy bird in England, but when he returns to the north if his breeding place is in some inhabited district in northern Sweden or Norway he loses all his wildness and builds his nest quite close to the houses. My friend Trevor Battye saw a pair busy making their nest in a small birch within a few yards of the front door of a house he was staying at. "How strange," said he to the man of the house, "to see field-fares making a nest in such a place!"
"Why strange?" said the man in surprise. "Why strange? Because of the boys, always throwing stones at a bird. The nest is so low down, that any boy could put his hand in and take the eggs." "Take the eggs!" cried the man, more astonished than ever. "And throwing stones at a bird! Who ever heard of a boy doing such things!"
Closely related to this error is another error, which is that noise in itself is distressing to birds, and has the effect of driving them away. To all sounds and noises which are not associated with danger to them, birds are absolutely indifferent. The rumbling of vehicles, puffing and shrieking of engines, and braying of brass bands, alarm them less than the slight popping of an air gun, where that modest weapon of destruction is frequently used against them. They have no "nerves" for noise, but the apparition of a small boy silently creeping along the hedge-side, in search of nests or throwing stones, is very terrifying to them. They fear not cattle and horses, however loud the bellowing may be; and if we were to transport and set loose herds of long-necked camelopards, trumpeting elephants, and rhinoceroses of horrible aspect, the little birds would soon fear them as little as they do the familiar cow. But they greatly fear the small-sized, quiet, unobtrusive, and meek-looking cat. Sparrows and starlings that fly wildly at the shout of a small boy or the bark of a fox-terrier, build their nests under every railway arch; and the incubating bird sits unalarmed amid the iron plates and girders when the express train rushes overhead, so close to her that one would imagine that the thunderous jarring noise would cause the poor thing to drop down dead with terror. To this indifference to the mere harmless racket of civilization we owe it that birds are so numerous around, and even in, London; and that in Kew Gardens, which, on account of its position on the water side, and the numerous railroads surrounding it, is almost as much tortured with noise as Willesden or Clapham Junction, birds are concentrated in thousands. Food is not more abundant there than in other places; yet it would be difficult to find a piece of ground of the same extent in the country proper, where all is silent and there are no human crowds, with so large a bird population. They are more numerous in Kew than elsewhere, in spite of the noise and the people, because they are partially protected there from their human persecutors. It is a joy to visit the gardens in spring, as much to hear the melody of the birds as to look at the strange and lovely vegetable forms. On a June evening with a pure sunny sky, when the air is elastic after rain, how it rings and palpitates with the fine sounds that people it, and which seem infinite in variety! Has England, burdened with care and long estranged from Nature, so many sweet voices left? What aerial chimes are those wafted from the leafy turret of every tree? What clear, choral songs--so wild, so glad? What strange instruments, not made with hands, so deftly touched and soulfully breathed upon? What faint melodious murmurings that float around us, mysterious and tender as the lisping of leaves? Who could be so dull and exact as to ask the names of such choristers at such a time! Earthly names they have, the names we give them, when they visit us, and when we write about them in our dreary books; but, doubtless, in their brighter home in cloudland they are called by other more suitable appellatives. Kew is exceptionally favoured for the reason mentioned, but birds are also abundant where there are no hired men with red waistcoats and brass buttons to watch over their safety. Why do they press so persistently around us; and not in London only, but in every town and village, every house and cottage in this country? Why are they always waiting, congregating as far from us as the depth of garden, lawn, or orchard will allow, yet always near as they dare to come? It is not sentiment, and to be translated into such words as these: "Oh man, why are you unfriendly towards us, or else so indifferent to our existence that you do not note that your children, dependants, and neighbours cruelly persecute us? For we are for peace, and knowing you for the lord of creation, we humbly worship you at a distance, and wish for a share in your affection." No; the small, bright soul which is in a bird is incapable of such a motive, and has only the lesser light of instinct for its guide, and to the birds' instinct we are only one of the wingless mammalians inhabiting the earth, and with the cat and weasel are labelled "dangerous," but the ox and horse and sheep have no such label. Even our larger, dimmer eyes can easily discover the attraction. Let any one, possessing a garden in the suburbs of London, minutely examine the foliage at a point furthest removed from the house, and he will find the plants clean from insects; and as he moves back he will find them increasingly abundant until he reaches the door. Insect life is gathered thickly about us, for that birdless space which we have made is ever its refuge and safe camping ground. And the birds know. One came before we were up, when cat and dog were also sleeping, and a report is current among them. Like ants when a forager who has found a honey pot returns to the nest, they are all eager to go and see and taste for themselves. Their country is poor, for they have gathered its spoils, and now this virgin territory sorely tempts them. To those who know a bird's spirit it is plain that a mere suspension of hostile action on our part would have the effect of altering their shy habits, and bringing them in crowds about us. Not only in the orchard and grove and garden walks would they be with us, but even in our house. The robin, the little bird "with the red stomacher," would be there for the customary crumbs at meal-time, and many dainty fringilline pensioners would keep him company. And the wren would be there, searching diligently in the dusty angles of cornices for a savoury morsel; for it knows, this wise little Kitty Wren, that "the spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in king's palaces"; and wandering from room to room it would pour forth many a gushing lyric--a sound of wildness and joy in our still interiors, eternal Nature's message to our hearts.
Who delights not in a bird? Yet how few among us find any pleasure in reading of them in natural history books! The living bird, viewed closely and fearless of our presence, is so much more to the mind than all that is written--so infinitely more engaging in its spontaneous gladness, its brilliant vivacity, and its motions so swift and true and yet so graceful! Even leaving out the melody, what a charm it would add to our homes if birds were permitted to take the part there for which Nature designed them--if they were the "winged wardens" of our gardens and houses as well as of our fields. Bird-biographies are always in our bookcases; and the bird-form meets our sight everywhere in decorative art Eastern and Western; for its aerial beauty is without parallel in nature; but the living birds, with the exception of the unfortunate captives in cages, are not with us.
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage,
sings Blake prophet and poet; and for "robin redbreast" I read every feathered creature endowed with the marvellous faculty of flight. Wild, and loving their safety and liberty, they keep at a distance, at the end of the garden or in the nearest grove, where from their perches they suspiciously watch our movements, always waiting to be encouraged, waiting to feed on the crumbs that fall from our table and are wasted, and on the blighting insects that ring us round with their living multitudes.