HAVING begun, or first written, this book in one village, which was near London, I am now finishing, or re-writing, it in another in "the westest part of all the land," over three hundred miles from the first. Here I had to go over this ancient work of twenty-three years ago, which was also my first English bird book, to prepare it for a new edition; and after all necessary corrections, omissions and additions of fresh matter made in the foregoing parts, it seemed best to throw out the whole of the concluding portion, which dealt mainly with the question of bird-preservation as it presented itself at that time and is now out of date, thanks to the legislation of recent years and to the growth in this country of the feeling or desire for birds during the last two or three decades. In place of this discarded matter I propose to give here the results of recent observations on the bird life of a Cornish village.
My residence in the Cornish Village (or villages) was during May and June, 1915, and again from October of the same year to June, 1916. These were months of ill-health, so that I was prevented from pursuing my customary outdoor rambling life; but, like that poor creature the barnyard fowl that can't use its wings, instinctively, or from old habit, I used my eyes in keeping a watch on the feathered (and flying) people about me.
The village, Lelant, is on the Hayle estuary, and to see the Atlantic one has but to walk past the grey old church at the end of the street, where the ground rises, to find oneself in a wilderness of towans, as the sand-hills are there called, clothed in their rough, grey-green marram grass and spreading on either hand round the bay of St. Ives. A beautiful sight, for the sea on a sunny day is of that marvellous blue colour seen only in Cornwall; far out on a rock on the right hand stands the shining white Godrevy lighthouse, and on the left, on the opposite side of the bay, the little ancient fishing-town of St. Ives.
The river or estuary, in sight of the doors and windows of the village, was haunted every day by numbers of gulls and curlews. These last numbered about one hundred and fifty birds, and were always there except at full tide, when they would fly away to the fields and moors. Of all my bird neighbours I think that these gave me most pleasure, especially at night, when lying awake I would listen by the hour to the perpetual curlew conversation going on in the dark--an endless series of clear modulated notes and trills, with a beautiful expression of wildness and freedom, a reminder of lonely seashores and mountains and moorlands in the north country. What wonder that Stevenson, sick in his tropical island--sick for his cold grey home so many thousands of miles away, wished once more to hear the whaup crying over the graves of his forefathers, and to hear no more at all!
Of bird music by day there was little; you would hear more of it in one morning in that small rustic village in Berkshire where the first part of this book was written than in a whole summer in one of these West Cornwall villages, so few comparatively are the songsters. Nor was this scarcity in the village only; it was everywhere, as I found when able to get out for a few hours during my two spring seasons in the place. Close by were the extensive woods of Trevalloe, where I was struck by the extraordinary silence and where I listened in vain for a single note from blackcap, garden-warbler, willow-wren, wood-wren, or redstart. The thrushes, chaffinch, chiff-chaff, and greenfinch were occasionally heard; outside the wood the buntings, chats, and the skylark were few and far between.
This scarcity of small birds is, I think, due in the first place to the extraordinary abundance of the jackdaw, the diligent seeker after small birds' nests, and to the autumn and winter pastime of bush-beating to which men and boys are given in these parts, and which the Cornish authorities refuse to suppress.
After a time, when, owing to increasing debility, I was confined more and more to the village, I began to concentrate my attention on a few common species that were always present, particularly on the three commonest--rook, daw, and starling; the first two residents, the starling, a winter visitor from September to April.
In October, I started feeding the birds at the house where I was staying as a guest, throwing the scraps on a lawn at the back which sloped down towards the estuary. First came all the small birds in the immediate neighbourhood--robin, dunnock, wagtail, chaffinch, throstle, blackbird, and blue and ox-eye tits. Then followed troops of starlings, and soon all the rooks and daws in the village began to see what was going on and come too, and this attracted the gulls from the estuary--I wished that it had drawn the curlews; and all these big ones were so greedy and bold, so noisy and formidable-looking that the small birds were quite driven out; all except the starlings that came in hungry crowds and were determined to get their share.
At the beginning of December I had to move to a nursing-home at the Convent of the Sisters of the Cross at the adjacent village of Hayle, just across the estuary. The Convent buildings and grounds and gardens are fortunately outside the ugly village, and my room had an exceptionally big window occupying almost the whole wall on one side, with an outlook to the south over the green fields and moors towards Helston. An ideal sick-room for a man who can't be happy without the company of birds, and here, even when lying on my bed before I was able to sit or stand by the window, a large portion of the sky, rainy or blue, was visible, and rooks and daws and gulls and troops of starlings, and the curlews from the river, were seen coming and going all day long.
But it was much better when I was able to go to the window, since now, by feeding them, I could draw the birds to me. I fed them on a green field beneath my window, where the Convent milch-cows were accustomed to graze for some hours each day. All through the winter there was grass for them, and I was glad to have them there, as the cow is my favourite beast, and it was also pleasant to see the wintering starlings consorting with them, clustering about their noses, just as they do in the pasture lands in summer time. But I found it best to feed the birds when the cows were not there, on account of the behaviour of one of them, a young animal who had not yet been sobered by having a calf of her own. She was a frivolous young thing and when tired of feeding, she would start teasing the old cows, pushing them with her horns, then flinging up her hind legs to challenge them to a romp. The sight of a crowd of birds under my window would bring her at a gallop to the spot to find out what all the fuss was about, and the birds would be driven off.
One morning I was at my window when the field was empty of bird and beast life with the exception of a solitary old rook, a big bird who was a constant attendant and so much bigger than most of the rooks that I had come to know it well. By and by the young cow walked into the field by herself and, after gazing all round as if surprised at finding the place so lifeless, she caught sight of and fixed her eyes on the old rook working at the turf some fifty or sixty yards away. Presently she began walking towards it, and when within about twenty yards put her head down and charged it. The rook paid no attention until she was almost on it, then rose up, emitting its angriest, most raucous screams while hovering just over her head, and having thus relieved its indignant feelings it flew heavily away to the far end of the field, and settling down began prodding away at the soil. The cow, standing still, gazed after it, and one could almost imagine her saying: "So you won't get out of the field! Well! I'll soon make you. I'm going to have it all to myself this morning." And at once she began rapidly walking towards the bird. But half-way to it was the post set up in the middle of the field for the cows to rub their hides, and on coming abreast of it the sight of it and its proximity suggested the delight of a rub, and turning off at right angles she walked straight to the post and began rubbing herself against it. The rook went on with its business, and after that there was no more quarrelling.
Another morning this same old rook came with his mate to the field: separating, they came down a distance of a hundred yards or more apart and began searching for grubs. By and by the old cock discovered something particularly good and after vigorously prodding the turf for a few moments he sprang up and flew excitedly to his mate, who instantly knew what this action meant and began fluttering her wings and crying for the dainty morsel which he proceeded to deliver into her wide-open mouth. Having fed her, he flew back to the same spot and began working again.
This is a common action of the rooks, and I saw this same bird feed his mate on other occasions during the winter months, when I have no doubt that he, poor wretch, could hardly find food enough to keep himself alive during the dark season of everlasting wind and rain when the dim daylight lasted for about six hours. But I never saw a daw or starling feed his mate, or feed another daw or starling, although I watched closely every day and often for an hour at a stretch, and though I am convinced that the starling, like the rook and crow and daw, and in fact all the Corvidae, pairs for life. To this point I will return presently; let me first relate another incident about our frivolous and irresponsible young cow.
One morning when the cows were in the field, some herring-gulls drifted by and a few of them remained circling about above the field. I threw out a piece of bread, and a troop of starlings rushed to it, and one of the gulls dropped down and took possession of it, but had scarcely began tearing at it when two more gulls dropped down and the first bird, lifting his wings began screaming "Hands off!" at the others, and the others, also raising their wings, screamed their wailing screams in reply. The young cow, attracted by the noise, gazed at them for a few moments, then all at once putting her head down furiously charged them. The three gulls rose up simultaneously and floated over her and then away, leaving her standing on the spot, shaking her head in anger and disgust at their escape. A rhinoceros charging a ball of thistledown or a soap-bubble, and causing it to float away with the wind it created, would not have been a more ludicrous spectacle.
FROM my boyhood, when I first began to observe birds, I started with the imbibed notion that those which paired for life were the rare exceptions--the dove that rhymed with love, the eagle, and perhaps half a dozen more. Who, for instance, would imagine that the sexes could be faithful in parasitical species like the cuckoo of Europe and the cow-birds of America? Yet even as a boy I made the discovery that an Argentine cow-bird that lays its eggs in the nests of other species, does actually pair for life; and so effectually mated is it, that on no day and no season of the year will you see a male without his female: if he flies she flies with him and feeds and drinks with him, and when he perches she perches at his side, and he never utters a sound but a responsive sound immediately falls from her devoted beak.
Again, it may seem unlikely that there can be pairing for life in species, like the chaffinch of northern Europe and, with us, of Scotland, in which the sexes separate and migrate separately. Also of non-gregarious species like the nightingale in which the males arrive in this country several days before the females. Yet I am confident that if we could catch and mark a considerable number of pairs it would be found that the same male and female found one another and re-mated every year.
It comes to this, that birds may pair for life, yet not be all the time or all the year together, as in the case of hawks, crows, owls, herons, and many others. In numberless species which undoubtedly pair for life the sexes keep apart during several hours each day, and there is some evidence that those that separate for a part of the year remain faithful.
An incident, related by Miss Ethel Williams, of Winchester, in her natural history notes contributed to a journal in that city, bears on this point. She had among the bird pensioners in the garden of her house adjoining the Cathedral green, a female thrush that grew tame enough to fly into the house and feed on the dining-room table. Her thrush paired and bred for several seasons in the garden, and the young, too, were tame and would follow their mother into the house to be fed. The male was wild and too shy ever to venture in. She noticed the first year that it had a wing-feather which stuck out, owing probably to a malformation of the socket. Each year after the breeding season the male vanished, the female remaining alone through the winter months, but in spring the male came back--the same bird with the unmistakable projecting wing-feather. Yet it was certain that this bird had gone quite away, otherwise he would have returned to the garden, where there was food in abundance during the spells of frosty weather. As he did not appear it is probable that he migrated each autumn to some warmer climate beyond the sea.
I have noticed that wagtails, thrushes, blackbirds, and some other species when the young are out of the nest, divide the brood between male and female and go different ways and spend the daylight hours at a distance apart, each attending to the one or two young birds in its charge.
One winter, a few years ago, I was staying for a few days at a cottage facing Silchester Common, and on going out after breakfast to feed the birds I particularly noticed a male grey wagtail among those that came to me, on account of its beauty and tameness. Every morning I fed it, and on my speaking to my landlady about it she said, "Oh, we know that bird well; this is the fourth winter it has spent with us, but it always came before with its mate. The poor little thing had only one leg, but managed to hop about and feed very well; this year the poor thing didn't turn up with its mate, so we suppose it had met its death somewhere during the summer."
I have often watched the gatherings of pied wagtails (always with a certain number of the grey species among them) in places where they spend the winter in our southern counties, at some spot where they are accustomed to congregate each evening to hold a sort of frolic before going to roost, and it has always appeared to me that the birds, both pied and grey, were in pairs. So too, in watching the starlings day after day in the field in front of my window. Well able with my binocular to observe them closely, I saw much to convince me that the starling, too, lives all the year with his mate.
Each morning the birds that had made our village their daily feeding-ground, would, on arrival from the roosting-place in one body, break up into numerous small parties of half a dozen to twenty or more birds. All day long these little flocks were hurrying about from field to field, spending but a short time at one spot, so hungry were they and anxious to find a more productive one, and in every field they would meet and mix with other small groups, and presently all would fly, and breaking up into small parties again go off in different directions. Thus one had a constant succession of little flocks in the field from morning till night, and I found from counting the birds in each small group that in three cases in four they were in even numbers. Again, I have often seen a group of three, five, seven or nine birds on the field, and after a while a solitary starling from a neighbouring field or from some treetop near by has flown down to join the group and make the numbers even.
The birds when feeding, I have said, are always in a desperate hurry, and little wonder, since after a night, usually wet and cold, of from sixteen to eighteen hours and only about six to feed in, they must be in a half-starved state and frantic to find something to swallow. No sooner do they alight than they begin running about, prodding with their beaks, and all the time advancing, the birds keeping pretty well abreast. Now, from time to time you will notice that a bird finds something to delay him and is left behind by the others. On they go--prod, prod, then a little run, then prod, prod again and run again--while he, excited over his find, and vigorously digging at the roots of the grass, lets them go on without him until he is yards behind. Whenever this happens you will see one of the advancing birds pause in its prodding to look back from time to time as if anxious about the one left behind; and by and by this same bird, its anxiety increasing, will suddenly spring into the air and fly back to place itself at the side of the other, to wait quietly until it has finished its task; and no sooner does the busy one put up its head to signal that he is ready than up they spring and fly together on to the flock. No one witnessing this action can doubt for a moment that these two are mates, and that wherever they paired and bred originally--in Lincoln or York or Thurso or perhaps in one of the western islands--they paired for life and will stick together, summer and winter and in all their wanderings, as long as they live.
Until one observes starlings in this close way, even to their minutest actions--I had indeed little else to do during my three winter months in this nursing-home--it is only natural to believe that among gregarious species the starling is one of those least likely to pair for life, seeing that in it the gregarious instinct is intensified and more highly developed than in most others. One would suppose that the flock, which is like an organism--that is to say, the attachment to the flock--would, out of the breeding season, take the place of the close relation or companionship between bird and bird seen in species known to pair for life. Only the pairing passion, one would suppose, could serve to dissolve the company of birds and this only for a brief season of about a couple of months' duration. There is but one brood raised in the season, and the whole business of reproduction is well over before the end of June. Later breeders are those that have lost their first eggs or broods. And no sooner are the young brought off and instructed in the starling's sole vocation (except his fruit-eating) of extracting the grubs it subsists on from the roots of the grass--a business which detains them for a week or two--than the married life is apparently over and the communal life resumed. The whole life of the bird is then changed; the sole tie appears to be that of the flock; home and young are forgotten: the birds range hither and thither about the land, and by and by migrate to distant places, some passing oversea, while others from the northern counties and from Scotland and the islands come down to the south of England, where they winter in millions and myriads. There they form the winter habit of congregating in immense numbers in the evening at their favourite roosting-places, and hundreds and thousands of small flocks, which during the daylight hours exist distributed over an area of hundreds of square miles all make to one point and combine into one flock. At such times they actually appear to rejoice in their own incalculable numbers and gather earlier than they need at the roosting-place, so that the whole vast gathering may spend an hour or so in their beloved aerial exercises.
To anyone who witnesses these gatherings and sees the birds rising from time to time from the wood, and appearing like a big black cloud in the sky, growing lighter and darker alternately as the birds scatter wide or mass themselves in a closer formation, until after wheeling about for some minutes they pour back into the trees; and who listens to the noise they make, as of a high wind in the wood, composed, as it is, of an infinity of individual voices, it must seem incredible that all these birds can keep in pairs. For how could any couple hold together in such circumstances, or when separated ever meet again in such a multitude, or, should they ever meet by chance, how recognize one another when all are exactly alike in size, shape, colour and voice?
They can, and certainly do, keep together, and when forced apart as, when pursued by a hawk, they scatter in all directions, they can quickly find one another again. They can do it because of their perfect discipline, or instinct, or the perfection of the system they follow during their autumn and winter wanderings and migrations.
The breeding season over, the birds in each locality unite in a small flock composed of twenty or thirty to fifty or more pairs and start their wandering life. Those in the north migrate or drift south, and vast numbers, as we see, spend the winter in the southern counties. And here they have their favourite roosting-places and are accustomed to assemble in tens and hundreds of thousands. But the original small flock composed of a few pairs, is never broken up--never absorbed by the multitude. Each morning when it is light enough, the birds quit the roosting-wood, but not all together; they quit it in flocks, flock following flock so closely as to appear like a continuous stream of birds, and the streams flow out in different directions over the surrounding country. Each stream of birds is composed of scores and hundreds of units, and each unit drops out of the stream and slopes away to this or that side, to drop down on its own chosen feeding-ground, to which it returns morning after morning through the winter. When all the units have dropped out and settled on their feeding areas for the day, it may be seen that the whole country within a circuit of ten or twelve or more miles from the roosting place has been occupied, that each flock has its own territory, where it splits up into some groups and spends its short hours flying about and exploring every green field, and one might almost say "every grass." One can only explain this perfect distribution by assuming that each unit instinctively looks for unoccupied ground in its winter habitat, and that consequently there is very little overlapping. It must also be assumed that at the place of assembly in the evening each flock has its own roosting-place--its own trees and bushes where the members of the flock can still keep together and to which after each aerial performance they can return. The flock comes back to sleep on its own tree, and no doubt every couple roosts side by side on its own twig.
On the return of Spring the birds do not migrate in a body, but slip away, flock by flock, to reappear about the end of April in their old breeding-place in the North Country, with, perhaps, the loss of a few members--the one that was old and died in the season of scarcity; and one that was taken at the roost by a brown owl, and one that had its feet frozen to the perch; and was killed by a jackdaw when struggling to free itself; and one that was struck down by a sparrow-hawk on his homeward journey.
What I have so far been unable to trace is the career of the young after August. We see that once they are able to fend for themselves they club together in small flocks and continue together during their "brown thrush" stage, but by and by they get the adult plumage and language and are no longer distinguishable as young. Do they, then, join the old birds before the wandering and migrating south begins? And do they pair or not before the winter?
THROUGHOUT the winter of 1915-16, and more particularly during my three months in the hospital at Hayle, from the beginning of December to March, I was greatly impressed at the perpetual state of hunger in which the birds exist, especially the three commonest species in our village--rook, daw, and starling. Little wonder that the sight of a piece of bread thrown out on the green field below my window would bring all these three and many others with a rush from all sides, every one eager to get a morsel! But the birds that live most in a groove, as it were, like the rook and starling, and have but one kind of food and one way of finding it, are always the worst off in winter. These subsist on the grubs and other minute organisms they are able to pick out of the grass roots, and are life workers paid by the piece who must labour hard and incessantly to make enough to keep themselves alive; their winter life is accordingly in startling contrast to that of the daw--one that lives on his wits and fares better and altogether has an easier and more amusing time.
It was the habit of the three species named to quit the wood where they roosted as soon as it was light enough for them to feed, the time varying according to the state of the weather from half-past eight to ten o'clock, the mornings being usually wet and dark. The rooks that had their rookery in the village numbered forty or fifty birds, and these would remain at the village, getting their food in the surrounding fields for the rest of the day. The daws would appear in a body of two or three hundred birds, but after a little while many of them would go on to their own villages further away, leaving about sixty to eighty birds belonging to the village. Last of all the starlings would appear in flocks and continuous streams of birds often fighting their way against wind and rain, leaving about a couple of hundred or more behind, these being the birds that had settled in the village for the season, and worked in the grass fields in and surrounding it. Rooks and starlings would immediately fall to work, while the daws, the flock breaking up into small parties of three or four, would distribute themselves about the village and perch on the chimney-pots. They would perch and then fly, and for all the rest of the day would be incessantly shifting about from place to place, on the look-out for something to eat, dropping from time to time to snatch up a crust of bread or the core of an apple thrown away by a child in the road, or into a back garden or on to a dust-heap where potato-parings and the head of a mackerel or other refuse had been thrown. They were very bold, but not as courageous as the old-time British kite that often swooped to snatch the bread from a child's hand.
From time to time one, or a pair, of a small party of these daws would drop down on the field before my window when the rooks and starlings were there prodding busily at the turf, but though I watched them a thousand times I never detected them trying to find something for themselves. They simply stood or walked about among the working birds, watching them intently. Grub finding was an art they had not acquired, or were too indolent or proud to practise; but they were not too proud to beg or steal; they simply watched the other birds in the hope of being able to snatch up a big unearthed grub and run away with it. As a rule after a minute or two they would get tired of waiting and rush off with a lively shout. Back they would go to the chimney-pots and to their flying up and down, suspending their flight over this or that yard or garden, and by and by one would succeed in picking up something big, and at once all the other daws in sight would give chase to take it from him; for these village daws are not only parasites and cadgers, but worse--they are thieves without honour among themselves.
In spite of all the time and energy wasted in their perpetual races and chases going on all over the village, every bird exerting himself to the utmost to rob all he can from his pals, they get enough to eat; for when the day is over and other daws from other villages drop in to visit them, all unite in a big crowd and wheel about, making the place ring with their merry yelping cries, before sailing away to the wood. One might say after witnessing and listening to this evening performance that they have great joy in their rascally lives.
But for the poor starling there is little joy in these brief, dark, wet winter days, even if there is little frost in this West Cornwall climate. A frost of a few days' duration would be fatal to incalculable numbers, especially if, as in the great frosts of the winters of 1894-5 and 1896-7, severest in the south and west of England, it should come late in winter, I think it can be taken as a fact that a long or overseas migration takes place before midwinter or not at all. In January and February, when birds are driven to the limits of the land by a great cold they do not cross the sea, either because they are too weak to attempt such an adventure or for some other reason unknown to us. We see that on these occasions they come to the seashore and follow it south and west even to the western extremity of Cornwall, and then either turn back inland or wait where they are for open weather, many perishing in the meantime.
During those three winter months, when I watched the starlings at work on the field before my hospital window, they appeared to be in a perpetual state of extreme hunger and were always running over the ground, rapidly prodding as they moved, and apparently finding their food almost exclusively on the surface--that is to say, on the surface of the soil but under the grass, at its surface roots. At other seasons they go deep when they know from the appearance of every blade of grass whether or not there is a grub feeding on its roots beneath the surface. Without shooting and examining the stomachs of a large number of starlings it was not possible to know just what the food consisted of; but with my strong binocular on them I could make out that at almost every dig of the beak something was picked up, and could actually see it when the beak was held up with the minute morsel at its tip--a small, thread-like, semi-transparent worm or grub in most instances. Two or three of these atomies would hardly have made a square meal for a ladybird, and I should think that a starling after swallowing a thousand would fed very hungry. And on many days this scanty, watery food had to be searched for in very painful conditions, as it rained heavily on most days and often all day long. At such times the birds in their sodden plumage looked like drowned starlings fished out of a pool and galvanized into activity. Nor were they even seen to shake the wet off--a common action in swallows and other birds that feed in the rain; they were too hungry, too anxious to find something to eat to keep the starling soul and body together before the long night of eighteen or twenty hours would overtake them.
No doubt the winter of 1915-16 was exceptionally wet and cold, although without any severe frosts; a long frost in February, when the birds were most reduced, would probably have proved fatal to at least half their number. But though it continued wet and cold, things began to mend for the starlings towards the end of February, and in March the improvement was very marked; they were not in such a perpetual hurry; their time was longer now, and by the end of the month their working day had increased from five or six to twelve or fourteen hours, and the light had increased and grubs were easier to find. By April, the starlings no longer appeared to be the same species as the poor, rusty, bedraggled wretches we had been accustomed to see; they are now lively, happy birds with a splendid gloss on their feathers and beaks as bright a yellow as the blackbird's. Finally, in April they left us, not going in a body, but flock by flock, day after day, until by the end of the month all were gone back to their homes in the north--all but the two or three to half a dozen pairs in each village. And these few that stay behind are new colonists in West Cornwall.
ABOUT the daw, or Jackie, or Dorrie or Jackie-Dorrie, as he is variously and familiarly called, and his village habits, there will be more to say presently; just now my concern is with another matter--a veritable daw problem.
For the last twenty years or longer it has seemed to me that the daw is an increasing species in Britain; at all events I am quite sure that it is so in the southern half of England, particularly along the coast of Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and in Cornwall, more than in any other county. And why is it? He is certainly not a respectable bird, like the starling, for example--if we do not go to the cherry-grower for the starling's character. He is and always has been on the keeper's and farmer's black list, and scarcely a week passes but you will find him described in some gamekeeper's or farmer's journal as "even worse than the rook." Even the ornithologists who are interested in birds as birds haven't a good word to say of the daw. According to them he alone is responsible for the disappearance of his distinguished relation, the chough. (The vulgar daw is of course devoid of any distinction at all, unless it be his grey pate and wicked little grey eyes.)
The ornithologists were wrong about the chough, just as they had been wrong about the goldfinch, during the late years of the nineteenth century, and as they were wrong about the swallows and martins in later years. Of the goldfinch, they said, and solemnly put it down in their books, that owing to improved methods of agriculture the thistle had been extirpated and the bird, deprived of his natural food, had forsaken this country. But no sooner did our County Councils begin to avail themselves of the powers given them by the Bird Act of twenty years ago to protect the goldfinch from the bird-catcher, than it began to increase again and is still increasing, year by year, all over the country.
Of the decrease of swallows and martins, they said it resulted from the action of the sparrows in ousting them from their nests and nesting-sites. But we know the true cause of the decline of these two species, the best loved and best protected of all birds in Britain, not even excepting robin redbreast. The French Government, in response to representations on this matter from our Foreign Office, have caused enquiries to be made and have found that our swallows are being destroyed wholesale in France during the autumn migration, and have promised to put a stop to this deplorable business. They do not appear to have done so, since the promise was made three years ago, and I can say from my own observation in the south and west countries that the decline has continued and that we have never had so few swallows come to us as in the present summer of 1916.
The daw--to return to that subject--has always been regarded as an injurious species, and down to a quarter of a century ago every farm lad in possession of a gun shot it in the interests of the henwife, even as he had formerly shot the kite, a common British species and a familiar feature in the landscape down to the early years of last century. Doubtless it was a great thing to bring down this great bird "that soars sublime" and nail it to the barn-door. By the middle of the last century it had become a rarity, and the ensuing rush for specimens and eggs for private collectors quickly brought about its virtual extinction. The kite is but one of several species--six of them hawks--extirpated within the last forty years. Why, then, does the daw, more injurious to the game-preserver and henwife than any one of these lost hawks, continue to flourish and increase in numbers? It is, I imagine, because of the growth of a sentiment which favours its preservation. But it is not the same as that which has served to preserve the rook and made it so common. That is a sentiment confined to the landowning class--to those who inherit great houses where the ancient rookery with its crowd of big, black, contentious birds caw-cawing on the windy elms, has come to be an essential part of the establishment, like the gardens and park and stables and home-farm and, one might add, the church and village. This sentiment differs, too, from the heron-sentiment, which serves to keep that bird with us in spite of the annual wail, rising occasionally in South Devon to a howl, of human trout-fishers. It is a traditional feeling coming down from the far past in England--from the time of William the Conqueror to that of William of Orange and the decay of falconry. That a species without any sentiment to favour it and without special protection by law may increase is to be seen in the case of the starling. This increase has come about automatically after we had destroyed the starling's natural enemies and then ceased to persecute it ourselves. Of all birds it was the most preyed on by certain raptorial species, especially by the sparrowhawk, which is now becoming so rare, assisted by the hobby (rarer still) and the merlin. It was more exposed than other birds to these enemies owing to its gregarious and feeding habits in grasslands and the open country, also to its slower flight. The greatest drain on the species, came, however, from man. The starling was a favourite bird for shooting-matches up till about thirty years ago, and was taken annually in large numbers by the bird-catchers for the purpose. It is probable that this use of the bird for sport caused people to eat it, and so common did the habit become that at the end of summer, or before the end, shooting starlings for the pot was practised everywhere. Old men in the country have told me that forty or fifty years ago it was common to hear people on the farms say that of all birds the starling was the best to eat.
When starling and sparrow shooting-matches declined, the starling went out of favour as a table-bird, and from that time the species has been increasing. At present the rate of increase grows from year to year, and during the last decade the birds have colonized every portion of the north of Scotland and the islands, where the starling had previously been a rare visitor--a bird unknown to the people. Here in West Cornwall where I am writing this chapter the starling was only a winter visitor until recently. Eight years ago I could only find two pairs breeding in the villages--about twenty-five in number--in which I looked for them; in the summer of 1915 I found them breeding in every town and village I visited. At present, June, 1916, there are six pairs in the village I am staying at. It may be the case, and from conversations I have had with farmers about the bird I am inclined to believe it is so, that a strong feeling in favour of the starling (in the pastoral districts) is growing up at the present time, a feeling which in the end is more powerful to protect than any law; but such a feeling has not become general as yet, and consequently has had nothing to do with the extraordinary increase of the bird.
The wood-pigeon is another species which, like the starling, has increased greatly in recent years, without special protection and with no sentiment in its favour. . . . The sentiment is all confined to the nature-lovers, whose words have no effect on the people generally, least of all on the farmers. I am reminded here of the experience of a young man, an ardent bird-lover, on his visit to a Yorkshire farm. His host, who was also a young man, took him a walk across his fields. It was a spring day of brilliant sunshine, and the air was full of the music of scores of soaring skylarks. The visitor long in cities pent, was exhilarated by the strains and kept on making exclamations of rapturous delight, "Just listen to the larks! Did you ever hear anything like it!" and so on.
His host, his eyes cast down, trudged on in glum silence. Finally the young man, carried away by his enthusiasm, stopped and turning to his companion shouted, "Listen! Listen! Do you hear the larks?"
"Oh, yes," drawled the other, looking more glum than ever, "I hear them fast enough. And I wish they were all dead!"
So with the other charming species. The moan of doves in immemorial elms is a pleasing sound to the poets, but it does not prevent the farmers throughout the land from wishing them all dead; and every person who possesses a gun is glad to help in their massacre. For the bird is a pest and he who shoots it is doing something for England; furthermore, shooting it is first-rate sport, not like slaughtering wretched little sparrows or innocent young rooks just out of their windy cradles. And when shot it is a good table-bird, with as much tasty flesh on it as a woodcock or partridge.
How, then can we account for the increase of such a species? One cause is undoubtedly to be found in the removal by gamekeepers of its three chief enemies--the carrion crow, magpie, and jay--all these three being great devourers of pigeon's eggs, which of all eggs are most conspicuous and open to attack. Then again the winter immigration of wood-pigeons from northern Europe appears to be on the increase, and it may be conjectured that a considerable number of these visitors remain annually to breed with us. There has also been an increase in the stockdove and turtle-dove in recent years, and the former species is extending its range in the north. The cause or causes of the increase of the turtledove are not far to seek. Its chief feathered enemies, the egg and fledgling robbers, are the same as the wood-pigeon's; moreover, the turtledove is least persecuted by man of our four pigeons, and being strictly migratory it quits the country before shooting-time begins; add to this that the turtle-dove has been specially protected under Sir Herbert Maxwell's Act of 1894 in a good number of English counties, from Surrey to Yorkshire.
Of the stock-dove we can only say that, like the ring-dove, it has increased in spite of the persecution it is subject to, since no person out after pigeons would spare it because it is without a white collar. With the exception of the county of Buckinghamshire it is not on the schedule anywhere in the country. One can only suppose that this species has been indirectly benefited by the bird legislation and all that has been done to promote a feeling favourable to bird-preservation during the last thirty years.
I HAVE spoken of the wood adjacent to the villages of Hayle and Lelant where the rooks, daws, and starlings of the neighbourhood have their winter roosting-place. This is at Trevelloe, the ancient estate of the Praeds, who now call themselves Tyringham. Here the daws congregate each evening in such numbers that a stranger to the district and to the local habits of the bird might imagine that all the cliff-breeding jackdaws in West Cornwall had come to roost at that spot. Yet the cliff-breeders, albeit abundant enough, are but a minority of the daw population of this district. The majority of these birds live and breed in the neighbouring villages and hamlets--St. Ives, Carbis Bay, Towadneck, Lelant, Phillack, Hayle, and others further away. It is a jackdaw metropolis and, as we have seen, every village receives its own quota of birds each morning, and there they spend the daylight hours and subsist on the waste food and on what they can steal, just as the semi-domestic raven and the kite did in former ages, from Roman times down to the seventeenth century.
Early in May the winter congregation breaks up, the cliff-breeders going back to the rocks and the village birds to their chimneys, where they presently set about relining their old nests. There are plenty of places for all, since there are chimneys in almost every cottage where fires are never lighted, and as ventilation is not wanted in bedrooms the birds are allowed to bring in more materials each year, until the whole flue is filled up. Year by year the materials brought in, sink lower and lower until they rest on the closed iron register and change in time to a solid brown mould. Thus, however long-lived a daw may be--and there are probably more centenarians among the daws than among the human inhabitants of the villages--it is a rare thing for one to be disturbed in his tenancy.
In the cottage opposite the one I was staying in, its owner, an old woman who had lived in it all her life, had recently died, aged eighty-seven.
She was very feeble at the last, and one cold day when she could not leave her bed, the extraordinary idea occurred to some one of her people that it might be a good thing to light a fire in her room. The fireplace was examined and was found to have no flue, or that the flue had been filled with earth or cement. The village builder was called in, and with the aid of a man on the roof and poles and various implements he succeeded in extracting two or three barrow-loads of hard earth which had no doubt once been sticks, centuries ago, as the building was very ancient. No one had remembered that the daws had always occupied the same chimney; the old dame herself had seen them going in and out of it from her childhood, and her end was probably hastened by the disturbance made in cleaning it. Now she is gone the daws here are in possession of it once more.
All through the month of May daws were to be seen about the village, dropping from time to time upon the chimney-pots where they had their nests and occasionally bringing some slight materials to form a new lining, but it was very rare to see one with a stick in his beak. The flues were already full of old sticks and no more were wanted. It was amusing to see a bird flying about, suddenly tumble out of the air on to a chimneypot, then with tail tipped up and wings closed, dive into the cavity below. One wondered how the young birds would be got out!
Talking with the rector of the neighbouring parish of Phillack one day on this subject, he said, "Don't imagine that the daws restrict themselves to the chimneys where fires are not lighted. At all events it isn't so at Phillack. Perhaps we have too many daws in our village, but every year before lighting fires in the drawing and dining-rooms we have to call in a man with a pole to clear the flues out." He told me that a few years ago, one cold June day, a fire was lighted in the drawing-room, and as the smoke all poured out into the room a man was sent up to the roof with a pole to clear the obstruction out. Presently a mess of sticks came down and with them two fully-fledged young jackdaws, one dead, killed with the pole, the other sound and lively. This one they kept and it soon became quite tame; when able to fly it would go off and associate with the wild birds, but refused to leave the house until the following summer, when it found a mate and went away.
The head keeper at Trevelloe, a remarkably vigorous and intelligent octogenarian who has been in his place over half a century, gave me some interesting information about the daws. He says they have greatly increased in recent years in this part of Cornwall because they are no longer molested; no person, he says, not even a game-keeper anxious about his pheasants, would think of shooting a jackdaw. But this is not because the bird has changed its habits. He is as great a pest as ever he was, and as an example of how bad jackdaws can be, he related the following incident told him by a friend of his, a head keeper on an estate adjoining a shooting his master took one year on the northwest coast of England. It happened that a big colony of daws existed within a mile or two of the preserves, and one day the keeper was called' away in a hurry and left the coops unattended for the best part of a day; it was the biggest mistake he had ever made and the chief disaster of his life. On his return he found that the daws had been before him and that all his precious chicks had been carried off. For several hours of that day there was a steady coming and going of birds between the cliffs and the coops, every daw going back with a chick in his beak for his hungry young in the nest.
Yet my informant, this ancient and singularly intelligent old man, a gamekeeper all his life, who knows his jackdaw, could not tell me why gamekeepers no longer persecute so injurious a bird I He will not allow a sparrow-hawk to exist in his woods, yet all he could say when I repeated my question was, "No keeper ever thinks of hurting a jack now, but I can't say why."
The reason of it I fancy is plain enough; it is simply the sentiment I have spoken of. In a small way it has always existed in certain places, in towns, where the jackdaw is associated in our minds with cathedrals and church towers--where he is the "ecclesiastical daw"; but the modern wider toleration is due to the character, the personality, of the bird itself, which is more or less like that of all the members of the corvine family, with the exception of the rook, who always tries his best to be an honest, useful citizen; but it is not precisely the same. They may be regarded as bad hats generally In the bird community, and on this very account--"I'm sorry to say," to quote Mr. Pecksniff--they touch a chord in us; and the daw being the genial rascal in feathers par excellence is naturally the best loved.
It has thus come about that of all the Corvidae the daw is now the favourite as a pet bird, and in the domestic condition he is accorded more liberty than is given to other species. We think he makes better use of his freedom, that he does not lose touch with his human friends when allowed to fly about, and appears more capable of affection.
Formerly, the raven and magpie came first as pets. The raven vanished as a pet, because like the goshawk, kite, and buzzard, he was extirpated in the interests of the game-preserver and hen-wife. The magpie was then first, and has only been recently ousted from that ancient, honourable position. The pie was a superior bird as a feathered pet in a cage; he is beautiful in shape and colour in his snow-white and metallic dark-green and purple-glossed plumage, and his long graduated tail. Moreover, he is a clever bird. To my mind there is no more fascinating species when I can find it in numbers, in places where it is not persecuted, and is accustomed to congregate at intervals, not as rooks and starlings do merely because they are gregarious, but purely for social purposes--to play and converse with one another. Its language at such times is so various as to be a surprise and delight to the listener; while its ways of amusing itself, its clowning and the little tricks and practical jokes the birds are continually playing on each other, are a delight to witness. All this is lost in a caged bird. He is handsome to look at and remarkably intelligent, but he distinguishes between magpies and men; he doesn't reveal himself; his accomplishments, vocal and mental, are for his own tribe. In this he differs from the daw; for the daw is less specialized; he is an undersized common crow, livelier, more impish than that bird, also more plastic, more adaptive, and takes more kindly to the domestic or parasitic life. Human beings to him are simply larger daws, and unlike the pie he can play his tricks and be himself among them as freely as when with his feathered comrades. We like him best because he makes himself one of us.
Undoubtedly the chough comes nearest to the daw mentally, and as it is a far more beautiful bird--the poor daw having little of that quality--it would probably have been our prime favourite among the crows but for its rarity. Formerly it was a common pet bird, caged or free, in all the coast districts where it inhabited, and it may be that the desire for a pet chough was the cause of its decline and final disappearance all round the south and west coasts of England, except at one spot near Tintagel where half a dozen pairs still exist only because watchers appointed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are always on the spot to warn off the nest-robbers during the breeding season. But of the chough in captivity or as a domesticated bird we know little now, as no records have been preserved. I have only known one bird, taken from a North Devon cliff about forty years ago, at a house near the coast; a very beautiful pet bird with charming, affectionate ways, always free to range about the country and the cliffs, where it associated with the daws. It was the last of its kind at that place, and I do not know if it still lives.
Next to the chough the jay comes nearest to the daw mentally of all our crows, and as he excels most of our wild birds in beauty he would naturally have been a first favourite as a pet but for the fact that it is only in a state of nature in which he is like the daw--lively, clever, impish; in captivity he is more like the magpie and affiliates even less than that bird with his human associates. In confinement he is a quiet, almost sedate, certainly a silent bird: He is essentially a woodland species; all his graces, his various, often musical, language, with many imitations of bird and animal sounds, and his spectacular games and pretty wing displays, are for his own people exclusively. He must have his liberty in the woods and a company of his fellow-jays to exhibit his full lustre.
The difference between jay and daw is similar to that between fox and dog; or rather let us say, between one of the small desert foxes of Syria and Egypt--the fennec, for instance--and the jackal, the domestic dog's progenitor; the first gifted with exquisite grace and beauty, was too highly specialized to suit the domestic condition; hence the generalized un-beautiful beast was chosen to be man's servant and companion. In the same way it looks as if we were taking to the daw in preference to the more beautiful bird because he is more like us, or understands us better, or adapts himself more readily to our way of life.
I believe that about nine out of every ten interesting and amusing stories about charming pet birds I have heard in England during the last quarter of a century relate to the daw, and this, I think, goes to show that he is a prime favourite as a feathered pet, at all events in the southern and western counties.
WHEN I laid my pen down after concluding Part V it pleased me to think that I had written the last word, that, my task finished, I was free to go on to something else. But I was not yet wholly free of the jackdaws; their yelping cries were still ringing in my mental ears, and their remembered shapes were still all about me in their black dress, or cassock, grey hood, and malicious little grey eyes. The persistent images suggested that my task was not properly finished after all, that it would be better to conclude with one of those anecdotes or stories of the domesticated bird which I have said are so common; also that this should be a typical story, which would serve to illustrate the peculiar daw sentiment--the affectionate interest we take in him, not only in spite of his impudence and impishness and naughtiness, but also to some extent because of these same qualities, which find an echo in us. Accordingly I set myself to recall some of the latest anecdotes of this kind which I had heard, and selected the one which follows, not because it was more interesting as a daw story than the others, but mainly on account of the shrewd and humorous and dramatic way in which it was related to me by a little boy of the working class.
I met him on a bright Sunday morning at the end of June in the park-like grounds of Walmer Castle. I had not long been seated on a garden bench when a daw came flying to a tree close by and began craning her neck and eyeing me with one eye, then the other, with an intense, almost painful curiosity; and these nervous movements and gestures immediately revealed to me that she had a nestful of young birds somewhere close by. After changing her position several times to view me from other points and find out what I was there for, she came to the conclusion that I was not to be got rid of, and making a sudden dash to a tree standing just before me, disappeared in a small hole or cleft in the trunk about forty-five feet above the ground, and in a few seconds came out again and flew swiftly away. In four or five minutes she returned, and after eyeing me suspiciously a short time flew again to the tree and, vanishing from sight in the hole, remained there. I was intently watching that small black spot in the bark to see her emerge, when a little boy came slowly sauntering past my bench, and glancing at him I found that his shrewd brown eyes were watching my face and that he had a knowing half-smile on his lips.
"Hullo, my boy!" I said. "I can see plainly enough what is in your mind. You know I'm watching a hole in the tree where a jackdaw has just gone in, and your intention is, when no one is about, to swarm up the tree and get the young birds."
"Oh, no," he returned. "I'm not going to climb the tree and don't want any young jackdaws. I always come to look because the birds breed in that hole every year. Two years ago I had a bird from the nest, but I don't want another."
Then at my invitation he sat down to tell me about it. One morning when he came the young had just come off, and he found one squatting on the ground under the trees, looking stupefied. No doubt when it flew out it had struck against a trunk or branch and come down bruised and stunned.
He wrapped it up in a handkerchief and took it home to Deal and put it in a box; then mother got some flannel and made a sort of bed for it, and warmed some milk and they opened its beak and fed it with a teaspoon. Next day it was all right and opened its beak to be fed whenever they came near it, and in two or three days it began flying about the room and perching on their shoulders. Then he brought it back to Walmer and let it go and saw it fly off into the trees, but when he got home mother scolded him for having let it go when its parents were not about; she said it would die of starvation, and was going on at him when in flew the jackdaw and came flop on her shoulder! After that mother and father said they'd keep the daw a little longer, and then he could let it go at a distance where there were other daws about. By and by they said they'd let it stay where it was. Father liked a bloater for his tea, and there was nothing the jackdaw was fonder of, so he was always on the table at tea-time, eating out of father's plate. Then he got to be troublesome. He was always watching for a door or window of the parlour to be opened to let the air in, and that was the room mother was so careful about, and every time he got in he'd fly straight to the mantelpiece, which was covered with photographs and ornaments. They were mostly those little things--pigs and dogs and parrots and all sorts of animals made of glass and china, and the jackdaw would begin to pick them up and throw them down on to the fender, and of course he broke a lot of them. That made mother mad, and she scolded him and told him to get rid of the bird. So he wrapped it up so as it shouldn't know where it was going and went off two or three miles along the coast, and let it go where there were other daws. It flew off and joined them, and he came home. That afternoon Jackie came back, and they wondered how he had found his way. Father said 'twas plain enough, that the bird had just followed the coast till he got back to Deal, and there he was at home. He said the only way to lose it was to take it somewhere away from the sea; so he wrapped it up again and took it to his Aunt Ellen's at Northbourne, about five miles from Deal. His aunt told him to carry it to the park, where he'd find other daws and settle down. And that's what he did, but Jackie came back to Deal again that same day; the strangest thing was that mother and father made a great fuss over it and fed it just as if they were glad to have it back. Next day it got into the parlour and broke some more things, and mother scolded him for not getting rid of the bird, and father said he knew how it could be done. One of his pals was going to Dover, and he would ask him to take the bird and let it go up by the castle where it would mix with the jackdaws there, and that would be too far away for it to come back. But it did come back, and after that he sent it to Ashford, and then to Canterbury, and I don't know how many other places, but it always came back, and they always seemed very glad to see it back. All the same, mother was always scolding him about the bird and complaining to father about the damage it did in the house. Then one day Aunt Ellen came to see mother, and told her the best way to get rid of the daw would be to send it abroad; she said her husband's cousin, Mr. Sturge, was going out to his relations in Canada to work on their farm, and she would get her husband to ask him to take the jackdaw. It would never come back from such a distant place. A week afterwards Mr. Sturge sent word that he would take the bird, as he thought his relations would like to have a real old English jackdaw to remind them of home. So one day Aunt Ellen came and took Jackie away in a small covered basket. The funniest thing was the way father went on when he came home to tea. "A bloater with a soft roe," he says; "just what Jackie likes! Where's the bird got to? Come to your tea, Jackie!"
"He's gone," says mother, "gone to Canada, and a good riddance, too!"
"Oh, gone, has he?" says father. "Then we're a happy family and going to lead a quiet life. No more screams and tears over broken chiny dolls! And if ever Billy brings another jackdaw into the house we'll dust his coat for him."
Here Billy interposed to say that if he ever made such a mistake again they could thrash him as much as they liked.
"Oh, yes," said father, "we'll thrash you fast enough; mother'll do it for the sake of her chiny toys and dolls."
That put mother up. "You're in a nasty temper," she says, "but you know I miss the bird as much as you do!"
"Then," said father, "why the devil didn't you tell that sister of yours to mind her own business when she came interfering about my jackdaw! And that Sturge, he'll soon get tired of the bird and give it away for a pint of beer before he gets to Liverpool."
"So much the better," says mother. "If Jackie can get free before they take him aboard you may be sure he'll find his way back to Deal."
And that's what they went on hoping for days and days; but Jackie never came back, so I s'pose Mr. Sturge took him out all right and that he's in Canada now.