Ch. 11: Starlings and Sheep Bells




Starlings' singing--Native and borrowed sounds--Imitations of
sheep-bells--The shepherd on sheep-bells--The bells for pleasure,
not use--A dog in charge of the flock--Shepherd calling his
sheep--Richard Warner of Bath--Ploughmen singing to their oxen
in Cornwall--A shepherd's loud singing


The subject of starlings associating with sheep has served to remind me
of something I have often thought when listening to their music. It
happens that I am writing this chapter in a small village on Salisbury
Plain, the time being mid-September 1909, and that just outside my door
there is a group of old elder-bushes laden just now with clusters of
ripe berries on which the starlings come to feed, filling the room all
day with that never-ending medley of sounds which is their song. They
sing in this way not only when they sing--that is to say, when they make
a serious business of it, standing motionless and a-shiver on the tiles,
wings drooping and open beak pointing upwards, but also when they are
feasting on fruit--singing and talking and swallowing elderberries
between whiles to wet their whistles. If the weather is not too cold you
will hear this music daily, wet or dry, all the year round. We may say
that of all singing birds they are most vocal, yet have no set song. I
doubt if they have more than half a dozen to a dozen sounds or notes
which are the same in every individual and their very own. One of them
is a clear, soft, musical whistle, slightly inflected; another a kissing
sound, usually repeated two or three times or oftener, a somewhat
percussive smack; still another, a sharp, prolonged hissing or sibilant
but at the same time metallic note, compared by some one to the sound
produced by milking a cow into a tin pail--a very good description.
There are other lesser notes: a musical, thrush-like chirp, repeated
slowly, and sometimes rapidly till it runs to a bubbling sound; also
there is a horny sound, which is perhaps produced by striking upon the
edges of the lower mandible with those of the upper. But it is quite
unlike the loud, hard noise made by the stork; the poor stork being a
dumb bird has made a sort of policeman's rattle of his huge beak. These
sounds do not follow each other; they come from time to time, the
intervals being filled up with others in such endless variety, each bird
producing its own notes, that one can but suppose that they are
imitations. We know, in fact, that the starling is our greatest mimic,
and that he often succeeds in recognizable reproductions of single
notes, of phrases, and occasionally of entire songs, as, for instance,
that of the blackbird. But in listening to him we are conscious of his
imitations; even when at his best he amuses rather than delights--he is
not like the mocking-bird. His common starling pipe cannot produce
sounds of pure and beautiful quality, like the blackbird's "oboe-voice,"
to quote Davidson's apt phrase: he emits this song in a strangely
subdued tone, producing the effect of a blackbird heard singing at a
considerable distance. And so with innumerable other notes, calls, and
songs--they are often to their originals what a man's voice heard on a
telephone is to his natural voice. He succeeds best, as a rule, in
imitations of the coarser, metallic sounds, and as his medley abounds in
a variety of little, measured, tinkling, and clinking notes, as of
tappings on a metal plate, it has struck me at times that these are
probably borrowed from the sheep-bells of which the bird hears so much
in his feeding-grounds. It is, however, not necessary to suppose that
every starling gets these sounds directly from the bells; the birds
undoubtedly mimic one another, as is the case with mocking-birds, and
the young might easily acquire this part of their song language from the
old birds without visiting the flocks in the pastures.

The sheep-bell, in its half-muffled strokes, as of a small hammer
tapping on an iron or copper plate, is, one would imagine, a sound well
within the starling's range, easily imitated, therefore specially
attractive to him.

But--to pass to another subject--what does the shepherd himself think or
feel about it; and why does he have bells on his sheep?

He thinks a great deal of his bells. He pipes not like the shepherd of
fable or of the pastoral poets, nor plays upon any musical instrument,
and seldom sings, or even whistles--that sorry substitute for song; he
loves music nevertheless, and gets it in his sheep-bells; and he likes
it in quantity. "How many bells have you got on your sheep--it sounds as
if you had a great many?" I asked of a shepherd the other day, feeding
his flock near Old Sarum, and he replied, "Just forty, and I wish there
were eighty." Twenty-five or thirty is a more usual number, but only
because of their cost, for the shepherd has very little money for bells
or anything else. Another told me that he had "only thirty," but he
intended getting more. The sound cheers him; it is not exactly
monotonous, owing to the bells being of various sizes and also greatly
varying in thickness, so that they produce different tones, from the
sharp tinkle-tinkle of the smallest to the sonorous klonk-klonk of the
big, copper bell. Then, too, they are differently agitated, some quietly
when the sheep are grazing with heads down, others rapidly as the animal
walks or trots on; and there are little bursts or peals when a sheep
shakes its head, all together producing a kind of rude harmony--a music
which, like that of bagpipes or of chiming church-bells, heard from a
distance, is akin to natural music and accords with rural scenes.

As to use, there is little or none. A shepherd will sometimes say, when
questioned on the subject, that the bells tell him just where the flock
is or in which direction they are travelling; but he knows better. The
one who is not afraid to confess the simple truth of the matter to a
stranger will tell you that he does not need the bells to tell him where
the sheep are or in which direction they are grazing. His eyes are good
enough for that. The bells are for his solace or pleasure alone. It may
be that the sheep like the tinkling too--it is his belief that they do
like it. A shepherd said to me a few days ago: "It is lonesome with the
flock on the downs; more so in cold, wet weather, when you perhaps don't
see a person all day--on some days not even at a distance, much less to
speak to. The bells keep us from feeling it too much. We know what we
have them for, and the more we have the better we like it. They are
company to us."

Even in fair weather he seldom has anyone to speak to. A visit from an
idle man who will sit down and have a pipe and talk with him is a day to
be long remembered and even to date events from. "'Twas the month--May,
June, or October--when the stranger came out to the down and talked to I."

One day, in September, when sauntering over Mere Down, one of the most
extensive and loneliest-looking sheep-walks in South Wilts--a vast,
elevated plain or table-land, a portion of which is known as White Sheet
Hill--I passed three flocks of sheep, all with many bells, and noticed
that each flock produced a distinctly different sound or effect, owing
doubtless to a different number of big and little bells in each; and it
struck me that any shepherd on a dark night, or if taken blindfolded
over the downs, would be able to identify his own flock by the sound. At
the last of the three flocks a curious thing occurred. There was no
shepherd with it or anywhere in sight, but a dog was in charge; I found
him lying apparently asleep in a hollow, by the side of a stick and an
old sack. I called to him, but instead of jumping up and coming to me,
as he would have done if his master had been there, he only raised his
head, looked at me, then put his nose down on his paws again. I am on
duty--in sole charge--and you must not speak to me, was what he said.
After walking a little distance on, I spied the shepherd with a second
dog at his heels, coming over the down straight to the flock, and I
stayed to watch. When still over a hundred yards from the hollow the dog
flew ahead, and the other jumping up ran to meet him, and they stood
together, wagging their tails as if conversing. When the shepherd had
got up to them he stood and began uttering a curious call, a somewhat
musical cry in two notes, and instantly the sheep, now at a considerable
distance, stopped feeding and turned, then all together began running
towards him, and when within thirty yards stood still, massed together,
and all gazing at him. He then uttered a different call, and turning
walked away, the dogs keeping with him and the sheep closely following.
It was late in the day, and he was going to fold them down at the foot
of the slope in some fields half a mile away.

As the scene I had witnessed appeared unusual I related it to the very
next shepherd I talked with.

"Oh, there was nothing in that," he said. "Of course the dog was behind
the flock."

I said, "No, the peculiar thing was that both dogs were with their
master, and the flock followed."

"Well, my sheep would do the same," he returned. "That is, they'll do it
if they know there's something good for them--something they like in the
fold. They are very knowing." And other shepherds to whom I related the
incident said pretty much the same, but they apparently did not quite
like to hear that any shepherd could control his sheep with his voice
alone; their way of receiving the story confirmed me in the belief that
I had witnessed something unusual.

Before concluding this short chapter I will leave the subject of the
Wiltshire shepherd and his sheep to quote a remarkable passage about men
singing to their cattle in Cornwall, from a work on that county by
Richard Warner of Bath, once a well-known and prolific writer of
topographical and other books. They are little known now, I fancy, but
he was great in his day, which lasted from about the middle of the
eighteenth to about the middle of the nineteenth century--at all events,
he died in 1857, aged ninety-four. But he was not great at first, and
finding when nearing middle age that he was not prospering, he took to
the Church and had several livings, some of them running concurrently,
as was the fashion in those dark days. His topographical work included
Walks in Wales, in Somerset, in Devon, Walks in many places, usually
taken in a stage-coach or on horseback, containing nothing worth
remembering except perhaps the one passage I have mentioned, which is as
follows:--

"We had scarcely entered Cornwall before our attention was agreeably
arrested by a practice connected with the agriculture of the people,
which to us was entirely novel. The farmers judiciously employ the fine
oxen of the country in ploughing, and other processes of husbandry, to
which the strength of this useful animal can be employed"--the Rev.
Richard Warner is tedious, but let us be patient and see what
follows--"to which the strength of this useful animal can be employed;
and while the hinds are thus driving their patient slaves along the
furrows, they continually cheer them with conversation, denoting
approbation and pleasure. This encouragement is conveyed to them in a
sort of chaunt, of very agreeable modulation, which, floating through
the air from different distances, produces a striking effect both on the
ear and imagination. The notes are few and simple, and when delivered by
a clear, melodious voice, have something expressive of that tenderness
and affection which man naturally entertains for the companions of his
labours, in a _pastoral state_ of society, when, feeling more
forcibly his dependence upon domesticated animals for support, he gladly
reciprocates with them kindness and protection for comfort and
subsistence. This wild melody was to me, I confess, peculiarly
affecting. It seemed to draw more closely the link of friendship between
man and the humbler tribes of _fellow mortals_. It solaced my heart
with the appearance of humanity, in a world of violence and in times of
universal hostile rage; and it gladdened my fancy with the contemplation
of those days of heavenly harmony, promised in the predictions of
eternal truth, when man, freed at length from prejudice and passion,
shall seek his happiness in cultivating the mild, the benevolent, and
the merciful sensibilities of his nature; and when the animal world,
catching the virtues of its lord and master, shall soften into
gentleness and love; when the wolf"....

And so on, clause after clause, with others to be added, until the whole
sentence becomes as long as a fishing-rod. But apart from the
fiddlededee, is the thing he states believable? It is a charming
picture, and one would like to know more about that "chaunt," that "wild
melody." The passage aroused my curiosity when in Cornwall, as it had
appeared to me that in no part of England are the domestic animals so
little considered by their masters. The R.S.P.C.A. is practically
unknown there, and when watching the doings of shepherds or drovers with
their sheep the question has occurred to me, What would my Wiltshire
shepherd friends say of such a scene if they had witnessed it? There is
nothing in print which I can find to confirm Warner's observations, and
if you inquire of very old men who have been all their lives on the soil
they will tell you that there has never been such a custom in their
time, nor have they ever heard of it as existing formerly. Warner's Tour
through Cornwall is dated 1808.

I take it that he described a scene he actually witnessed, and that he
jumped to the conclusion that it was a common custom for the ploughman
to sing to his oxen. It is not unusual to find a man anywhere singing to
his oxen, or horses, or sheep, if he has a voice and is fond of
exercising it. I remember that in a former book--"Nature in Downland"--I
described the sweet singing of a cow-boy when tending his cows on a
heath near Trotton, in West Sussex; and here in Wiltshire it amused me
to listen, at a vast distance, to the robust singing of a shepherd while
following his flock on the great lonely downs above Chitterne. He was a
sort of Tamagno of the downs, with a tremendous voice audible a mile
away.



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