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A CERTAIN road leading outwards from a suburb, enters at once among fields. It soon passes a thick hedge dividing a meadow from a cornfield, in which hedge is a spot where some bluebells may be found in spring. Wild flowers are best seen when in masses, a few scattered along a bank much concealed by grass and foliage are lost, except indeed, upon those who love them for their own sake.
This meadow in June, for instance, when the butter. cups are high, is one broad expanse of burnished gold. The most careless passer-by can hardly fail to cast a glance over acres of rich yellow. The furze, again, especially after a shower has refreshed its tint, must be seen by all. Where broom grows thickly, lifting its colour well into view, or where the bird's-foot lotus in full summer overruns the thin grass of some upland pasture, the eye cannot choose but acknowledge it. So, too, with charlock, and with hill sides purple with heath, or where the woodlands are azure with bluebells for a hundred yards together. Learning from this, those who would transplant wild flowers to their garden should arrange to have as many as possible of the same species close together.
The bluebells in this hedge are unseen, except by the rabbits. The latter have a large burrow, and until the grass is too tall, or after it is cut or grazed, can be watched from the highway. In this hedge the first nightingale of the year sings, beginning some two or three days before the bird which comes to the bushes in the gorse, which will presently be mentioned.
It is, or rather was, a favourite meadow with the partridges; one summer there was, I think, a nest in or near it, for I saw the birds there daily. But the next year they were absent. One afternoon a brace of partridges came over the hedge within a few inches of my head; they had been flushed and frightened at some distance, and came with the wind at a tremendous pace. It is a habit with partridges to fly low, but just skimming the tops of the hedges, and certainly, had they been three inches lower, they must have taken my hat off. The knowledge that partridges were often about there, made me always glance into this field on passing it, long after the nesting season was over.
In October, as I looked as usual, a hawk flew between the elms, and out into the centre of the meadow, with a large object in his talons. He alighted in the middle, so as to be as far as possible from either hedge, and no doubt prepared to enjoy his quarry, when something startled him, and he rose again. Then, as I got a better view, I saw it was a rat he was carrying. The long body of the animal was distinctly visible, and the tail depending, the hawk had it by the shoulders or head. Flying without the least apparent effort, the bird cleared the elms,
and I lost sight of him beyond them. Now, the kestrel is but a small bird, and taking into consideration the size of the bird, and the weight of a rat, it seems as great a feat in proportion as for an eagle to snatch up a lamb.
Some distance up the road, and in the corner of an arable field, there was a wheat rick which was threshed and most of the straw carted away. But there still remained the litter, and among it probably a quantity of stray corn. There was always a flock of sparrows on this litter — a flock that might often be counted by the hundred. As I came near the spot one day a sparrow-hawk, whose approach I had not observed, and which had therefore been flying low, suddenly came over the hedge just by the loose straw.
With shrill cries the sparrows instantly rushed for the hedge, not two yards distant; but the hawk, dashing through the crowd of them as they rose, carried away a victim. It was done in the tenth of a second. He came, singled his bird, and was gone like the wind, before the whirr of wings had ceased on the hawthorn where the flock cowered.
Another time, but in a different direction, I saw a hawk descend and either enter, or appear to enter, a short much-cropped hedge, but twenty yards distant. I ran to the spot; the hawk of course made off, but there was nothing in the bush save a hedge sparrow, which had probably attracted him, but which he had not succeeded in getting.
Kestrels are almost common; I have constantly seen them while strolling along the road, generally two together, and once three. In the latter part of the summer and autumn they seem to be most numerous, hovering over the recently reaped fields. Certainly there is no scarcity of hawks here. Upon one occasion, on Surbiton Hill, I saw a large bird of the same kind, but not sufficiently near to identify. From the gliding flight, the long forked tail, and large size I supposed it to be a kite. The same bird was going about next day, but still farther off. I cannot say that it was a kite, for unless it is a usual haunt, it is not in my opinion wise to positively identify a bird seen for so short a time.
The thick hedge mentioned is a favourite resort of blackbirds, and on a warm May morning, after a shower — they are extremely fond of a shower — half-a-dozen may be heard at once whistling in the elms. They use the elms here because there are not many oaks; the oak is the blackbird's favourite song-tree. There was one one day whistling with all his might on the lower branch of an elm, at the very roadside, and just above him a wood-pigeon was perched. A pair of turtle-doves built in the same hedge one spring, and while resting on the gate by the roadside their "coo-coo" mingled with the song of the nightingale and thrush, the blackbird's whistle, the chiff-chaff's "chip-chip," the willow-wren's pleading voice, and the rustle of green corn as the wind came rushing (as it always does to a gateway).
Goldfinches come by occasionally, not often, but still they do come. The rarest bird seems to be the bullfinch. I have only seen bullfinches three or four times in three seasons, and then only a pair. Now, this is worthy a note, as illustrating what I have often ventured to say about the habitat of birds being so often local, for if judged by observation here the bullfinch would be said to be a scarce bird by London. But it has been stated upon the best authority that only a few miles distant, and still nearer town, they are common.
The road now becomes bordered by elms on either side, forming an irregular avenue. Almost every elm in spring has its chaffinch loudly challenging. The birdcatchers are aware that it is a frequented resort, and on Sunday mornings four or five of them used to be seen in the course of a mile, each with a call bird in a partly darkened cage, a stuffed dummy, and limed twigs. In the cornfields on either hand wood-pigeons are numerous in spring and autumn. Up to April they come in flocks, feeding on the newly sown grain when they can get at it, and varying it with ivy berries, from the ivy growing up the elms. By degrees the flocks break up as the nesting begins in earnest.
Some pair and build much earlier than others; in fact, the first egg recorded is very little to be depended on as an indication. Particular pairs (of many kinds of birds) may have nests, and yet the species as a species may be still flying in large packs. The flocks which settle in these fields number from one to two hundred. Rooks, wood-pigeons, and tame white pigeons often feed amicably mixed up together; the white tame birds are conspicuous at a long distance before the crops have risen, or after the stubble is ploughed.
I should think that the corn farmers of Surrey lose more grain from the birds than the agriculturists whose tenancies are a hundred miles from London. In the comparatively wild or open districts to which I had been accustomed before I made these observations I cannot recollect ever seeing such vast numbers of birds. There were places, of course, where they were numerous, and there were several kinds more represented than is the case here, and some that are scarcely represented at all. I have seen flocks of wood-pigeons immensely larger than any here; but then it was only occasionally. They came, passed over, and were gone. Here the flocks, though not very numerous, seem always to be about.
Sparrows crowd every hedge and field, their numbers are incredible; chaffinches are not to be counted; of greenfinches there must be thousands. From the railway even you can see them. I caught glimpses of a ploughed field recently sown one spring from the window of a railway carriage, every little clod of which seemed alive with small birds, principally sparrows, chaffinches, and green-finches. There must have been thousands in that field alone. In autumn the numbers are even greater, or rather more apparent.
One autumn some correspondence appeared lamenting the scarcity of small birds (and again in the spring the same cry was raised); people said that they had walked along the roads or footpaths and there were none in the hedges. They were quite correct — the birds were not in the hedges, they were in the corn and stubble. After the nesting is well over and the wheat is ripe the birds leave the hedges and go out into the wheatfields; at the same time the sparrows quit the house-tops and gardens and do the same. At the very time this complaint was raised, the stubbles in Surrey, as I can vouch, were crowded with small birds.
If you walked across the stubble flocks of hundreds rose out of your way; if you leant on a gate and watched a few minutes you could see small flocks in every quarter of the field rising and settling again. These movements indicated a larger number in the stubble there, for where a great flock is feeding some few every now and then fly up restlessly. Earlier than that in the summer there was not a wheatfield where you could not find numerous wheatears picked as clean as if threshed where they stood. In some places, the wheat was quite thinned.
Later in the year there seems a movement of small birds from the lower to the higher lands. One December day I remember particularly visiting the neighbourhood of Ewell, where the lands begin to rise up towards the Downs. Certainly, I have seldom seen such vast numbers of small birds. Up from the stubble flew sparrows, chaffinches, greenfinches, yellow-hammers, in such flocks that the low-cropped hedge was covered with them. A second correspondence appeared in the spring upon the same subject, and again the scarcity of small birds was deplored.
So far as the neighbourhood of London was concerned, this was the exact reverse of the truth.
Small birds swarmed, as I have already stated, in every ploughed field. All the birdcatchers in London with traps and nets and limed twigs could never make the slightest appreciable difference to such flocks. I have always expressed my detestation of the bird-catcher; but it is founded on other grounds, and not from any fear of the diminution of numbers only. Where the birdcatcher does inflict irretrievable injury is in this way — a bird, say a nightingale, say a goldfinch, has had a nest for years in the corner of a garden, or an apple-tree in an orchard. The bird-catcher presently decoys one or other of these, and thenceforward the spot is deserted. The song is j heard no more; the nest never again rebuilt.
The first spring I resided in Surrey I was fairly astonished and delighted at the bird life which proclaimed itself everywhere. The bevies of chiffchaffs and willow wrens which came to the thickets in the furze, the chorus of thrushes and blackbirds, the chaffinches in the elms, the greenfinches in the hedges, wood-pigeons and turtle-doves in the copses, tree-pipits about the oaks in the cornfields; every bush, every tree, almost every clod, for the larks were so many, seemed to have its songster. As for nightingales, I never knew so many in the most secluded country.
There are more round about London than in all the -woodlands I used to ramble through. When people so into the country they really leave the birds behind them. It was the same, I found, after longer observation, with birds perhaps less widely known as with those universally recognised — such, for instance, as shrikes. The winter when the cry was raised that there were no birds, that the blackbirds and thrushes had left the lawns and must be dead, and how wicked it would be to take a nest next year, I had not the least difficulty in finding plenty of them.
They had simply gone to the water meadows, the brooks, and moist places generally. Every locality where running water kept the ground moist and permitted of movement among the creeping things which form these birds' food, was naturally resorted to. Thrushes and blackbirds, although they do not pack — that is, regularly fly in flocks — undoubtedly migrate when pressed by weather.
They are well known to arrive on the east coast from Norway in numbers as the cold increases. I see no reason why we may not suppose that in very severe and continued frost the thrushes and blackbirds round London fly westwards towards the milder side of the island. It seems to me that when, some years since, I used to stroll round the water meadows in a western county for snipes in frosty weather, the hedges were full of thrushes and blackbirds — quite full of them.
Now, though there were thrushes and blackbirds about the brooks by London last winter, there were few in the hedges generally. Had they, then, flown westwards? It is my belief that they had. They had left the hard-bound ground about London for the softer and moister lands farther west. They had crossed the rain-line. When frost prevents access to food in the east, thrushes and blackbirds move westwards, just as the fieldfares and redwings do.
That the fieldfares and redwings do so I can say with confidence, because, as they move in large flocks, there is no difficulty in tracing the direction in which they are going. They all went west when the severe weather began. On the southern side of London, at least in the districts I am best acquainted with, there was hardly a fieldfare or redwing to be seen for weeks and even months. Towards spring they came back, flying east for Norway. As thrushes and blackbirds move singly, and not with concerted action, their motions cannot be determined with such precision, but all the facts are in favour of the belief that they also went west.
That they were killed by the frost and snow I utterly refuse to credit. Some few, no doubt, were — I saw some greatly enfeebled by starvation — but not the mass. If so many had been destroyed their bodies must have been seen when there was no foliage to hide them, and no insects to quickly play the scavenger as in summer. Some were killed by cats; a few perhaps by rats, for in sharp winters they go down into the ditches, and I saw a dead redwing, torn and disfigured, at the mouth of a drain during the snow, where it might have been fastened on by a rat. But it is quite improbable that thousands died as was supposed.
Thrushes and blackbirds are not like rooks. Rooks are so bound by tradition and habit that they very rarely quit the locality where they were reared. Their whole lives are spent in the neighbourhood of the nest, trees, and the woods where they sleep. They may travel miles during the day, but they always come back to roost. These are the birds that suffer the most during long frosts and snows. Unable to break the chain that binds them to one spot, they die rather than desert it. A miserable time, indeed, they had of it that winter, but I never heard that any one proposed feeding the rooks, the very birds that wanted it most.
Swallows, again, were declared by many to be fewer. It is not at all unlikely that they were fewer. The wet season was unfavourable to them; still a good deal of the supposed absence of swallows may be through the observer not looking for them in the right place. If not wheeling in the sky, look for them over the water, the river, or great ponds; if not there, look along the moist fields or shady woodland meadows. They vary their haunts with the state of the atmosphere, which causes insects to be more numerous in one place at one time, and presently in another.
A very wet season is more fatal than the sharpest frost; it acts by practically reducing the births, leaving the ordinary death-rate to continue. Consequently, as the old birds die, there are none (or fewer) to supply their places. Once more let me express the opinion that there are as many small birds round London as in the country, and no measure is needed to protect the species at large. Protection, if needed, is required for the individual. Sweep the roads and lanes clear of the birdcatchers, but do not prevent a boy from taking a nest in the open fields or commons. If it were made illegal to sell full-grown birds, half the evil would be stopped at once if the law were enforced. The question is full of difficulties. To prevent or attempt to prevent the owner of a garden from shooting the bullfinches or blackbirds and so on that steal his fruit, or destroy his buds, is absurd. It is equally absurd to fine — what twaddle! — a lad for taking a bird's egg. The only point upon which I am fully clear is that the birdcatcher who takes birds on land not his own or in his occupation, on public property, as roads, wastes, commons, and so forth, ought to be rigidly put down. But as for the small birds as a mass, I am convinced that they will never cease out of the land.
It is not easy to progress far along this road, because every bird suggests so many reflections and recollections. Upon approaching the rising ground at Ewell green plovers or peewits become plentiful in the cornfields. In spring and early summer the flocks break up to some extent, and the scattered parties conduct their nesting operations in the pastures or on the downs. In autumn they collect together again, and flocks of fifty or more are commonly seen. Now and then a much larger flock comes down into the plain, wheeling to and fro, and presently descending upon an arable field, where they cover the ground.