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ON one side of the road immediately after quitting the suburb there is a small cover of furze. The spines are now somewhat browned by the summer heats, and the fern which grows about every bush trembles on the balance of colour between green and yellow. Soon, too, the tall wiry grass will take a warm brown tint, which gradually pales as the autumn passes into winter, and finally bleaches to greyish white.
Looking into the furze from the footpath, there are purple traces here and there at the edge of the fern where the heath-bells hang. On a furze branch, which projects above the rest, a furze chat perches, with yellow blossom above and beneath him. Rushes mark the margin of small pools and marshy spots, so overhung with brambles and birch branches, and so closely surrounded by gorse, that they would not otherwise be noticed.
But the thick growth of rushes intimates that water is near, and upon parting the bushes a little may be seen, all that has escaped evaporation in the shade. From one of these marshy spots I once — and once only — observed a snipe rise, and after wheeling round return and settle by another. As the wiry grass becomes paler with the fall of the year, the rushes, on the contrary, from green become faintly yellow, and presently brownish. Grey grass and brown rushes, dark furze, and fern, almost copper in hue from frost, when lit up by a gleam of winter sunshine form a pleasant breadth of warm colour in the midst of bare fields.
After continuous showers in spring, lizards are often found in the adjacent gardens, their dark backs as they crawl over the patches being almost exactly the tint of the moist earth. If touched, the tail is immediately coiled, the body stiffens, and the creature appears dead. They are popularly supposed to come from the furze, which is also believed to shelter adders.
There is, indeed, scarcely a cover in Surrey and Kent which is not said to have its adders; the gardeners employed at villas close to the metropolis occasionally raise an alarm, and profess to have seen a viper in the shrubberies, or the ivy, or under an old piece of bast. Since so few can distinguish at a glance between the common snake and the adder it is as well not to press too closely upon any reptile that may chance to be heard rustling in the grass, and to strike tussocks with the walking-stick before sitting down to rest, for the adder is only dangerous when unexpectedly encountered.
In the roadside ditch by the furze the figwort grows, easily known by its coarse square stem; and the woody bines, if so they may be called, or stalks of bitter-sweet, remain all the winter standing in the hawthorn hedge. The first frosts, on the other hand, shrivel the bines of white bryony, which part and hang separated, and in the spring a fresh bine pushes up with greyish green leaves and tendrils feeling for support. It is often observed that the tendrils of this bryony coil both ways, with and against the sun.
But it must be remembered in looking for this that it is the same tendril which should be examined, and not two different ones. It will then be seen that the tendril, after forming a spiral one way, lengthens out like a tiny green wax taper, and afterwards turns the other. Sometimes it resumes the original turn before reaching a branch to cling to, and may thus be said to have revolved in three directions. The dusty celandine grows -under the bushes; and its light green leaves seem to retain the white dust from the road. Ground ivy creeps everywhere over the banks, and covers the barest spot. In April its flowers, though much concealed by leaves, dot the sides of the ditches with colour, like the purple tint that lurks in the amethyst.
A small black patch marks the site of one of those gorse fires which are so common in Surrey. This was extinguished before it could spread beyond a few bushes. The crooked stems remain black as charcoal, too much burnt to recover, and in the centre a young birch scorched by the flames stands leafless. This barren birch, bare of foliage and apparently unattractive, is the favourite resort of yellow-hammers. Perching on a branch towards evening a yellow-hammer will often sit and sing by the hour together, as if preferring to be clear of leafy sprays.
The somewhat dingy hue of many trees as the summer begins to wane is caused not only by the fading of the green, but by the appearance of spots upon the leaves, as may be seen on those birches which grow among the furze. But in spring and early summer their fresh light green contrasts with masses of bright yellow gorse bloom. just before then — just as the first leaves are opening — the chiffchaffs come.
The first spring I had any knowledge of this spot was mild, and had been preceded by mild seasons. The chiffchaffs arrived all at once, as it seemed, in a bevy, and took possession of every birch about the furze, calling incessantly with might and main. The willow-wrens were nearly as numerous. All the gorse seemed full of them for a few days. Then by degrees they gradually spread abroad, and dispersed among the hedges.
But in the following springs nothing of the kind occurred. Chiffchaff and willow-wren came as usual, but they did not arrive in a crowd at once. This may have been owing to the flight going elsewhere, or possibly the flock were diminished by failure to rear the young broods in so drenching a season as 1879, which would explain the difference observed next spring. There was no scarcity, but there was a lack of the bustle and excitement and flood of song that accompanied their advent two years before.
Upon a piece of waste land at the corner of the furze a very large cinder and dust heap was made by carting refuse there from the neighbouring suburb. During the sharp and continued frosts of the winter this dust-heap was the resort of almost every species of bird — sparrows, starlings, greenfinches, and rooks searching for any stray morsels of food. Some birdcatchers soon noticed this concourse, and spread their nets among the adjacent rushes, but fortunately with little success.
I say fortunately, not because I fear the extinction of small birds, but because of the miserable fate that awaits the captive. Far better for the frightened little creature to have its neck at once twisted and to die than to languish in cages hardly large enough for it to turn in behind the dirty panes of the windows in the Seven Dials.
The happy greenfinch — I use the term of forethought, for the greenfinch seems one of the very happiest of birds in the hedges — accustomed during all its brief existence to wander in company with friends from bush to bush, and tree to tree, must literally pine its heart out. Or it may be streaked with bright paint and passed on some unwary person for a Java sparrow or a "blood-heart."
The little boy who dares to take a bird's nest is occasionally fined and severely reproved. The ruffian-like crew who go forth into the pastures and lanes about London, snaring and netting full-grown birds by the score, are permitted to ply their trade unchecked. I mean to say that there is no comparison between the two things. An egg has not yet advanced to consciousness or feeling: the old birds, if their nest is taken, frequently build another. The lad has to hunt for the nest, to climb for it or push through thorns, and may be pricked by brambles and stung by nettles. In a degree there is something to him approaching to sport in nesting.
But these birdcatchers simply stand by the ditch with their hands in their pockets sucking a stale pipe. They would rather lounge there in the bitterest north-east wind that ever blew than do a single hour's honest work. Blackguard is written in their faces. The poacher needs some courage, at least; he knows a penalty awaits detection. These fellows have no idea of sport, no courage, and no skill, for their tricks are simplicity itself, nor have they the pretence of utility, for they do not catch birds for the good of the farmers or the market gardeners, but merely that they may booze without working for the means.
Pity it is that any one can be found to purchase the product of their brutality. No one would do so could they but realise the difference to the captive upon which they are lavishing their mistaken love, between the cage, the alternately hot and cold room (as the fire goes out at night), the close atmosphere and fumes that lurk near the ceiling, and the open air and freedom to which it was born.
The rooks only came to the dust-heap in hard weather, and ceased to visit it so soon as the ground relaxed and the ploughs began to move. But a couple of crows looked over the refuse once during the day for months till men came to sift the cinders. These crows are permanent residents. Their rendezvous is a copse, only separate from the furze by the highway.
They are always somewhere near, now in the ploughed fields, now in the furze, and during the severe frost of last winter in the road itself, so sharply driven by hunger as to rise very unwillingly on the approach of passengers. A meadow opposite the copse is one of their favourite resorts. There are anthills, rushes, and other indications of not too rich a soil in this meadow, and in places the prickly restharrow grows among the grass, bearing its pink flower in summer. Perhaps the coarse grass and poor soil are productive of grubs and insects, for not only the crows, but the rooks, continually visit it.
One spring, hearing a loud chattering in the copse, and recognising the alarm notes of the missel-thrush, I cautiously crept up the hedge, and presently found three crows up in a birch tree, just above where the thrushes were calling. The third crow — probably a descendant of the other two — had joined in a raid upon the missel-thrushes' brood. Both defenders and assailants were in a high state of excitement; the thrushes screeching, and the crows in a row one above the other on a branch, moving up and down it in a restless manner. I fear they had succeeded in their purpose, for no trace of the young birds was visible.
The nest of the missel-thrush is so frequently singled out for attack by crows that it would stem the young birds must possess a peculiar and attractive flavour; or is it because they are large? There are more crows round London than in a whole county, where the absence of manufactures and the rural quiet would seem favourable to bird life. The reason, of course, is that in the country the crows frequenting woods are shot and kept down as much as possible by gamekeepers.
In the immediate environs of London keepers are not about, and even a little farther away the land is held by many small owners, and game preservation is not thought of. The numerous pieces of waste ground, "to let on building lease," the excavated ground, where rubbish can be thrown, the refuse and ash heaps — these are the haunts of the London crow. Suburban railway stations are often haunted by crows, which perch on the telegraph wires close to the back windows of the houses that abut upon the metals. There they sit, grave and undisturbed by the noisy engines which pass beneath them.
In the shrubberies around villa gardens, or in the hedges of the small paddocks attached, thrushes and other birds sometimes build their nests. The children of the household watch the progress of the nest, and note the appearance of the eggs with delight. Their friends of larger growth visit the spot occasionally, and orders are given that the birds shall be protected, the gardeners become gamekeepers, and the lawn or shrubbery is guarded like a preserve. Everything goes well till the young birds are almost ready to quit the nest, when one morning they are missing.
The theft is, perhaps, attributed to the boys of the neighbourhood, but unjustly, unless plain traces of entry are visible. It is either cats or crows. The cats cannot be kept out, not even by a dog, for they watch till his attention is otherwise engaged. Food is not so much the object as the pleasure of destruction, for cats will kill and yet not eat their victim. The crow may not have been seen in the garden, and it may be said that he could not have known of the nest without looking round the place. But the crow is a keen observer, and has not the least necessity to search for the nest.
He merely keeps a watch on the motions of the old birds of the place, and knows at once by their flight being so continually directed to one spot that there their treasure lies. He and his companion may come very early in the morning — summer mornings are bright as noonday long before the earliest gardener is abroad — or they may come in the dusk of the evening. Crows are not so particular in retiring regularly to roost as the rook.
The furze and copse frequented by the pair which I found attacking the missel-thrushes are situate at the edge of extensive arable fields. In these, though not overlooked by the gamekeepers, there is a good deal of game which is preserved by the tenants of the farm. After the bitter winter and wet summer of 1879, there was a complaint, too well founded, that the partridges were diminished in numbers. But the crows were not. There were as many of them as ever. When there were many partridges the loss of a few eggs or chicks was not so important. But when there are but few, every egg or chick destroyed retards the re-stocking of the fields.
The existence of so many crows all round London is, in short, a constant check upon the game. The belt of land immediately outside the houses, and lying between them and the plantations which are preserved, is the crow's reserve, where he hunts in security. He is so safe that he has almost lost all dread of man, and his motions can be observed without trouble. The ash-heap at the corner of the furze, besides the crows, became the resort of rats, whose holes were so thick in the bank as to form quite a bury. After the rats came the weasels.
When the rats were most numerous, before the ash-heap was sifted, there was a weasel there nearly every day, slipping in and out of their holes. In the depth of the country an observer might walk some considerable distance and wait about for hours without seeing a weasel; but here by the side of a busy suburban road there were plenty. Professional rat-catchers ferreted the bank once or twice, and filled their iron cages. With these the dogs kept by dog-fanciers in the adjacent suburb were practised in destroying vermin at so much a rat. Though ferreted and hunted down by the weasels the rats were not rooted out, but remained till the ash-heap was sifted and no fresh refuse deposited.
In one place among the gorse, the willows, birches, and thorn bushes make a thick covert, which is adjacent to several of the hidden pools previously mentioned. Here a brook-sparrow or sedge-reedling takes up his quarters in the spring, and chatters on, day and night, through the summer. Visitors to the opera and playgoers returning in the first hours of the morning from Covent Garden or Drury Lane can scarcely fail to hear him if they pause but one moment to listen to the nightingale.
The latter sings in one bush and the sedge-reedling in another close together. The moment the nightingale ceases the sedge-reedling lifts his voice, which is a very penetrating one, and in the silence of the night may be heard some distance. This bird is credited with imitating the notes of several others, and has been called the English mocking-bird, but I strongly doubt the imitation. Nor, indeed, could I ever trace the supposed resemblance of its song to that of other birds.
It is a song of a particularly monotonous character. It is distinguishable immediately, and if the bird happens to nest near a house, is often disliked on account of the loud iteration. Perhaps those who first gave it the name of the mocking-bird were not well acquainted with the notes of the birds which they fancied it to mock. To mistake it for the nightingale, some of whose tones it is said to imitate, would be like confounding the clash of cymbals with the soft sound of a flute.
Linnets come to the furze, and occasionally magpies, but these latter only in winter. Then, too, golden-crested wrens may be seen searching in the furze bushes, and creeping round and about the thorns and brambles. There is a roadside pond close to the furze, the delight of horses and cattle driven along the dusty way in summer. Along the shelving sandy shore the wagtails run, both the pied and the yellow, but few birds come here to wash; for that purpose they prefer a running stream if it be accessible.
Upon the willow trees which border it, a reed-sparrow or blackheaded bunting may often be observed. One bright March morning, as I came up the road, just as the surface of the pond became visible it presented a scene of dazzling beauty. At that distance only the tops of the ripples were seen, reflecting the light at a very low angle. The result was that the eye saw nothing of the water or the wavelet, but caught only the brilliant glow. Instead of a succession of sparkles there seemed to be a golden liquid floating on the surface as oil floats — a golden liquid two or three inches thick, which flowed before the wind.
Besides this surface of molten gold there was a sheen and flicker above it, as if a spray or vapour, carried along, or the crests of the wavelets blown over, was also of gold. But the metal conveys no idea of the glowing, lustrous light which filled the hollow by the dusty road. It was visible from one spot only, a few steps altering the angle lessened the glory, and as the pond itself came into view there was nothing but a ripple on water somewhat thick with suspended sand. Thus things change their appearance as they are looked at in different ways.
A patch of water crowsfoot grows on the farthest side of the pond, and in early summer sends up lovely white flowers.