Tag Archives: birds

30 May: Hospitality towards Barn Owls.

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At Trotton Place lived Arthur Edward Knox, whose Ornithological Rambles in Sussex, published in 1849, is one of the few books worthy to stand beside White’s Natural History of Selborne.+ In Sussex, as elsewhere, the fowler* has prevailed, and although rare birds are still occasionally to be seen, they now visit the country only by accident, and leave it as soon as may be, thankful to have a whole skin.

Guns were active enough in Knox’s time, but to read his book to-day is to be translated to a new land:

“I have the satisfaction of exercising the rites of hospitality towards a pair of barn owls, which have for some time taken up their quarters in one of the attic roofs of the ancient, ivy-covered house in which I reside. I delight in listening to the prolonged snoring of the young when I ascend the old oak stairs to the neighbourhood of their nursery, and in hearing the shriek of the parent birds on the calm summer nights as they pass to and fro near my window; for it assures me that they are still safe; and as I know that at least a qualified protection is afforded them elsewhere, and that even their arch-enemy the gamekeeper is beginning reluctantly, but gradually, to acquiesce in the general belief of their innocence and utility, I cannot help indulging the hope that this bird will eventually meet with that general encouragement and protection to which its eminent services so richly entitle it.”

There is a benevolently naive verbosity about some writers of Edwardian times, as we British count the XX Century before the Great War. This passage is from “Highways and Byways in Sussex” by E. V. Lucas, 1904, but of course the story from Knox is older still. I hope both men would appreciate today’s general good will and legal protection towards birds and the scientific study of them, but they both could tell us something of what has been lost in the years since then; although most birds are now legally protected, we should be less complacent; where are the cuckoos, martins and swallows we expected to see and hear thirty, even twenty years ago?

+ See White on Worms, 20 May, and search elsewhere in the blog.

* Fowler: someone who hunts and shoots birds (even rare ones).



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29 May: A May morning

Red Sussex Cow
 
The sky is clear,
  The sun is bright;
The cows are red,
  The sheep are white;
Trees in the meadows
Make happy shadows.

 Birds in the hedge
  Are perched and sing;
Swallows and larks
  Are on the wing:
Two merry cuckoos
Are making echoes.

 Bird and the beast
  Have the dew yet;
My road shines dry,
  Theirs bright and wet:
Death gives no warning,
On this May morning.

 I see no Christ
  Nailed on a tree,
Dying for sin;
  No sin I see:
No thoughts for sadness,
All thoughts for gladness. 

(from Foliage: Various Poems by W. H. Davies.

Sometimes Davies says it all in sheer simplicity: Christ is risen, No sin I see!

Image by Charles Drake Public domain

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26 May: Resolution in Sussex

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Image details.

Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, Oh Lord of Hosts, my King and my God. Psalm 84:3.

This is a text that should speak to the heart of any worshipper, we should surely rejoice that the birds of the air should feel at home in God’s place. I’m always happy to find that sparrows, robins or bluetits are living in our place, sparrows in the eaves, other birds in the hedge, blackbirds on top of the box put up for bluetits. You’ll see why I could not resist sharing this little story. I am inclined to believe it happened in a cast iron Royal Mail box, like the one below, rather than a private householder’s gatebox, as shown above. WT.

Rowfant [a small village in Sussex] was once the scene of one of the most determined struggles in history. The contestants were a series of Titmice and the G.P.O., and the account of the war may be read in the Natural History Museum at South Kensington:—

In 1888, a pair of the Great Titmouse (Parus major) began to build their nest in the post-box which stood in the road at Rowfant, and into which letters, &c., were posted and taken out by the door daily. One of the birds was killed by a boy, and the nest was not finished. In 1889, a pair completed the nest, laid seven eggs, and began to sit; but one day, when an unusual number of post-cards were dropped into, and nearly filled, the box, the birds deserted the nest, which was afterwards removed with the eggs. In 1890, a pair built a new nest and laid seven eggs, and reared a brood of five young, although the letters posted were often found lying on the back of the sitting bird, which never left the nest when the door of the box was opened to take out the letters. The birds went in and out by the slit.

From Highways and Byways in Sussex by E. V. Lucas.

Not this box, but probably one very like it.

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25 May: Our Pilgrimage to Heaven’s Gate.

goldenstringimage
I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate,
Built in Jerusalem's wall.

On our last L’Arche pilgrimage, those of us at the back of the group were following, not a golden string but arrows chalked on the pavement by the children. Who would not jump at the chance to draw graffiti across a town without getting into trouble? Only in the woods did we need some imagination to read the arrows they had created from sticks and stones.

In Dover town I ended up walking with P, who was happy enough to be walking way behind everyone else. Carrying the banner helped him concentrate on moving along. But we had to stop along the riverbank to watch the Dover ducks, who were quacking loudly. So I quacked back, quietly and politely, and so did P.

But my stomach was rumbling, and that golden string was going to snap if we lost touch with everyone else.

Soon a search party came to chivvy us along, so that we got to Kearsney Abbey park before all the food was gone. That was important to both of us!

Who knows where their golden string will lead them, on the way to Heaven’s gate? Blake’s picture shows us a woman walking beneath the White Cliffs and looking up to where her string is leading her. He does not show how our personal strings ravel together. Those weavings, knots, stitches, embroidery and tangles are part of each of our life’s journey, part of our shared pilgrimage, helping each other to find the way; as P and I did, one morning in Dover.

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20 May: White on worms

Science was not always seen as attacking Christian belief, and should not be presented as doing so. Rather it challenges the believer to accept, or not, the evidence of their own observations, and the often detailed observations of honest men and women looking at Creation, trying to understand it and their place within it. As one scientist put it, you can believe that God indeed created all things inside a week, but you have to accept that he created a world that looks, sounds and tastes as though he has been creating on a larger scale and over a longer period of time than we can even begin to imagine.

Gilbert White, the curate of Selborne in Hampshire, was one such honest observer. He had his battles to convince gardeners and farmers that ‘worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation’. That is now received wisdom. As for ‘small shell-less snails, called slugs’ … well, at least the hedgehogs enjoy them. White’s Natural History is based on letters to scientist friends.

These worms are rather dirty with grains of sand and soil adhering to their skin. We thought it would be unfair to wash them down. After the photo op they were soon back in their native soil.

Selborne, May 20, 1777.

Dear Sir,

Lands that are subject to frequent inundations are always poor; and probably the reason may be because the worms are drowned. The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the Economy of nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention; and from their numbers and fecundity.

Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it; and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm-casts, which, being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain and grass.

Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away; and they affect slopes, probably to avoid being flooded. Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms; the former because they render their walks unsightly, and make them much work: and the latter because, as they think, worms eat their green corn. But these men would find that the earth without worms would soon become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation; and consequently sterile: and besides, in favour of worms, it should be hinted that green corn, plants, and flowers, are not so much injured by them as by many species of coleoptera (scarabs), and tipulae (long-legs), in their larva, or grub-state; and by unnoticed myriads of small shell-less snails, called slugs, which silently and imperceptibly make amazing havoc in the field and garden.

From “The Natural History of Selborne” by Gilbert White.

Let’s pray that we may never be counted among the incurious, but may appreciate that every link in the chain of nature has its part to play.

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Swallows returning to their nests

Swallows were being discussed on the radio this morning, but no, we have not yet seen any around here, though we’ve had blackcaps and willow warblers among the UK’s migrants. This photograph of swallows’ nests was taken a few years ago at Brant Brougham near Lincoln at snowdrop time, so these were the previous year’s nests which might well have been repaired and reused a couple of months later.

It’s rather delightful that they should have built against the roof boss of the pelican on her nest. And the picture brings to mind the famous verse from the Psalms:

Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God. Psalm 84.3

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Leaves

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The leaves are almost all down around here. The Victorian poet Alice Meynell also took note of them, investing them with human emotions, asking eternal questions.

“O leaves, so quietly ending now,
   You have heard cuckoos sing.
And I will grow upon my bough
   If only for a Spring,
And fall when the rain is on my brow.

O tell me, tell me ere you die,
   Is it worth the pain?
You bloomed so fair, you waved so high;
   Now that the sad days wane,
Are you repenting where you lie?”

From “Poems” by Alice Meynell

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14 November: A cat.


A Cat by Edward Thomas from Last Poems.

She had a name among the children;
But no one loved though someone owned
Her, locked her out of doors at bedtime
And had her kittens duly drowned
In Spring, nevertheless, this cat
Ate blackbirds, thrushes, nightingales,
And birds of bright voice and plume and flight,
As well as scraps from neighbours’ pails.
I loathed and hated her for this;
One speckle on a thrush’s breast
Was worth a million such; and yet
She lived long, till God gave her rest.

smart

This is a war poem insofar as it was written when the poet was waiting to go to war. Edward Thomas was aware that joining the army was a dangerous decision during World War I. Of course, we know he did not come home.

The all-killing, all-devouring cat herself lost her own kittens. That is outside her control. She herself kills because that’s the way she is, till God gives her rest. And the war lived long and killed multitudes, because that’s the way it is; out of control.

When I arrived at L’Arche’s Glebe garden the day after reading this poem, I met with this sight. There are at least three cats that patrol the place and one young blackbird the less.

We pray that God may give us a changed heart, so that His world may have a rest from War.

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22 August: Gilbert White VII, summer birds.

blackcap by Ron Knight

As to the short-winged, soft-billed birds, which come trooping in such numbers in the spring, I am at a loss even what to suspect about them.  I watched them narrowly this year, and saw them abound till about Michaelmas, when they appeared no longer.  Subsist they cannot openly among us, and yet elude the eyes of the inquisitive; and, as to their hiding, no man pretends to have found any of them in a torpid state in the winter.  But with regard to their migration, what difficulties attend that supposition! that such feeble bad fliers (who the summer long never flit but from hedge to hedge) should be able to traverse vast seas and continents in order to enjoy milder seasons amidst the regions of Africa!

LETTER XXIX.

Selborne, May 12th, 1770.

Dear Sir,—Last month we had such a series of cold, turbulent weather, such a constant succession of frost, and snow, and hail, and tempest, that the regular or appearance of the summer birds was much interrupted.  Some did not show themselves (at least were not heard) till weeks after their usual time, as the blackcap and whitethroat; and some have not been heard yet, as the grasshopper-lark and largest willow-wren.  As to the fly-catcher, I have not seen it; it is indeed one of the latest, but should appear about this time: and yet, amidst all this meteorous strife and war of the elements, two swallows discovered themselves, as long ago as April 11th, in frost and snow; but they withdrew quickly, and were not visible again for many days.  House-martins, which are always more backward than swallows, were not observed till May came in.

I repeat that we are reproducing White’s letters because it is the tercentenary of this rural parson’s birth, nd because he is a well-known exemplar of the man of faith and of science combined.

What a lovely turn of phrase, ‘meteorous strife and war of the elements’! Up in Selborne, Gilbert White did not have chance to observe the (to us) nearby beaches of Hampshire and Sussex, or the ground below lighthouses where birds, confused and dazzled by the life-saving lantern, were cast down after striking the glass. He would have gathered all the evidence he needed for migration, down by the sea.

Some Blackcaps winter with us these days.

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21 August: Gilbert White VI, Migration or hibernation?

Starlings in early Autumn before they gather in huge murmurations.

Hibernation of birds was one area where Gilbert White’s instincts were wrong: unlike snakes and harvest mice, neither swallows nor any other birds hibernate; they migrate. I have seen a house martin or two, flying over Dumpton Park in Thanet, just a few metres from the coast, on 20th October one year. Is it likely that they fly south to Senegal? Conversely, is it likely that they hide in river mud, completely without trace?

About ten years ago I used to spend some weeks yearly at Sunbury, which is one of those pleasant villages lying on the Thames, near Hampton Court.  In the autumn, I could not help being much amused with those myriads of the swallow kind which assemble in those parts.  But what struck me most was, that, from the time they began to congregate, forsaking the chimneys and houses, they roosted every night in the osier-beds of the aits of that river.  Now, this resorting towards that element, at that season of the year, seems to give some countenance to the northern opinion (strange as it is) of their retiring under water.  A Swedish naturalist is so much persuaded of that fact, that he talks, in his calendar of Flora, as familiarly of the swallows going under water in the beginning of September, as he would of his poultry going to roost a little before sunset.

An observing gentleman in London writes me word that he saw a house-martin, on the twenty-third of last October, flying in and out of its nest in the Borough.  And I myself, on the twenty-ninth of last October (as I was travelling through Oxford), saw four or five swallows hovering round and settling on the roof of the county hospital.

Now is it likely that these poor little birds (which perhaps had not been hatched but a few weeks) should, at that late season of the year, and from so midland a county, attempt a voyage to Goree or Senegal, almost as far as the equator?

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