Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

finished, to seize on it as its own, to eject the owner, and to line it after its own manner.

After so much labour is bestowed in erecting a mansion, as nature seldom works in vain, martins will breed on for several years together in the same nest, where it happens to be well sheltered and secure from the injuries of weather. The shell or crust of the nest is a sort of rustic work full of nobs and protuberances on the outside : nor is the inside of those that I have examined smoothed with any exactness at all ; but is rendered soft and warm, and fit for incubation, by a lining of small straws, grasses, and feathers; and sometimes by a bed of moss interwoven with wool.

As the young of small birds presently arrive at their full growth, they soon become impatient of confinement, and sit all day with their heads out at the orifice, where the dams, by clinging to the nest, supply them with food from morning to night. For a time the young are fed on the wing by their parents; but the feat is done by so quick and almost imperceptible a sleight, that a person must have attended very exactly to their motions, before he would be able to perceive it. As soon as the young are able to shift for themselves, the dams immediately turn their thoughts to the business of a second brood ; while the first flight, shaken off and rejected by their nurses, congregate in great flocks, and are the birds that are seen clustering and hovering on sunny mornings and evenings round towers and steeples, and on the roofs of churches and houses. These congregatings usually begin to take place about the first week in August ; and therefore we may conclude that by that time the first flight is pretty well over. The young of this species do not quit their abodes all together ; but the more forward birds get abroad some days before the rest. These, approaching the eaves of buildings and playing about before them, make people think that several old ones attend one nest. They are often capricious in fixing on a nesting-place, beginning many edifices, and leaving them unfinished ; but, when once a nest is completed in a sheltered place, it serves for several seasons. Those which breed in a ready-finished house get the start, in hatching, of those that build new, by ten days or a fortnight. These industrious artificers are at their labours in the long days before four in the morning: when they fix their materials they plaster them on with their chins, moving their heads with a quick vibratory motion. They dip and wash as they fly sometimes in very hot weather, but not so frequently as swallows. It has been observed that martins usually build to a northeast or north-west aspect, that the heat of the sun may not crack and destroy their nests: but instances are also remembered where they breed for many years in vast abundance in a hot stifled inn-yard, against a wall facing to the south.

Martins are by far the least agile of the four species ; their wings and tails are short, and therefore they are not capable of such surprising turns and quick and glancing evolutions as the swallow. Accordingly they make use of a placid easy motion in a middle region of the air, seldom mounting to any great height, and never sweeping long together over the surface of the ground or water. They do not wander far for food, but affect sheltered districts, over some lake, or under some hanging wood, or in some hollow vale, especially in windy weather. They breed the latest of all the swallow kind : in 1772 they had nestlings on to October the twentyfirst, and are never without unfledged young as late as Michaelmas.

As the summer declines the congregating flocks increase in numbers daily by the constant accession of the second broods, till at last they swarm iu myriads upon myriads round the villages on the Thames, darkening the face of the sky as they frequent the aits of that river, where they roost. They retire, the bulk of them, I mean, in vast flocks together about the beginning of October : but have appeared of late years in a considerable flight in this neighbourhood, for one day or two, as late as November the third and sixth, after they were supposed to have been gone for more than a fortnight. They therefore withdrew with us the latest of any species. Unless these birds are very short-lived indeed, or unless they do not return to the district where they are bred, they must undergo vast devastations somehow, and somewhere ; for the birds that return yearly bear no manner of proportion to the birds that retire.

THE CHIMNEY-SWALLOW.— The house-swallow, or chimney swallow, is, undoubtedly, the first comer of all the British hirundines, and appears in general on or about the thirteenth of April, as I have remarked from many years' observation. Not but now and then a straggler is seen much earlier ; and, in particular, when I was a boy I observed a swallow for a whole day together, on a sunny warm Shrove Tuesday ; which day could not fall out later than the middle of March, and often happened early in February.

It was worth remarking that these birds are seen first about lakes and mill-ponds; and it is also very particular, that if these early visitors happen to find frost and snow, as was the case of the two dreadful springs of 1770 and 1771, they immediately withdraw for a time,-a circumstance this, much more in favour of hiding than migration ; since it is much more probable that a bird should retire to its hybernaculum just at hand, than return for a week or two only to warmer latitudes.

The swallow, though called the chimney-swallow, by no means builds altogether in chimneys, but often within barns and outhouses against the rafters, and so she did in Virgil's time.

-"Ante Garrula quàm tignis nidum suspendat hirundo." In Sweden she builds in barns, and is called ladu swala, the barn swallow. Besides, in the warmer parts of Europe, there are no chimneys to houses, except they are English-built : in these countries she constructs her nest in porches, and gateways, and galleries, and open halls.

Here and there a bird may affect some odd peculiar place; as we have known a swallow build down the shaft of an old well, through which chalk had been formerly drawn up for the purpose of manure : but in general with us the hirundo breeds in chimneys, and loves to haunt those stacks where there is a constant fire, no doubt for the sake of warmth. Not that it can subsist in the immediate shaft where there is a fire ; but prefers one adjoining to that of the kitchen, and disregards the perpetual smoke of that funnel, as I have often observed with some degree of wonder.

Five or six or more feet down the chimney does this little bird begin to form her nest about the middle of May, which consists, like that of the house-martin, of a crust or shell composed of dirt or mud, mixed with short pieces of straw, to render it tough and permanent; with this difference, that whereas the shell of the martin is nearly hemispheric, that of the swallow is open at the top, and like half a deep dish: this nest is lined with fine grasses and feathers, which are often collected as they float in the air.

Wonderful is the address which this adroit bird shows all day long in ascending and descending with security through so narrow a pass. When hovering over the mouth of the funnel, the vibrations of her wings acting on the confined air occasion a rumbling like thunder. It is not improbable that the dam submits to this inconvenient situation so low in the shaft, in order to secure her broods from rapacious birds, and particularly from owls, which frequently fall down chimneys, perhaps in attempting to get at these nestlings.

The swallow lays from four to six white eggs, dotted with red specks, and brings out her first brood about the last week in June, or the first week in July. The progressive method by which the young are introduced into life is very amusing : first they emerge from the shaft with difficulty enough, and often fall down into the rooms below: for a day or so they are fed on the chimney-top, and then are conducted to the dead leafless bough of some tree, where, sitting in a row, they are attended with great assiduity, and may then be called perchers. In a day or two more they become flyers, but are still unable to take their own food ; therefore they play about near the place where the dams are hawking for flies; and when a mouthful is collected at a certain signal given, the dam and the nestling advance, rising towards each other, and meeting at an angle; the young one all the while uttering such a little quick note of gratitude and complacency, that a person must have paid very little regard to the wonders of nature that has not often remarked this feat.

The dam betakes herself immediately to the business of a second brood as soon as she is disengaged from the first; which at once associates with the first broods of house-martins ; and with them congregates clustering on sunny roofs, towers and trees. This hirundo brings out her second brood towards the middle and end of August.

All the summer long is the swallow a most instructive pattern of unwearied industry and affection ; for, from morning to night, while there is a family to be supported, she spends the whole day in skimming close to the ground, and exerting the most sudden turns and quick evolutions. Avenues and long walks under hedges, and pasture-fields, and mown meadows where cattle graze, are her delight, especially if there are trees interspersed; because in such spots insects most abound. When a fly is taken a smart snap from her bill is heard, resembling the noise at the shutting of a watch-case; but the motion of the mandibles is too quick for the eye.

The swallow, probably the male bird, is the excubitor to house-martins, and other little birds, announcing the approach of birds of prey. For, as soon as a hawk appears, with a shrill alarming note he calls all the swallows and martins about him; who pursue in a body, and buffet and strike their enemy till they have driven him from the village, darting down from above on his back, and rising in a perpendicular line in perfect security. This bird also will sound the alarm, and strike at cats when they climb on the roofs of houses, or otherwise approach the nests. Each species of hirundo drinks as it flies along, sipping the surface of the water ; but the swallow alone, in general, washes on the wing, by dropping into a pool for many times together : in very hot weather house-martins and bank-martins dip and wash a little.

The swallow is a delicate songster, and in soft sunny weather sings both perching and flying ; on trees in a kind of concert, and on chimney tops : is also a bold flyer, ranging to distant downs and commons, even in windy weather, which the other species seem much to dislike ; nay, even frequenting exposed seaport towns, and making little excursions over the salt water. Horsemen on wide downs are often closely attended by a little party of swallows for miles together, which play before and behind them, sweeping around, and collecting all the skulking insects that are roused by the trampling of the horses' feet; when the wind blows hard, without this expedient, they are often forced to settle to pick up their lurking prey.

This species feed much on little coleoptera, as well as on gnats and flies ; and often settles on dug ground, or paths, for gravels to grind and digest its food. Before they depart, for some weeks, to a bird, they forsake houses and chimneys, and roost in trees, and usually withdraw about the beginning of October ; though some few stragglers may appear on, at times, till the first week in November,

THE SAND-MARTIN.—The sand-martin, or bank-martin, is by much the least of any of the British hirundines; and, as far as we have seen, the smallest known hirundo : though Brisson asserts that there is one much smaller, and that is the hirundo esculenta.

But it is much to be regretted that it is scarce possible for any observer to be so full and exact as he could wish in reciting the circumstances attending the life and conversation of this little bird, since it is fera naturû, at least in this part of the kingdom, disclaiming all domestic attachments, and haunting wild heaths and commous where there are large lakes; while the other species, especially the swallow and house-martin, are remarkably gentle and domesticated, and never seem to think themselves safe but under the protection of man.

It is curious to observe with what different degrees of architectonic skill Providence has endowed birds of the same genus, and so nearly correspondent in their general mode of life! for, while the swallow and the house-martin discover the greatest address in raising and securely fixing crusts or shells of loam as cunabula for their young, the bank-martin terebrates a round and regular hole in the sand or earth, which is serpentine, horizontal, and about two feet deep. At the inner end of this burrow does this bird deposit, in a good degree of safety, her rude nest, consisting of fine grasses and feathers, usually goose feathers, very inartificially laid together,

Perseverance will accomplish any thing ; though at first one would be disinclined to believe that this weak bird, with her soft and tender bill and claws, should ever be able to bore the stubborn sand-bank without entirely disabling herself; yet with these feeble instruments have I seen a pair of them make great despatch, and could remark how much they had scooped that day by the fresh sand which ran down the bank, and was a different colour from that which lay loose and bleached in the sun.

The sand-martin arrives much about the same time with the swallow, and lays, as she does, from four to six white eggs. But as this species is cryptogame, carrying on the business of nidification, incubation, and the support of its young in the dark, it would not be so easy to ascertain the time of breeding, were it not for the coming forth of the broods, which appear much about the time, or rather somewhat earlier than those of the swallow. The nestlings are supported in common like those of their congeners, with gnats and other small insects; and sometimes they are fed with libelludæ, (dragon Alies,) almost as long as themselves. In the last week in June we have seen a row of these sitting on a rail near a great pool as perchers, and so young and helpless as easily to be taken by hand ; but whether the dams ever feed them on the wing, as swallows and house-martins do, we have never yet been able to determine: nor do we know whether they pursue and attack birds of prey.

When they happen to breed near hedges and inclosures, they are dispossessed of their breeding holes by the house-sparrow, which is on the same account a fell adversary to house-martins.

These hirundines are no songsters, but rather mute, making only a little harsh noise when a person approaches their nests. They seem not to be of a sociable turn, never with us congregating with their congeners in the autumn. Undoubtedly they breed a second time, like the house-martin and swallow : and withdraw about Michaelmas.

Though in some particular districts they may happen to abound, yet in the whole, in the south of England at least, is this much the rarest species. For there are few towns or large villages but what abound with house-martins ; few churches, towers or steeples, but what are haunted by some swifts; scarce a hamlet or single cottagechimney that has not its swallow; while the bank-martins, scattered here and there, live a sequestered life among some abrupt sandhills, and in the banks of some few rivers.

THE SWIFT.-As the swift or black-martin is the largest of the British hirundines, so is it undoubtedly the latest comer. For I remember but one instance of its appearing before the last week in April ; and in some of our late frosty harsh springs, it has not been seen till the beginning of May. This species usually arrives in pairs,

The swift, like the sand-martin, is very defective in architecture, making no crust, or shell, for its nest; but forming it of dry grasses and feathers, very rudely and inartificially put together.

Swifts, like sand-martins, carry on the business of nidification quite in the dark, in crannies of castles, and towers, and steeples, and upon the tops of the walls of churches under the roof; and therefore cannot be so narrowly watched as those species that build more openly ; but, from what I could ever observe, they begin nesting about the middle of May; and I have remarked, from eggs taken, that they have sat hard by the ninth of June.

This hirundo differs widely from its congeners in laying invariably but two eggs at a time, which are milk white, long, and peaked at the small end ; whereas the other species lay at each brood from four to six. It is a most alert bird, rising very early, and retiring to roost very late ; and is on the wing in the height of summer at least sixteen hours. In the longest days it does not withdraw to rest till a quarter before nine in the evening, being the latest of all day birds. Just before they retire, whole groups of them assemble high in the air, and squeak and shoot about with wonderful rapidity. But this bird is never so much alive as in sultry thundery weather, when it expresses great alacrity, and calls forth all its powers. In hot mornings several, getting together in little parties, dash round the steeples and churches, squeaking as they go in a very clamorous manner; these, by nice observers, are supposed to be males serenading their setting hens ; and not without reason, since they seldom squeak till they come close to the walls or eaves, and since those within utter at the same time a little inward note of complacency.

When the hen has sat hard all day she rushes forth just as it is almost dark, and stretches and relieves her weary limbs, and snatches a scanty meas for a few minutes, and then returns to her duty of incubation. Swifts, when wantonly and cruelly shot while they have young, discover a little lump of insects in their mouths, which they pouch and hold under their tongue. In general they feed in a much higher district than the other species ; a proof that gnats and other insects do also abound to a considerable height in the air; they also range to vast distances, since locomotion is no labour to them who are endowed with such wonderful powers of wing. Their powers seem to be in proportion to their levers ; and their wings are longer in proportion than those of almost any other bird.

At some certain times in the summer I had remarked that swifts were hawking very low for hours together over pools and streams, and could not help inquiring into the object of their pursuit that induced them to descend so much below their usual range. After some trouble, I found that they were taking phryganea, ephemeroe, and libellula, (cadew-flies, may-flies, and dragon flies,) that were just emerged out of their aurelia state. I then no longer wondered that they should be so willing to stoop for a prey that afforded them such plentiful and succulent nourishment.

They bring out their young about the middle or latter end of July ; but as these never become perchers, nor, that ever I could discern, are fed on their wing by their dams, the coming of the young is not so notorious as in the other species.

On the thirtieth of last June I untiled the eaves of a house where many pairs build, and found in each nest only two squab, naked pulli : on the eighth of July I repeated the same inquiry, and found they had made very little progress towards a fledged state, but were still naked and helpless. From whence we may conclude that birds whose way of life keeps them perpetually on the wing, would not be able

« AnteriorContinuar »