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SELBORNE, April 18th, 1768. The history of the stone-curlew, Charadrius oedicnemus, is as follows. It lays its eggs, usually two, never more than three, on the bare ground, without any nest, in the field; so that the countryman, in stirring his fallows, often destroys them. The young run immediately from the egg like patridges, etc., and are withdrawn to some flinty field by the dam, where they skulk among the stones, which are their best security; for their feathers are so exactly of the colour of our grey-spotted flints, that the most exact observer, unless he catches the eye of the young bird, may be eluded. The eggs are short and round; of a dirty white, spotted with dark bloody blotches. Though I might not be able, just when I pleased, to procure you a bird, yet I could show you them almost any day; and any evening you may hear them round the village, for they make a clamour which may be heard a mile. Oedicnemus is a most apt and expressive name for them, since their legs seem swoln like those of a gouty man. After harvest I have shot them before the pointers in turnip-fields.
I make no doubt but there are three species of the willow-wrens ; two I know perfectly, but have not been able yet to procure the third. No two birds can differ more in their notes, and that constantly, than those two that I am acquainted with ; for the one has a joyous, easy, laughing note, the other a harsh loud chirp. The former is every way larger, and three-quarters of an inch longer, and weighs two drachms and a half, while the latter weighs but two; so the songster is one-fifth heavier than the chirper. The chirper (being the first summer-bird of passage that is heard, the wryneck sometimes excepted) begins his two notes in the middle of March, and continues then through the spring and summer till the end of August, as appears by my journals. The legs of the larger of these two are flesh-coloured ; of the less black.
The grasshopper-lark began his sibilous note in my fields last Saturday. Nothing can be more amusing than the whisper of this little bird, which seems to be close by though at a hundred yards distance; and when close at your ear, is scarce any louder than when a great way off. Had I not been a little acquainted with insects, and known that the grasshopper kind is not yet hatched, I should have hardly believed but that it had been a locusta whispering in the bushes. The country people laugh when you tell them that it is the note of a bird. It is a most artful creature, skulking in the thickest part of a bush; and will sing at a yard distance, provided it be concealed. I was obliged to get a person to go on the other side of the hedge where it haunted, and then it would run, creeping like a mouse, before us for a hundred yards together, through the bottom of the thorns; yet it would not come into fair sight; but in a morning early, and when undisturbed, it sings on the top of a twig, gaping and shivering with its wings. Mr. Ray himself had no knowledge of this bird, but received his account from Mr. Johnson, who apparently confounds it with the Reguli non cristati, from which it is very
distinct. See Ray's Philos. Letters, p. 108.
The fly-catcher (Stoparola) has not yet appeared ; it usually breeds in my vine. The redstart begins to sing, its note is short and imperfect, but is continued till about the middle of June. The willow-wrens (the smaller sort) are horrid pests in a garden, destroying the peas, cherries, currants, etc. ; and are so tame that a gun will not scare them.
A LIST OF THE SUMMER BIRDS OF PASSAGE DISCOVERED IN THIS
NEIGHBOURHOOD, RANGED SOMEWHAT IN THE ORDER IN WHICH
Turtur aldrovandi ?
Muscicapa grisola. My countrymen talk much of a bird that makes a clatter with its bill against a dead bough, or some old pales, calling it a jar-bird. I procured one to be shot in the very fact; it proved to be the Sitta Europæa (the nuthatch). Mr. Ray says that the less spotted woodpecker does the sanie. This noise may be heard a furlong or more.
Now is the only time to ascertain the short-winged summer birds; for, when the leaf is out, there is no making any remarks on such a restless tribe ; and when once the young begin to appear it is all confusion : there is no distinction of genus, species, or sex.
In breeding-time snipes play over the moors, piping and humming; they always hum as they are descending. Is not their hum ventriloquous like that of the turkey? Some suspect it is made by their wings.
This morning I saw the golden-crowned wren, whose crown glitters like burnished gold. It often hangs like a titmouse, with its back downwards.
SELBORNE, June 18th, 1763. On Wednesday last arrived your agreeable letter of June 10th. It gives me great satisfaction to find that you pursue these studies still with such vigour, and are in such forwardness with regard to reptiles and fishes.
The reptiles, few as they are, I am not acquainted with so well as I could wish, with regard to their natural history. There is a degree of dubiousness and obscurity attending the propagation of this class of animals, something analogous to that of the cryptogamia in the sexual system of plants: and the case is the same with regard to some of the fishes ; as the eel, etc.
The method in which toads procreate and bring forth seems to be very much in the dark. Some authors
that they are viviparous: and yet Ray classes them among his oviparous animals; and is silent with regard to the manner of their bringing forth. Perhaps they may be cow Mèv ωοτόκου, έξω δε ζωοτόκοι, as is known to be the case with the viper.
The copulation of frogs (or at least the appearance of it; for Swammerdam proves that the male has no penis intrans) is notorious to everybody : because we see them sticking upon each other's backs for a month together in the spring : and yet I never saw, or read of toads being observed in the same situation. It is strange that the matter with regard to the venom of toads has not been yet settled.
That they are not noxious to some animals is plain: for ducks, buzzards, owls, stone-curlews, and snakes eat them, to my knowledge, with impunity. And I well remember the time, but was not eyewitness to the fact (though numbers of persons were), when a quack, at this village, ate a toad to make the country people stare; afterwards he drank oil.
I have been informed also, from undoubted authority, that some ladies (ladies, you will say, of peculiar taste) took a fancy to a toad, which they nourished summer after summer, for many years, till he grew to a monstrous size, with the maggots which turn to flesh-flies. The reptile used to come forth every evening from a hole under the garden-steps; and was taken up, after supper, on the table to be fed. But at last a tame raven, kenning him as he put forth his head, gave him such a severe stroke with his horny beak as put out one eye. After this accident the creature languished for some time and died.
I need not remind a gentleman of your extensive reading of the excellent account there is from Mr. Derham, in Ray's Wisdom of God in the Creation (p. 365), concerning the migration of frogs from their breeding ponds. In this account he at once subverts that foolish opinion of their dropping from the clouds in rain ; showing that it is from the grateful coolness and moisture of those showers that they are tempted to set out on their travels, which they defer till those fall. Frogs are as yet in their tadpole state; but, in a few weeks, our lanes, paths, fields, will swarm for a few days with myriads of those emigrants, no larger than