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SELBORNE, Aug. 30th, 1769. It gives me satisfaction to find that my account of the ousel migration pleases you.
You put a
shrewd question when you ask me how I know that their autumnal migration is southward ? Was not candour and openness the very life of natural history, I should pass over this query just as a sly commentator does over a crabbed passage in a classic; but common ingenuousness obliges me to confess, not without some degree of shame, that I only reasoned in that case from analogy. For as all other autumnal birds migrate from the northward to us, to partake of our milder winters, and return to the northward again when the rigorous cold abates, so I concluded that the ring-ousels did the same, as well as their congeners the fieldfares; and especially as ring-ousels are known to haunt cold mountainous countries : but I have good reason to suspect since that they may come to us from the westward; because I hear, from very good authority, that they breed on Dartmoor, and that they forsake that wild district about the time that our visitors appear, and do not return till late in the spring.
I have taken a great deal of pains about your salicaria and mine, with a white stroke over its eye and a tawny rump. I have surveyed it alive and dead, and have procured several specimens, and am perfectly persuaded myself (and trust you will soon become convinced of the same) that it is no more nor less than the Passer arundinaceus minor of Ray. This bird, by some means or other, seems to be entirely omitted in the British Zoology; and one reason probably was because it is so strangely classed in Ray, who ranges it among his Pici affines. It ought, no doubt, to have gone among his Aviculce caudâ unicolore, and among your slender-billed small birds of the same division. Linnæus might, with great propriety, have put it into his genus of Motacilla ; and Motacilla salicaria of his Fauna Suecica seems to come the nearest to it. It is no uncommon bird, haunting the sides of ponds and rivers where there is covert, and the reeds and sedges of moors.
The country people in some places call it the sedge-bird. It sings incessantly night and day during the breeding-time, imitating the note of a sparrow, a swallow, a skylark ; and has a strange, hurrying manner in its song. My specimens correspond most minutely to the description of your fensalicaria shot near Revesby. Mr. Ray has given an excellent characteristic of it when he says, “ Rostrum et pedes in hâc avicula multò majores sunt quam pro corporis ratione." See letter, May 29th, 1769. (Preceding letter, xxiv.)
I have got you the egg of an edicnemus, or stone-curlew, which was picked up in a fallow on the naked ground; there were two, but the finder inadvertently crushed one with his foot before he saw them.
When I wrote to you last year on reptiles, I wish I had not forgot to mention the faculty that snakes have of stinking se defendendo. I knew a gentleman who kept a tame snake, which was in its person as sweet as any animal while in good humour and unalarmed; but as soon as a stranger, or a dog or cat, came in, it fell to hissing, and filled the room with such nauseous effluvia as rendered it hardly supportable. Thus the squnck, or stonck, of Ray's Synop. Quadr. is an innocuous and sweet animal; but, when pressed hard by dogs and men, it can eject such a most pestilent and fetid smell and excrement, that nothing can be more horrible.
A gentleman sent me lately a fine specimen of the Lanius minor cinerascens cum maculâ in scapulis albâ, Raii; which is a bird that, at the time of your publishing your two first volumes of British Zoology, I find you had not seen.
You have described it well from Edwards's drawing
SELBORNE, December 8th, 1769. I was much gratified by your communicative letter on your return from Scotland, where you spent some considerable time, and gave yourself good room to examine the natural curiosities of that extensive kingdom, both those of the islands, as well as those of the highlands. The usual bane of such expeditions is hurry, because men seldom allot themselves half the time they should ; but, fixing on a day for their return, post from place to place, rather as if they were on a journey that required dispatch, than as philosophers investigating the works of nature. You must have made, no doubt, many discoveries, and laid up a good fund of materials for a future edition of the British Zoology; and will have no reason to repent that you have bestowed so much pains on a part of Great Britain that perhaps was never so well examined before.
It has always been matter of wonder to me that fieldfares, which are so congenerous to thrushes and blackbirds, should never choose to breed in England ; but that they should not think even the highlands cold and northerly, and sequestered enough, is a circumstance still more strange and wonderful. The ring-ousel, you find, stays in Scotland the whole year round; so that we have reason to conclude that those migrators that visit us for a short space every autumn do not come from thence.
And here, I think, will be the proper place to mention that those birds were most punctual again in their migration this autumn, appearing, as before, about the 30th September ; but their flocks were larger than common, and their stay protracted somewhat beyond the usual time. If they came to spend the whole winter with us, as some of their congeners do, and then left us, as they do, in spring, I should not be so much struck with the occurrence, since it would be similar to that of the other winter birds of passage ; but when I see them for a fortnight at Michaelmas, and again for about a week in the middle of April, I am seized with wonder, and long to be informed whence these travellers come, and whither they go, since they seem to use our hills merely as an inn or baiting place.
Your account of the greater brambling, or snow-fleck, is very amusing; and strange it is that such a short-winged bird should delight in such perilous voyages over the northern ocean! Some country people in the winter time have every now and then told me that they have seen two or three white larks on our downs; but, on considering the matter, I begin to suspect that these are some stragglers of the birds we are talking of, which sometimes perhaps may rove so far to the southward.
It pleases me to find that white hares are so frequent on the Scottish mountains, and especially as you inform me that it is a distinct species; for the quadrupeds of Britain are so few, that every new species is a great acquisition.
The eagle-owl, could it be proved to belong to us, is so majestic a bird, that it would grace our fauna much. I never was informed before where wild-geese are known to breed.
You admit, I find, that I have proved your fen-salicaria to be the lesser reed-sparrow of Ray; and I think you may be secure that I am right, for I took very particular pains to clear up that matter, and had some fair specimens; but, as they were not well preserved, they are decayed already. You will, no doubt, insert it in its proper place in your next edition. Your additional plates will much improve your work.
De Buffon, I know, has described the water shrew-mouse : but still I am pleased to find you have discovered it in Lincolnshire, for the reason I have given in the article of the white hare.
As a neighbour was lately ploughing a dry, chalky field, far removed from any water, he turned out a water-rat, that was curiously lain up in a hybernaculum artificially formed of grass
and leaves. At one end of the burrow lay above a gallon of potatoes regularly stowed, on which it was to have supported itself for the winter. But the difficulty with me is how this amphibius mus came to fix its winter station at such a distance from the water. Was it determined in its choice of that place by the mere accident of finding the potatoes which were planted there ? or is it the constant practice of the aquatic rat to forsake the neighbourhood of the water in the colder months ?
Though I delight very little in analogous reasoning, knowing how fallacious it is with respect to natural history; yet, in the following instance, I cannot help being inclined to think it may conduce towards the explanation of a difficulty that I have mentioned before, with respect to the invariable early retreat of the Ilirundo apus, or swift, so