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And night left still behind—and overhead
from earth, as 'twere in rivalry ;-
Wagner. I, too, have had my hours of reverie ;
Faustus. Thy heart, my friend, now knows but one desire ;
Moving with lordly wings, 'tween earth and heaven,
Wagner. Venture not thus to invoke the well-known host,
32.—THE BRITISH HIRUNDINES.
[Who has not heard of “The Natural History of Selborne,'-one of the most delightful books in the English language! The author was the Reverend Gilbert White, who for forty years lived in the retirement of his beautiful native village, Selborne, in Hampshire, diligently observing the appearances of nature, and recording them in letters to his friends. He was the first to take Natural History out of the hands of the mere classifiers, and to show how full of interest is the commonest object of creation, when carefully examined, and diligently watched through its course of growth, of maturity, and of decay. Mr. White was borne in 1720, and died in 1793.]
THE HOUSE-MARTIN.-In obedience to your injunctions I sit down to give you some account of the house-martin, or martlet; and, if my monography of this little domestic and familiar bird should happen to meet with your approbation, I may probably soon extend my inquiries to the rest of the British hirundines—the swallow, the swift, and the bank-martin.
A few house-martins begin to appear about the sixteenth of April ; usually some few days later than the swallow. For some time after they appear, the hirundines in general pay no attention to the business of nidification, but play and sport about, either to recruit from the fatigue of their journey, if they do migrate at all, or else that their blood may recover its true tone and texture after it has been so long benumbed by the severities of winter. About the middle of May, if the weather be fine, the martin begins to think in earnest of providing a mansion for its family. The crust or shell of this nest seems to be formed of such dirt or loam as comes most readily to hand, and is tempered and wrought together with little bits of broken straws to render it tough and tenacious. As this bird often builds against a perpendicular wall without any projecting ledge under, it requires its utmost efforts to get the first foundation firmly fixed, so that it may safely carry the superstructure. On this occasion the bird not only clings with its claws, but partly supports itself by strongly inclining its tail against the wall, making that a fulcrum ; and, thus steadied, it works and
plasters the materials into the face of the brick or stone. But then, that this work may not, while it is soft and green, pull itself down by its own weight, the provident architect has prudence and forbearance enough not to advance her work too fast; but by building only in the morning, and by dedicating the rest of the day to food and amusement, gives it sufficient time to dry and harden. About half an inch seems to be a sufficient layer for a day. Thus careful workmen when they build mud-walls (informed at first perhaps by this little bird) raise but a moderate layer at a time, and then desist lest the work should become top-heavy, and so be ruined by its own weight. By this method in about ten or twelve days is formed an hemispheric nest with a small aperture towards the top, strong, compact, and warm; and perfectly fitted for all the purposes for which it was intended. But then nothing is more common than for the house-sparrow, as soon as the shell is 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 geldom 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. Theyoung 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 north-east 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 twenty-first, 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 in 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