Wednesday 7 May 2014

Amusive Birds

I seem to become more of a hirundophile with every passing year, especially when it comes to  swifts. Mahlerman's delightful contributions under yesterday's post ('the same weight as a used tea-bag') spur me to continue on a swiftian theme.
 The great pioneering naturalist Gilbert White was fascinated by 'these amusive birds' and observed them closely over many years. Here he is on their aerial mating:

'The fact that I would advance is, that swifts tread, or propagate, on the wing; and I would wish any nice observer, that is startled at this supposition, to use his own eyes, and I think he will soon be convinced.  In another class of animals, viz. the insect, nothing is so common as to see the different species of many genera in conjunction as they fly.  The swift is almost continually on the wing; and as it never settles on the ground, on trees, or roofs, would seldom find opportunity for amorous rites, was it not enabled to indulge them in the air.  If any person would watch these birds of a fine morning in May, as they are sailing round at a great height from the ground, he would see every now and then, one drop on the back of another, and both of them sink down together for many fathoms with a loud piercing shriek.  This I take to be the juncture when the business of generation is carrying on.
As the swift eats, drinks, collects materials for its nest, and, as it seems, propagates on the wing, it appears to live more in the air than any other bird, and to perform all functions there save those of sleeping and incubation.'

There's a lovely descriptive passage a little farther on:

'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 sitting 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 meal for a few minutes, and then returns to her duty of incubation.'

'A little inward note of complacency', 'stretches and relieves her weary limbs'. They don't write natural history like that any more... These quotations, by the way, are from letter XXI (September 28th, 1774) of the Natural History of Selborne.

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