Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Migration of Birds
By Gilbert White (17201793)
From Natural History of Selborne
SELBORNE, 8th Dec. 1769.
DEAR SIRI 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 do; 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 chose to breed in England; but that they should not think even the highlands cold and northerly, and sequestrated 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 reasons 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 of September; but their flocks were larger than common, and their stay protracted 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 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.
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.
As a neighbour was lately ploughing in a dry, chalky field, far removed from any water, he turned out a water-rat, that was curiously lain up in an 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 Hirundo apus, or swift, so many weeks before its congeners; and that not only with us, but also in Andalusia, where they also begin to retire about the beginning of August.
The great large bat (which by the bye is at present a nondescript in England, and what I have never been able yet to procure) retires or migrates very early in the summer; it also ranges very high for its food, feeding in a different region in the air; and this is the reason I never could procure one. Now this is exactly the case with the swifts; for they take their food in a more exalted region than the other species, and are very seldom seen hawking for flies near the ground, or over the surface of the water. From hence I would conclude that these hirundines and the larger bats are supported by some sorts of high-flying gnats, scarabs, or phalænæ, that are of short continuance; and that the short stay of these strangers is regulated by the defect of their food.