Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Heron’s Haunt
By Grant Allen (1848–1899)
From ‘Vignettes from Nature’

MOST of the fields on the country-side are now laid up for hay, or down in the tall haulming corn; and so I am driven from my accustomed botanizing grounds on the open, and compelled to take refuge in the wild bosky moorland back of Hole Common. Here, on the edge of the copse, the river widens to a considerable pool, and coming upon it softly through the wood from behind—the boggy, moss-covered ground masking and muffling my foot-fall—I have surprised a great, graceful ash-and-white heron, standing all unconscious on the shallow bottom, in the very act of angling for minnows. The heron is a somewhat rare bird among the more cultivated parts of England; but just hereabouts we get a sight of one not infrequently, for they still breed in a few tall ash-trees at Chilcombe Park, where the lords of the manor in mediæval times long preserved a regular heronry to provide sport for their hawking. There is no English bird, not even the swan, so perfectly and absolutely graceful as the heron. I am leaning now breathless and noiseless against the gate, taking a good look at him, as he stands half-knee deep on the oozy bottom, with his long neck arched over the water, and his keen purple eye fixed eagerly upon the fish below. Though I am still twenty yards from where he poises lightly on his stilted legs, I can see distinctly his long pendent snow-white breast-feathers, his crest of waving black plumes, falling loosely backward over the ash-gray neck, and even the bright red skin of his bare legs just below the feathered thighs. I dare hardly move nearer to get a closer view of his beautiful plumage; and still I will try. I push very quietly through the gate, but not quite quietly enough for the heron. One moment he raises his curved neck and poises his head a little on one side to listen for the direction of the rustling; then he catches a glimpse of me as I try to draw back silently behind a clump of flags and nettles; and in a moment his long legs give him a good spring from the bottom, his big wings spread with a sudden flap skywards, and almost before I can note what is happening he is off and away to leeward, making a bee-line for the high trees that fringe the artificial water in Chilcombe Hollow.  1
  All these wading birds—the herons, the cranes, the bitterns, the snipes, and the plovers—are almost necessarily, by the very nature of their typical conformation, beautiful and graceful in form. Their tall, slender legs, which they require for wading, their comparatively light and well-poised bodies, their long, curved, quickly-darting necks and sharp beaks, which they need in order to secure their rapid-swimming prey,—all these things make the waders, almost in spite of themselves, handsome and shapely birds. Their feet, it is true, are generally rather large and sprawling, with long, wide-spread toes, so as to distribute their weight on the snow-shoe principle, and prevent them from sinking in the deep soft mud on which they tread; but then we seldom see the feet, because the birds, when we catch a close view of them at all, are almost always either on stilts in the water, or flying with their legs tucked behind them, after their pretty rudder-like fashion. I have often wondered whether it is this general beauty of form in the waders which has turned their æsthetic tastes, apparently, into such a sculpturesque line. Certainly, it is very noteworthy that whenever among this particular order of birds we get clear evidence of ornamental devices, such as Mr. Darwin sets down to long-exerted selective preferences in the choice of mates, the ornaments are almost always those of form rather than those of color.  2
  The waders, I sometimes fancy, only care for beauty of shape, not for beauty of tint. As I stood looking at the heron here just now, the same old idea seemed to force itself more clearly than ever upon my mind. The decorative adjuncts—the curving tufted crest on the head, the pendent silvery gorget on the neck, the long ornamental quills of the pinions—all look exactly as if they were deliberately intended to emphasize and heighten the natural gracefulness of the heron’s form. May it not be, I ask myself, that these birds, seeing one another’s statuesque shape from generation to generation, have that shape hereditarily implanted upon the nervous system of the species, in connection with all their ideas of mating and of love, just as the human form is hereditarily associated with all our deepest emotions, so that Miranda falling in love at first sight with Ferdinand is not a mere poetical fiction, but the true illustration of a psychological fact? And as on each of our minds and brains the picture of the beautiful human figure is, as it were, antecedently engraved, may not the ancestral type be similarly engraved on the minds and brains of the wading birds? If so, would it not be natural to conclude that these birds, having thus a very graceful form as their generic standard of taste, a graceful form with little richness of coloring, would naturally choose as the loveliest among their mates, not those which showed any tendency to more bright-hued plumage (which indeed might be fatal to their safety, by betraying them to their enemies, the falcons and eagles), but those which most fully embodied and carried furthest the ideal specific gracefulness of the wading type?…  3
  Forestine flower-feeders and fruit-eaters, especially in the tropics, are almost always brightly colored. Their chromatic taste seems to get quickened in their daily search for food among the beautiful blossoms and brilliant fruits of southern woodlands. Thus the humming-birds, the sun-birds, and the brush-tongued lories, three very dissimilar groups of birds as far as descent is concerned, all alike feed upon the honey and the insects which they extract from the large tubular bells of tropical flowers; and all alike are noticeable for their intense metallic lustre or pure tones of color. Again, the parrots, the toucans, the birds of paradise, and many other of the more beautiful exotic species, are fruit-eaters, and reflect their inherited taste in their own gaudy plumage. But the waders have no such special reasons for acquiring a love for bright hues. Hence their æsthetic feeling seems rather to have taken a turn toward the further development of their own graceful forms. Even the plainest wading birds have a certain natural elegance of shape which supplies a primitive basis for æsthetic selection to work on.  4

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