From The International Library of Masterpieces, Literature, Art, and Rare Manuscripts, Volume XXX, Editor-in-Chief: Harry Thurston Peck; The International Bibliophile Society, New York; 1901; pp. 11021-11025.
WHITE, GILBERT, an English clergyman and naturalist; born at Selborne, Hampshire, July 18, 1720; died at Oxford, June 26, 1793. He received his education at Basingstoke and at Oxford. He was a Fellow of Oriel College, and was made one of the senior proctors of the university in 1752. He fixed his residence in his native village, where he passed a quiet life in study, especially in close observation of nature. His principal work, “The Natural History of Selborne” (1789), has been oftener reprinted than any other work on natural history. Thomas Brown’s edition (1875) contains “Observations on Various Parts of Nature,” and “The Naturalist’s Calendar,” first published after the author’s death. In 1876 appeared a volume of White’s unpublished letters.
THE house-swallow, or chimney-swallow, is undoubtedly the first comer of all the British hirundines; and appears in general on or about the 13th of April, as I have remarked from many years’ observation. Not but now and then a straggler is seen much earlier: and in particular, when I was a boy I observed a swallow for a whole day together on a sunny warm Shrove Tuesday; which day could not fall out later than the middle of March, and often happened early in February.
It is worth remarking that these birds are seen first about lakes and mill-ponds; and it is also very particular, that if these early visitors happen to find frost and snow, as was the case in the two dreadful springs of 1770 and 1771, they immediately withdraw for a time. A circumstance this, much more in favor of hiding than migration; since it is much more probable that a bird should retire to its hybernaculum just at hand, than return for a week or two to warmer latitudes.
The swallow, though called the chimney-swallow, by no means builds altogether in chimneys, but often within barns 1102 and out-houses against the rafters; and so she did in Virgil’s time: — “Garrula quam tignis nidos suspendat hirundo” (the twittering swallow hangs its nest from the beams).
In Sweden she builds in barns, and is called Ladu swala, the barn-swallow. Besides, in the warmer parts of Europe there are no chimneys to houses, except they are English built: in these countries she constructs her nest in porches, and gateways, and galleries, and open halls.
Here and there a bird may affect some odd peculiar place; as we have known a swallow build down a shaft of an old well through which chalk had been formerly drawn up for the purpose of manure: but in general with us this hirundo breeds in chimneys, and loves to haunt those stacks where there is a constant fire, — no doubt for the sake of warmth. Not that it can subsist in the immediate shaft where there is a fire; but prefers one adjoining to that of the kitchen, and disregards the perpetual smoke of the funnel, as I have often observed with some degree of wonder.
Five or six feet more down the chimney does this little bird begin to form her nest, about the middle of May: which consists, like that of the house-martin, of a crust or shell composed of dirt or mud, mixed with short pieces of straw to render it tough and permanent; with this difference, that whereas the shell of the martin is nearly hemispheric, that of the swallow is open at the top, and like half a deep ditch; this nest is lined with fine grasses, and feathers which are often collected as they float in the air.
Wonderful is the address which this adroit bird shows all day long, in ascending and descending with security through so narrow a pass. When hovering over the mouth of the funnel, the vibration of her wings, acting on the confined air, occasions a rumbling like thunder. It is not improbable that the dam submits to this inconvenient situation so low in the shaft, in order to secure her broods from rapacious birds; and particularly from owls, which frequently fall down chimneys, perhaps in attempting to get at these nestlings.
The swallow lays from four to six white eggs, dotted with red specks; and brings out her first brood about the last week in June, or the first week in July. The progressive method by which the young are introduced into life is very amusing: first they emerge from the shaft with difficulty enough, and often fall down into the rooms below; for a day or so they are 1102 fed on the chimney-top, and then are conducted to the dead leafless bough of some tree, where, sitting in a row, they are attended with great assiduity, and may then be called perchers. In a day or two more they become flyers, but are still unable to take their own food; therefore they play about near the place where the dams are hawking for flies: and when a mouthful is collected, at a certain signal given, the dam and the nestling advance, rising towards each other, and meeting at an angle; the young one all the while uttering such a little quick note of gratitude and complacency, that a person must have paid very little regard for the wonders of nature that has not often remarked this feat.
The dam betakes herself immediately to the business of a second brood as soon as she is disengaged from her first, which at once associates with the first broods of house-martins, and with them congregates, clustering on sunny roofs, towers, and trees. This hirundo brings out her second brood towards the middle and end of August.
All summer long, the swallow is a most instructive pattern of unwearied industry and affection: for from morning to night, while there is a family to be supported, she spends the whole day in skimming close to the ground, and exerting the most sudden turns and quick evolutions. Avenues, and long walks under the hedges, and pasture-fields, and mown meadows where cattle graze, are her delight, especially if there are trees interspersed; because in such spots insects most abound. When a fly is taken, a smart snap from her bill is heard, resembling the noise at the shutting of a watch-case; but the motion of the mandibles is too quick for the eye.
The swallow, probably the male bird, is the excubitor to house-martins and other little birds; announcing the approach of birds of prey. For as soon as a hawk appears, with a shrill alarming note he calls all the swallows and martins about him; who pursue in a body, and buffet and strike their enemy till they have driven him from the village; darting down from above on his back, and rising in a perpendicular line in perfect security. This bird will also sound the alarm, and strike at cats when they climb on the roofs of houses, or otherwise approach the nest. Each species of hirundo drinks as it flies along, sipping the surface of the water; but the swallow alone in general washes on the wing, by dropping into a pool for many times together: in very hot weather house-martin and bank-martins also dip and wash a little.1102
The swallow is a delicate songster, and in soft sunny weather sings both perching and flying; on trees in a kind of concert, and on chimney-tops: it is also a bold flyer, ranging to distant downs and commons even in windy weather, which the other species seems much to dislike; nay, even frequenting exposed seaport towns, and making little excursions over the salt water. Horsemen on the wide downs are often closely attended by a little party of swallows for miles together, which plays before and behind them, sweeping around and collecting all the skulking insects that are roused by the trampling of the horses’ feet: when the wind blows hard, without this expedient, they are often forced to settle to pick up their lurking prey. . . .
A certain swallow built for two years together on the handles of a pair of garden shears that were stuck up against the boards in an out-house, and therefore must have her nest spoiled whenever that implement was wanted; and what is stranger still, another bird of the same species built its nest on the wings and body of an owl that happened by accident to hang dead and dry from the rafter of a barn. This owl, with the nest on its wings, and with eggs in the nest, was brought as a curiosity worthy of the most elegant private museum in Great Britain. The owner, struck with the oddity of the sight, furnished the bringer with a large shell or conch, desiring him to fix it just where the owl hung: the person did as he was ordered, and the following year, a pair, probably the same pair, built their nest in the conch and laid their eggs.
WHILE many other insects must be sought after in fields, and woods, and waters, the Gryllus domesticus, or house-cricket, resides altogether within our dwellings; intruding itself upon our notice whether we will or no. This species delights in new-built houses: being, like the spider, pleased with the moisture of the walls; and besides, the softness of the mortar enables them to burrow and mine between the joints of the bricks or stones, and to open communications from one room to another. They are particularly fond of kitchens and bakers’ ovens, on account of their perpetual warmth.127
Tender insects that live abroad either enjoy only the short period of one summer, or else doze away the cold, uncomfortable months in profound slumbers; but these, residing as it were in a torrid zone, are always alert and merry: a good Christmas fire is to them like the heats of the dog-days. Though they are frequently heard by day, yet is their natural time of motion only in the night. As soon as it grows dusk, the chirping increases, and they come running forth, ranging from the size of a flea to that of their full stature. As one should supposed from the burning atmosphere which they inhabit, they are a thirsty race, and show a great propensity for liquids; being found frequently drowned in pans of water, milk, broth, or the like. Whatever is moist they affect; and therefore often gnaw holes in wet woollen stockings and aprons that are hung to the fire. They are the housewife’s barometer, foretelling her when it will rain; and they prognosticate sometimes, she thinks, good or ill luck, — the death of near relatives or the approach of an absent lover. By being the constant companions of her solitary hours, they naturally become the objects of her superstition. These crickets are not only very thirsty but very voracious, for they will eat the scummings of pots, and yeast, salt and crumbs of bread, and any kitchen offal or sweepings. In the summer we have observed them to fly out of the windows when it became dusk, and over the neighboring roofs. This feat of activity accounts for the sudden manner in which they often leave their haunts, as it does for the method by which they come to houses where they were not known before. It is remarkable that many sorts of insects seem never to use their wings but when they have a mind to shift their quarters and settle new colonies. When in the air they move volatu undoso, “in waves and curves,” like woodpeckers; opening and shutting their wings at every stroke: and so are always rising or sinking.
When they increase to a great degree, as they did once in the house where I am now writing, they become noisome pests, flying into the candles and dashing into people’s faces; but may be blasted and destroyed by gunpowder discharged into their crevices and crannies.
In families at such times, they are like Pharaoh’s plague of frogs, — in their bedchambers, and upon their beds, and in their ovens, and in their kneading-troughs. Their shrilling noise is occasioned by a brisk attrition of their wings.