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THE NATURAL HISTORY AND ANTIQUITIES OF
1789 [This book, "the only work on natural history which has attained the rank of an English classic," had its origin in White's correspondence with other students of zoology, especially Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington. The extracts that follow are from Letters XVI, XXII, XL, to Pennant, and Letters XIII, XXXVIII, XLIII, L to Barrington.)
April 18, 1768. . . I MAKE no doubt but there are three species of the willowwrens; two I know perfectly, but have not been able yet to procure the third. No two birds can differ more in their notes, and that constantly, than those two that I am acquainted with; for the one has a joyous, easy, laughing note, the other a harsh, loud chirp. The former is every way larger, and three-quarters of an inch longer, and weighs two drachms and a half, while the latter weighs but two; so the songster is one-fifth heavier than the chirper. The chirper (being the first summer bird of passage that is heard, the wryneck sometimes excepted) begins his two notes in the middle of March, and continues them through the spring and summer till the end of August, as appears by my journals. The legs of the larger of these two are flesh-colored; of the less, black.
The grasshopper-lark began his sibilous note in my fields last Saturday. Nothing can be more amusing than the whisper of this little bird, which seems to be close by though at a hundred yards distance, and when close at your ear is scarce any louder than when a great way off. Had I not been a little acquainted with insects, and known that the grasshopper kind is not yet hatched, I should have hardly believed but that it had been a locusta whispering in the bushes. The country people laugh when you
tell them that it is the note of a bird. It is a most artful creature, skulking in the thickest part of a bush, and will sing at a yard distance, provided it be concealed.
January 2, 1769. There is no bird, I believe, whose manners I have studied more than that of the caprimulgus (the goat-sucker), as it is a wonderful and curious creature; but I have always found that, though sometimes it may chatter as it flies, as I know it does, yet in general it utters its jarring note sitting on a bough; and I have for many a half-hour watched it as it sat with its under mandible quivering, and particularly this summer. It perches usually on a bare twig, with its head lower than its tail, in an attitude well expressed by your draughtsman in the folio British Zoology. This bird is most punctual in beginning its song exactly at the close of day, - so exactly that I have known it strike up more than once or twice just at the report of the Portsmouth evening gun, which we can hear when the weather is still. It appears to me past all doubt that its notes are formed by organic impulse, by the powers of the parts of its windpipe formed for sound, just as cats purr. You will credit me, I hope, when I assure you that, as my neighbors were assembled in an hermitage on the side of a steep hill where we drink tea, one of these churn-owls came and settled on the cross of that little straw edifice and began to chatter, and continued his note for many minutes; and we were all struck with wonder to find that the organs of that little animal, when put in motion, gave a sensible vibration to the whole building! ...
September 2, 1774. i.. The note of the white-throat, which is continually repeated, and often attended with odd gesticulations on the wing, is harsh and displeasing. These birds seem of a pugnacious disposition; for they sing with an erected crest, and attitudes of rivalry and defiance; are shy and wild in breeding-time, avoiding neighborhoods, and haunting lonely lanes and commons,
nay, even the very tops of the Sussex downs, where there are bushes and covert. But in July and August they bring their broods into gardens and orchards, and make great havoc among the summer fruits.
The black-cap has in common a full, sweet, deep, loud, and wild pipe; yet that strain is of short continuance, and his motions are desultory. But when that bird sits calmly, and engages in song in earnest, he pours forth very sweet but inward
melody, and expresses great variety of soft and gentle modulations, superior perhaps to those of any of our warblers, the nightingale excepted. Black-caps mostly haunt orchards and gardens; while they warble their throats are wonderfully distended.
The song of the redstart is superior, though somewhat like that of the white-throat; some birds have a few more notes than others. Sitting very placidly on the top of a tall tree in a village, the cock sings from morning to night; he affects neighborhoods, and avoids solitude, and loves to build in orchards and about houses. With us he perches on the vane of a tall maypole ...
April 12, 1772. While I was in Sussex last autumn my residence was at the village near Lewes, from whence I had formerly the pleasure of writing to you. On the ist November I remarked that the old tortoise, formerly mentioned, began first to dig the ground in order to the forming its hybernaculum, which it had fixed on just beside a great tuft of hepaticas. It scrapes out the ground with its fore-feet, and throws it up over its back with its hind; but the motion of its legs is ridiculously slow, little exceeding the hour-hand of a clock. Nothing can be more assiduous than this creature night and day in scooping the earth, and forcing its great body into the cavity; but, as the noons of that season proved unusually warm and sunny, it was continually interrupted, and called forth by the heat in the middle of the day; and though I continued there till the 13th November, yet the work remained unfinished. Harsher weather, and frosty mornings, would have quickened its operations.
No part of its behavior ever struck me more than the extreme timidity it always expresses with regard to rain; for, though it has a shell that would secure it against the wheel of a loaded cart, yet does it discover as much solicitude about rain as a lady dressed in all her best attire, shuffling away on the first sprinklings, and running its head up in a corner. If attended to, it becomes an excellent weather-glass; for as sure as it walks elate, and as it were on tiptoe, feeding with great earnestness in a morning, so sure will it rain before night. It is totally a diurnal animal, and never pretends to stir after it becomes dark.
I was much taken with its sagacity in discerning those
that do it kind offices; for, as soon as the good old lady comes in sight who has waited on it for more than thirty years, it hobbles towards its benefactress with awkward alacrity, but remains inattentive to strangers. Thus not only “the ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib,” but the most abject reptile and torpid of beings distinguishes the hand that feeds it, and is touched with the feelings of gratitude.
In about three days after I left Sussex, the tortoise retired into the ground under the hepatica.
February 12, 1778. In a district so diversified as this, so full of hollow vales and hanging woods, it is no wonder that echoes should abound. Many we have discovered that return the cry of a pack of dogs, the notes of a hunting-horn, a tunable ring of bells, or the melody of birds, very agreeably. But we were still at a loss for a polysyllabical articulate echo, till a young gentleman, who had parted from his company in a summer evening walk, and was calling after them, stumbled upon a very curious one in a spot where it might least be expected. At first he was much surprised, and could not be persuaded but that he was mocked by some boy; but repeating his trials in several languages, and finding his respondent to be a very adroit polyglot, he then discerned the deception.
This echo in an evening, before rural noises cease, would repeat ten syllables most articulately and distinctly, especially if quick dactyls were chosen. The last syllables of
Tityre, lu patulæ recubans were as audibly and intelligibly returned as the first; and there is no doubt, could trial have been made, but that at midnight, when the air is very elastic, and a dead stillness prevails, one or two syllables more might have been obtained; but the distance rendered so late an experiment very inconvenient.
Quick dactyls, we observed, succeeded best; for when we came to try its powers in slow, heavy, embarrassed spondees of the same number of syllables,
Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens we could perceive a return but of four or five.
All echoes have some one place to which they are returned
stronger and more distinct than to any other; and that is always the place that lies at right angles with the object of repercussion, and is not too near nor too far off. Buildings, or naked rocks, re-echo much more articulately than hanging woods or vales, because in the latter the voice is as it were entangled and embarrassed in the covert, and weakened in the rebound.
The true object of this echo, as we found by various experiments, is the stone-built, tiled hop-kiln in Gally Lane, which measures in front forty feet, and from the ground to the eaves twelve feet. The true centrum phonicum, or just distance, is one particular spot in the king's field, in the path to Nore Hill, on the very brink of the steep balk above the hollow cartway. In this case there is no choice of distance; but the path, by mere contingency, happens to be the lucky, the identical spot, because the ground rises or falls so immediately, if the speaker either retires or advances, that his mouth would at once be above or below the object. .
Some time since its discovery this echo is become totally silent, though the object, or hop-kiln, remains. Nor is there any mystery in this defect; for the field between is planted as a hop garden, and the voice of the speaker is totally absorbed and lost among the poles and entangled foliage of the hops. And when the poles are removed in autumn the disappointment is the same; because a tall quick-set hedge, nurtured up for the purpose of shelter to the hop-ground, entirely interrupts the impulse and repercussion of the voice; so that till those obstructions are removed, no more of its garrulity can be expected.
Should any gentleman of fortune think an echo in his park or outlet a pleasing incident, he might build one at little or no expense. For, whenever he had occasion for a new barn, stable, dog-kennel, or like structure, it would be only needful to erect this building on the gentle declivity of a hill, with a like rising opposite to it, at a few hundred yards distance; and perhape success might be the easier ensured could some canal, lake, or stream intervene. From a seat at the centrum phonicum he and his friends might amuse themselves sometimes of an evening with the prattle of this loquacious nymph, of whose compla